No.4 Entries Post Mortem

Number limits and allocations explained.

Confirmed riders for Transcontinental No.4 will be listed in the upcoming revision of the race manual later this month. There have obviously been some disappointed people this year and we have had some questions about the exact reasons for the limit on numbers and the nature of the allocation process. Applicants have also been exposed to quite a number of different questions in the application process and it is not obvious to them which criteria selection might be made on. In fact the utility of certain questions and responses can be multifaceted and not necessarily used for selection in many cases, or at all.

Transparency and trust that the process is a considered and fair on is important to us though so here is a somewhat longwinded explanation into the how’s, why’s and whatnots of the whole process.

The event is in the enviable position of being very popular and as a result we have many more applicants that we can accommodate, so we are also in the un-enviable position of having to disappoint some people and more so this time than ever before. The cap on numbers exists for several reasons.

Firstly we are limited by the number of trackers and service plans which can be provided by our tracking partners. The 2015 race exceeded their total capacity for Tracking and TCR have been worked with them to increase this capacity by providing support for a European based tracker fleet and increase the overall fleet size. During the time period of the 2015 all trackers in the US and European fleets were in the field somewhere.

This limitation is not the only reason to limit numbers; if it were then it could be overcome. The race is open to entries from riders with private trackers which do allow us to accept more entries in total. We do not wish however for the private purchase of a tracker to become almost mandatory for those who wish to buy themselves a guaranteed place in the race. The cost of device and a year’s service plan are in the order of £100 each and we would quickly arrive at a bias towards of those willing to pay more having a better chance of entry. Our aim at TCR is to be democratic and offer places based more on a mixture of merit and a lottery to allocate places – not on the ability to pay.

The second reason for a cap on entries is that the experience of riding unsupported across Europe in the TCR is at least in the main part intended to put the rider in a position very similar to that of riding alone across Europe outside of any event and totally reliant on their own self – that is to say not having significant contact with any support from the race administration or other riders – save for certain times – usually around the controls. Clearly this is a balancing act and we are not able to completely create an isolated experience for every rider, neither would we want to. As numbers grow however the experience of being one of 30 racers to one of 300 is going to change the nature of the race considerably – so to make sure that this is not to the overall detriment of the race and the experience, we intend to grow slowly.

A third major reason to cap numbers is so that as organisers we can cope with the amount of correspondence, admin and logistical issues that come up on the race. We are a (very) small team doing a lot and have until now organised the race in parallel with full time work and running other businesses. The 2015 race saw us invite volunteers to be a part of the race for the first time. The response was overwhelming and the experience very rewarding and it was only through volunteers that we could raise the intake by another 100 riders over 2014 levels. Now in 2016 we are undergoing more changes to have full time work going on in race HQ and to allow a few more riders in number 4, but we still want to grow slowly and be better before we are bigger.

It was decided for 2016 that the intake would be 300 riders initially. Every year there are many drop outs from the race as we get close to race day. Despite some of the things we try to do to mitigate, this always happens. Thankfully many riders contact us to let us know which is a great help, but unfortunately many just don’t show up which is a shame as the numbers cannot be predicted so easily. Instead we base the number of riders we expect to be on the start line with the drop-out and no-show rates of past years but we have to be prepared for all of them showing up.  If rider numbers drop severely by April then we can have a top up but as of 14th April 2016 we are still at 290 riders so this, I am afraid, will not occur this year.

Now when we get 1000 registrations for these 300 places the question is what is the fairest method of allocation and alongside that, what is best for the future, safety, culture and spectacle of the race. There are a number of ways we can do this.

First come first served

Simple – the first to get an entry in get the places. This rewards those who are quick off the mark, have a good fast internet connection and are prepared to sit up until all hours clicking refresh. This method suits a lot of events quite well – particularly those who are based domestically in a single language and time zone group. If numbers are very high the whole process really needs monitoring throughout and there can also be stresses on servers and so-on as well as a flood of questions and enquiries, but for the organiser the benefits can be that an event sells out in a short space of time. This whole process increases hype and is better for marketing and sales as people become more impulsive and don’t want to miss out.

