Upgrade Your USA Cycling Category – 5 Tips to Maximize Upgrade Points Fast in 2020

The year 2020 ushered in a new era of upgrade points from USA Cycling. Despite the cries of the Cat 1 racers, it’s now easier than ever to upgrade to a higher category (cat) in USA Cycling. First we’ll look at the new upgrade point system. After that, we’ll talk about some tried and true techniques to improve your chances of earning upgrade points.

A few Novice riders in their first race at the Early Bird clinic in NorCal.

How to Upgrade USA Cycling Categories by Discipline

To start, upgrade points are points earned by placing highly in USA Cycling approved races throughout the country. The number of points earned is dependent on finishing place and the number of starters in the race. Of course, if you place 3rd in a 50 person race, you should be rewarded more than 3rd in a 15 person race.

We will discuss the upgrade system for each category separately:

Road

The road system has been revamped from previous years. When I first started racing, you had to get all of your upgrade points in the same year in order to upgrade. If it had been 12 months since the race, the number of upgrade points earned in that race was halved. After 24 months that race no longer counted towards your upgrade points total.

USA Cycling changed that policy so that upgrade points no longer decayed and a rider could accumulate the points they needed over a few years (36 months max). Even so, there was a backlog of Cat 4 and Cat 3 riders who couldn’t move up quickly enough. The result was huge fields of riders in the lower categories. Meanwhile, higher category riders found their fields lacking in volume. The new system is intended to help riders move up more easily and ensure higher category fields are filled with riders.

New Road Upgrade System

The new system is fairly simple: every rider starts as a ‘Novice’ (previously Cat 5) and can choose to upgrade to Cat 4 at will. The ‘At Will’ rule allows experienced athletes to join the Cat 4 field and begin the process of acquiring upgrade points. Other riders with less experience should stay in the Novice category for at least 6 races, although the rule used to be 10 races before you could upgrade. The important takeaways from this category are learning how to race safely and gaining on-bike experience in a pack.

A chart of USA Cycling upgrade points for the road discipline.
The road upgrade points table from the USA Cycling website. Find the number of starters in your field from your race results and find your finishing place to calculate the points you earned in that race.

Cat 4 is the first serious category of racing and requires 20 points or 20 pack finishes to upgrade to Cat 3. From there, 30 points are required to earn a Cat 2 and 35 points for a Cat 1 license. Above is the points table for road upgrade points. The way the system works now is simple: take the size of your field and your finishing position and connect them on the table. Sum up all of the upgrade points from all of your races. If you have more than the required number to upgrade, you can apply for an upgrade to your category online with USA Cycling. Please note that these finishing places have to be in mass start races. TTs, Gran Fondos, and group rides do not count, only sanctioned USA Cycling road races or criteriums.

Cyclocross

The cyclocross system follows the same general idea as the road system: Novice to Cat 4 is voluntary; I recommend at least 6 races as a novice. From there 10 upgrade points are needed for Cat 3, 15 for Cat 2, and 20 for Cat 1. Cyclocross uses a different points table than road and that’s because cyclocross races are normally HUGE. A big road race or criterium may draw 80-100 Cat 4s whereas a Cat 4 cyclocross can draw 150+ riders. As with road, find your field size and your finishing position on the table to find the number of upgrade points earned from your race. Sum up all your results for all your races and if you are above the upgrade points threshold for the next category, you can freely upgrade.

A chart of USA Cycling upgrade points for the cyclocross discipline.
The cyclocross upgrade points table from the USA Cycling website. Find the number of starters in your field from your race results and find your finishing place to calculate the points you earned in that race.

Mountain Bike

Upgrading in mountain biking is by far the easiest. There are only 4 categories: Novice, Cat 2, Cat 1, and Pro. For endurance racers, you can voluntarily upgrade to Cat 1, but to get your Pro license you need two top 3 finishes or three top 5 finishes or a podium (top 3) at Nationals to upgrade. For gravity, the policy is the same, but to earn your Cat 1 you need two top 5 finishes. It’s certainly easier to earn your Pro license in mountain bike than your Cat 1 in cyclocross or road. You can check out the full upgrade rules here.

