A Case for Cycling Categories in Triathlon

The trouble with time-trial or age-group starts in triathlon is they don’t allow elite amateur triathletes to truly compete against each other, argues Kristin Jenny. Should triathlon take a page from the cycling playbook and implement categories instead?

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“A Case For” is a column taking a position on something in our sport. In this installment, elite amateur triathlete and writer Kristin Jenny makes her case for the use of cycling categories in multisport. Want to make your own case? Email letters@triathlete.com.

For as long as triathlon has been around, it’s been segmented into two divisions: age groupers and professionals. No matter how many races you complete as an age grouper – and even if you win race after race after race – there’s nothing forcing athletes to move up to being an elite amateur or a professional.

For some folks who don’t want to race pro, this is ideal. Take Meghan Fillnow, for instance. Fillnow has been the overall amateur female winner in seven half-ironman and three full-iron-distance races, but she has no intention of taking her pro license.

“I’ve never had the desire to go pro – I don’t feel I have the level of confidence needed to endure in the professional field,” Fillnow said. “I also have a twin sister who races professionally and we grew up constantly being compared – I don’t want to face that again now if I were to race professionally.”

Fillnow shared that she feels bad that her winning streak at the age-group level may “annoy” other competitive age groupers who would like to see her go pro, but that she remains grateful that USA Triathlon (USAT) does not force age groupers to take their elite license. Fillnow is just one example of a top age-group athlete who does not want to accept their professional designation. However, there is no shortage of triathletes nationally who do take on the challenge of going pro.

“We see 400-500 applications for a professional license each year,” said Tim Yount, Chief Sport Development Officer at USA Triathlon. “We’ve never felt that there’s been a shortage of talent looking to move to the elite level, which is one of the reasons we don’t force it on people – we don’t need to.”

Understanding cycling categories

This is all well and good, but on the flip side, there is a real case for restructuring how we approach the age group to professional pipeline. Take road cycling, for example. They operate off of a “category” system. Men new to road racing must start as Category “Cat” 5 racers and women must begin their journey as Cat 4 racers—with few exceptions. Basically, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up to competing in more competitive categories by earning “points” at cycling events. Points are awarded based on how you do in a race – simply entering a race is one point; placing on the podium in a small field (under 50 starters) is worth up to eight points, and placing in the top ten of a larger field is up to 11 points.

Each category has criteria (or point counts) that must be met before moving up to a more competitive category. For example, to move up from being a Novice Cat 5 racer to a Cat 4 competitor, an athlete must complete 10 mass-start road races that are 15 miles or greater (or 10 miles or longer if on a track). It becomes harder to move up a category the higher you go. To move from a Cat 3 to a Cat 2 designation, riders must now focus on points and overall placement in their races.

Category Requirements
Novice (Cat 5) Automatic for any new cyclist
Cat 4 Upgrade at will OR
10 points in 12 months
Cat 3 20 finishes OR
20 points in 36 months OR
30 points in 12 months OR
3 wins in a field with 21+ starters in 12 months
Cat 2 30 points in 36 months OR
40 points in 12 months OR
3 wins in a field with 21+ starters in 12 months
Cat 1 35 points in 36 months OR
50 points in 12 months OR
3 wins in a field with 50+ starters in 12 months

While riders can be downgraded a category if they chronically ride in an unsportsmanlike or unsafe way, generally, most riders aim to follow an upward trend in their cycling category placement. The category system ensures that riders of similar abilities and experience levels are competing against each other at all times. This provides a safer, more fair environment for bike racing where competitors are literally shoulder-to-shoulder at high speeds, and a lack of experience can actually be dangerous.

Triathlon, on the other hand, has nothing that compares to the category system of cycling. In triathlon, you either start the swim alongside your age group regardless of your ability, or even more commonly at larger/branded races, you begin in a self-seeded time trial format. The trouble with both options – age-group or time-trial starts – is they don’t allow elite amateur triathletes to truly compete against each other. Yes, age-group starts allow an athlete to be directly competitive within their age group, which is what many care about, but it does not allow an athlete to compete in real time against other elite-level athletes across all age groups.

A good recent example of this occurred at the 2022 Age Group National Championships in Milwaukee where spectators, athletes, and even the announcers calling the race struggled to know who was the actual overall age-group national championship until late in the morning. Neither the overall age-group men’s national champion, Matt Guenter, nor the the female national champion, Dani Fischer (who ironically has raced pro in the past) knew they had won until minutes after they crossed the line, due to the time trial swim start and myriad of fast age groups still left to finish.

With the other option for triathlon starts – a time trial start – it can become difficult and confusing for athletes to understand where they truly are placement-wise throughout the race due to the completely unpredictable staggered start times.

Oklahoma-based Noel Mulkey is an elite amateur age group triathlete in the men’s 25-29 age group. He is both a 70.3 World Championship and Ironman World Championship qualifier.

“There has to be some way to allow top age groupers to race head to head,” Mulkey said. “If elite age groupers are racing with the intent of qualifying for a world or national championship, then we need to be able to start the race together and race wire to wire.”

Mulkey recalls running in the lead at the amateur men’s race at Ironman Tulsa this year, feeling stressed about not knowing where his competitors were time-wise due to the time trial swim start.

“I was literally the first person into the water,” Mulkey said. “So the guy behind me on the run could have been ahead of me time-wise by running faster even though he started the swim after me – it was really frustrating.”

Mulkey, however, does not want USAT to force age groupers to turn pro. He noted there can be huge ability discrepancies between the top pros and those who finish at the bottom of the pro group and forcing people to turn pro doesn’t help with that discrepancy.

How would categories work in triathlon?

Perhaps triathlon could take a page out of the cycling playbook. Create categories, even if they are self-seeded, at all major triathlons (and especially all notable branded triathlons) nationwide. Allow those new to the sport to all begin together, and those who are aiming for the overall amateur title to start in the same wave. If an age grouper wins endlessly, they should be competing against other age groupers who are at the same level, not time trialing with no real sense of where their competitors are on race day. Conversely, if someone just wants to complete the race, let them race with others of the same mindset. 

More realistic than overhauling the way USAT does age groups or time trialing would be to require any USAT-sanctioned race to offer an elite age group wave—which has happened sporadically at short-course events in the past. This wave would allow top male and female age group athletes to race the way they really want to – against others of the same ability and truly battling it out for the overall amateur title. 

Yount is all for it. He agreed that having top age groupers race against each other in one wave can be beneficial for the athletes, the race, and the sport – but it takes a conversation to make this change. 

“Race directors, especially local ones, are usually open to suggestions about how they can improve their races,” Yount said. “Don’t be afraid to approach a race director and enter into that problem-solving type of conversation about how to make a race more attractive to top age groupers. You may be surprised at how willing a race director is to accommodate your ask.”

It’s safe to say we won’t be seeing a major overhaul of the age-group system anytime soon, but as athletes, we do have power to advocate for change within triathlon. Have that conversation about elite waves with race directors, encourage other top triathletes to start together for a time trial start, and share your opinions even with the bigger-name brand races. Change only happens when we ask for it.

Kristin Jenny is based near Boulder, Colorado. She began her triathlon journey at age 13 by taking her first-ever kids’ triathlon way too seriously. She’s chilled out since then, and when she is not riding her bike in the Rocky Mountains, she can be found eating decadent desserts, hiking with her husband and dog, or listening to a good true crime podcast.

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