For TCR though this doesn’t really work out all that well. Firstly – we don’t want our applicants to be impulsive, at all. Due to the nature of the event we go to great lengths mainly to try and make people fully aware of what they are getting themselves into and thinking about it all carefully. Secondly a race to button click can also disadvantage certain user groups. Although a good proportion of our racers will come from the UK we want to encourage more international participation and certainly do not want to see non-UK based applicants at a disadvantage due to timezone, infrastructure (IT) or our own lamentable language skills. This is why we create a stepped process to slow things down. It can be tedious and drawn out but it does mean that non-English speakers have some time to decipher, talk in the facebook language groups and help each other – there is no need to act impulsively and it also means that our servers get a break. Applicants get one week to register and then there are several further days before the application deadline. The sooner they register, the more time they get for the application. With around 10 days open to the process there aren’t many excuses for a missed or late entry and if you sail that close to the wind could that mean you are the same type of entrant who would get to the start line without a planned route?

The fact that the form is long and boring also helps reduce the number of applications too; you could call it a kind of self-selection. This year the 1000 registrations became just fewer than 600 entries.

So now with first come first served out the window there are a few other options of how we get 600 entries into 300 places.

Filtering / Screening / Simulated Screening

The aim of filtering really is to cut the applicant field down in size by removing applicants from the process by applying some set criteria. This is something of a negative selection process as it discriminates against applicants according to their attributes and reduces diversity. The applied criteria are also crucial and the thresholds are something of a blunt tool to differentiate against what is quite a nuanced set of considerations in the case of TCR. Really we may only use this to remove any applications which might be wildly off the mark, obviously non-serious or abusive in anyway. Thankfully these are very rare.

Something we might do however is to simulate filtering on this level. Due to the number and variety of questions we ask we can use the data to observe how the selection would be made if it were filtered under a number of different criteria and what the resulting demographics would be. Also we can re-visit answers after the race and see if there is any correlation between answers and approach to the race.  So far we have not found any satisfactory correlations, but our data and opinion capture has given us some thing to think about when designing the questionnaires and the process as well as point to better methods of communication.

So while it is useful and interesting for looking at our data, filtering doesn’t work for us as a selection method.  We just don’t like the idea of ‘deselecting’ people based on quite crude and unsophisticated criteria.  People don’t fit neatly into categories and we don’t believe there is such a thing as not good enough.  There is however such a thing as low risk and high risk and likely and not likely but judging that is not for filters.

Lottery

Everybody’s name in a hat, everybody gets the same chance – this is ostensibly the the most democratic method of selection.  It does not negatively discriminate on background, country, language, opportunity or resources.  That said it also does not positively discriminate on past winners, potential winners, gender and abilities either.  So is it the best way for a bike race?  Perhaps not.  What happens if you accidentally lose your defending champion or all your female competitors to the luck of the draw? Sometimes you need to intervene and apply some judgement as well as employ a good bit of randomness and luck.

So, these processes alone, we don’t feel really work.  So how do we do it and what are all those questions in the application actually for?

How the TCR application process works

We use something a mixture of positive selection and lottery to determine who goes into the race, but the selection is not necessarily made on specific questions in the application.  In fact we don’t usually know how we might make any selections until we have seen the answers and most of our application questions serve purposes other than selection.

There are several things that the application procedure tries to do, as well as several things it tries to avoid, like having rigid qualifying requirements, being elitist or making the race impenetrable to newcomers.

Firstly the registration and application procedure itself is intended to ensure riders pick up a minimum level of understanding of the rules and factual information about the race, including the responsibilities of the racers and what will be provided (or not) by the organisers.  All the information is available to the entrants, but people being people we need some safety catch that its been read and absorbed (and also it saves a lot of questions later).  The understanding of this information is key to riders preparation, self sufficiency and, ultimately, safety.  As I said before; except for any especially heinous, bizarre, sarcastic or unsafe responses, it is not our intention to deny entry for incorrect answers to these questions.  Instead we will offer more guidance and controls to ensure that we are satisfied that riders are aware of what is expected of them and if they do something they are not supposed to, then it wasn’t because they weren’t told.

Secondly we must remind ourselves that a race is a comparative test of individuals to discover who really will be the most capable at the task.  So when we propose the race we are really asking the question “who is the fastest to cross Europe on a bike without any outside help” and then providing the means for participants to come and help us answer that question.  In order for the answer to be credible and hence the competition justifiably respected, the individuals who show the most compelling potential to be that person must be represented on the start line.  Of course it is always just a race between who shows up, but if a potential winner is denied an entry by our hand then there will always be doubt as to the answer of that question.  So then, we do some tinkering to make sure that those most likely to win, are at least on the start line.