Track

In my experience, track is the hardest category to upgrade. I am a Cat 2 track rider. I earned while racing at the Trexlertown Velodrome (Valley Preferred Cycling Center) in college. My crowning achievement was earning 8th place in a UCI scratch race and ranking in the top 50 track riders in the country at one point.

How to Upgrade

In a similar fashion to road upgrades, track follows the Novice then Cat 4 up to Cat 1 category system. For track, the upgrade points required are 20 for Cat 3, 25 for Cat 2, and 30 for Cat 1. At the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, Cat 1 and Cat 2 riders can race in the Pro field on Friday under the lights while amateur categories race on Saturdays and Tuesdays.

Why It’s So Hard

The reason track upgrading is so difficult is because of the difficulty of entering qualifying races. Looking at the points table below, column two is a typical omnium competition that most tracks offer. In order to upgrade to Cat 3, you are required to win 4 omniums. These omniums could have upwards of 20 riders in them. On top of that, for your Cat 2, you’d need to win 5! It just difficult because the number of opportunities to race is low and the points earned per race are low. 

A chart of USA Cycling upgrade points for the track discipline.
The track upgrade points table from the USA Cycling website. Most omniums are counted in the middle column and any single race events are counted in the rightmost column.

I was fortunate enough to upgrade due to special permission from the track director. I rode very well in a Cat 2/3 omnium and ended up winning it. The director approached me after the race and told me he’d write a letter to the upgrade coordinator asking that I be upgraded to Cat 2. This is also a possibility if you regularly participate in an active velodrome.

Tips to Maximize USA Cycling Upgrade Points

Pick Courses That Suit You

It’s essential for any bike racers to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Although your understanding of your own advantages and limitations comes with time, you should take a moment to reflect on your past experiences.

Questions to Ask

In the past have you:

  • sprinted harder/faster than others in your group ride? – criterium sprinter
  • ridden for hours when others have given up? – flat road races
  • Or, are you lean with a decent/high FTP? – road racing with climbs
  • Are you technically gifted and good at cornering? – technical criteriums

All of these questions can help you decide if you are at an advantage in long races or short races or technical races or 4-corner corporate office crits that will definitely finish in a sprint. Look back on your previous races where you did well, what did the courses look like and why do you think they suited you? Building a profile of ideal races can help you decide on your chances in future races.

Using Your Answers

The ol’ four corner crit. I don’t prefer them, but I tend to place well.

Use these self-diagnoses of your abilities to determine your race schedule. If there are two crits on the weekend and one is hard and technical and one is wide open with 3 corners, pick the one that suits you! This allows you to maximize the number of race days in a given season that you have a realistic shot at getting upgrade points.

One big mistake riders make is thinking they can earn upgrade points at any race on the calendar. There are huge variations in courses and race demands. If you are looking to maximize the number of points you earn, look for races that you are confident you can finish well in.

Go to Smaller Races

The Tour of Somerville is a race in upstate New Jersey that is characterized by wide streets, four easy corners, and gigantic fields. The truth is: nobody cares who the Tour of Somerville Cat 2/3 2019 winner is, but what I can tell you is that there were over 100 starters in the field. That rider had a 1% chance of winning if randomly chosen. If you are looking to earn upgrade points, wouldn’t you rather go to a 15 person race where your random chance of winning is 6.6%?

11th seems pretty good! Just don’t tell them there were only 23 starters.

Smaller races are where upgrade points are earned. This is because it’s so hard to impose yourself on a giant race and there is a low chance of placing well in it. On top of that, the upgrade points are diluted per rider.

Take for example a 5 person race, the most extreme small case. In that race, there are 1.2 upgrade points per rider (top 3 get 6 total points divided by 5 riders). In a 100 person field, there are 0.66 upgrade points per rider (top 11 get 66 total points divided by 100 riders). Using simple math, the value of placing well in a smaller field may be up to double the value of placing well in a large field. I understand that we all want to do the big races, but if you are trying to upgrade, there are better ways to do it.

Race in Mixed Category Races Where You Are the Higher Category

Within the rules of USA Cycling’s upgrade system, there is a nice exception. Previously, if you raced in a mixed field, say Cat 2/3, and were a Cat 2, only the number of Cat 2 riders counted toward the number of starters. This rule has since been changed such that all starters count toward the number of starters.

You can take advantage of this rule change by participating in mixed fields. Specifically, as a Cat 3, racing in Cat 3/4 races means that some portion (usually half or more) of the riders in the race are a lower category than you. Same with Novice/4 and Cat 2/3 races for Cat 4 and Cat 2 riders, respectively. It should be easier to place well in these races because of the lower quality of the field, but the value of the upgrade points remains the same!

Aim for a Podium, Not a Win

Picture of me getting third place in a road race. I accepted a podium position rather than a win to increase my chances of getting USA Cycling upgrade points.
Accepting 3rd place behind 2 Cat 1s got me 5 points (!!) towards my Cat 1 upgrade at Pine Flats Road Race.

A common mistake I see in many lower category riders is the desire to race to win. Although intuitively a rider should want to win a race, if you are hunting upgrade points, you should be looking to ensure you are ‘in the money’ rather than necessarily winning.

Let me give you an example. In a technical criterium, there is an opportunity to attack with 3 laps to go. You can try to hold off the field and win in a spectacular solo effort off the front and post up on the finish line for the photographers. This type of attack almost never works and you are better off getting to the front and setting up for the sprint and accepting 3rd place. 

Collecting upgrade points is a game of numbers, as long as the total number of upgrade points continues to go up, you should be happy. 

Get Your Teammates to Help You

A great way to increase your chances of earning points in a race is to get your teammates involved. A good sprint result is guaranteed if your teammates can put you first or second wheel into the last corner.

Your teammates can help in a number of ways. Normally a team will decide to work for a single rider to maximize their chances of placing well. Teammates can help by escorting you to the front of the race at the finish or making sure you have enough food and water in a long road race. They can also bring back breakaways or work on the front to keep your group away from the chasing peloton. 

Once you earn the necessary upgrade points, you should stick around in the current category to help out your teammates with their upgrade point pursuits for at least a few races. Normally this is done as a favor back to your teammates.

Upgrade Points in Masters Categories

Although not included in my list of tricks, there are special considerations for Master’s athletes. Master’s categories normally start at a racing age of 35 and can be sectioned into groups of any age range. Some bigger races, including national championships tend to split Master’s fields into 5 year age brackets. Local races tend to prefer 10 year age brackets (35+, 45+, 55+ etc). 

If you are looking to maximize your upgrade points, look for opportunities in Master’s races to get smaller fields or less competitive fields than the typical open field for the same category. Master’s athletes can also usually race multiple fields in the same day. This can double or triple your chances of earning upgrade points by giving you three finish lines to sprint for rather than the usual one. It should be noted that only a portion of total upgrade points can be earned in Masters races.

Conclusion

Racing and pursuing upgrade points is one of the most exciting parts of bike racing. It’s addictively fun to search for the best races. You train, prepare, and show up on race day ready to win or at least podium. With that being said, getting good at bike racing takes a long time. It took me six years to earn my Cat 1 and it was hard. Developing as a rider took a long time and I had both successes and struggles. It was an amazing experience. Now that I am a Cat 1, I’m only pursuing big races where earning a result gives me prestige or status. It’s a different kind of struggle, but it’s the push to do better in bigger races that drives me.

Enjoy your time racing and the push for results. Hopefully this guide helps you move up through the categories. Maybe we’ll end up in the same field some day.

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