There is some other meddling we do, to work against some social gradients and try to redress some of the imbalances we encounter in our demographics.  If you are a woman for example, or from a country which is under-represented, then you are far more likely to get picked out for an entry.  This is not who is the fastest British male across Europe and as such encouragement for more international and female representation requires some intervention.

Up until now Veterans (finishers and starters) have been allocated an assured entry into the next year’s race.  The first hand experience a veteran racer has to share of the culture and spirit of the race makes them a great ambassador and we have found that many come back for another go as well as be involved in the community online and in other events.  It is wonderful to see such a high rate of return and they have really helped us make TCR what it is over the first 3 editions through their great approach to the race and their blogs, race reports and other activities.  We also see some riders who set out on their first TCR not knowing quite what to expect and ultimately don’t make the finish line but learn so much in the process.  They return the next year almost transformed and this is a great thing that the race can do for people that we want to continue.  As we go on however the race is going to be collecting more and more veterans and we need to ensure that there is a very good chance for new riders also to get an entry, so perhaps in the future there will not be the same guarantee and a limit on automatic veteran places.

Then there are the volunteers.  We don’t just bully people who want an entry into tirelessly doing our bidding for us, but there are many people who want to be a part of the race whether they are in it or not and when some generous souls don’t get a place they come along volunteer instead.  Because A: they have had first hand experience of the race and B: we like thank them for their selfless efforts, then they are generally assured and entry the following year if they want one because, well you would wouldn’t you?

Further to the premise of the race in its sporting mission, the race is much more to so many more people than answering that one question of who is the best, even if it is the primary reason for its existence.  There can only be one winner and so the race will affect many more individuals in a positive way if there is more to it than winning.  In many ways every racer in the field from the winner to the lantern rouge needs every other as a reference point, for their own sense of development, achievement and inspiration.

To us at TCR it is important that our race is accessible, that it is not about the resources you have, the people you know or the things you have done and that it is not elitist.  This means we need to balance the excitement of having the very capable racers battling it out with opportunity for a huge adventure for those who come along to test themselves and learn things along the way and who knows they may grow into a future winner from that experience.  The race then needs to be open to someone turning up and giving it a go.  We have seen such riders in the first few editions that do not have typical cycling experience show up and do very well despite all the odds, purely because of their tenacious approach and a positive and resourceful attitude.  These are some of the best examples of what makes this a unique and special thing to us.  Therefore as well as having a great race up the front we want to make sure that there is a good and fair chance for all to enter the race whatever their experience and have a huge adventure.

This is why a large proportion of the racers are selected by the subsequent lottery, which is the main selection.  While some are picked out for the reasons above to make sure they go in and bypass this lottery, we make sure NO ONE gets manually rejected as ‘not good enough’ or any such thing and there is genuinely a good chance for all.  I would say an equal chance for all but thats not true, it will be an equal chance for those in the lottery .  What we need to make sure is that there are a large enough proportion of the places allocated by this lottery – more than half would be a good start.  When we first started sorting through entries for No.4 – we had allocated a certain field size for pairs, then taken in to consideration past volunteers, veterans, women riders and set about picking all the riders we would have liked to see in the race based on the merits of their application. Such was the standard of the application that we were quickly approaching a high proportion of our field size already.  This mean we pretty much had to start again, abandon many of our ‘picks’ to chance and make sure a lot more people had a chance in the lottery.

This means that there are some very experienced riders who we would love to have in the race will, for no good reason, not be fortunate enough to get a place.  Given that we have a limited number of places this is about the fairest means we have found.  So, if you did get the knock back this year – and I spoke to a few – I can see how you must be disappointed.

Any reservation I have had so far about disclosing the entire process (other than the fact that the explanation is this long for me to write and you to read) is that inevitably there are some who when they learn how entries are allocated, will try to play the system and seek take advantage of the process to ensure themselves a place.  There are many means and any one method will not be resistant to them all.  Rest assured though that we are constantly trying to make the process fairer and better and if we find people trying to cheat the process then we will change the way we do things.  Cheating the fairness of the entry process is as nefarious as cheating in the race itself so I am afraid there is not a place the start line for those who think this is OK.

So there you have it – these are the reasons.  It took a while to put the whole rationale down in words.  It may not necessarily be exactly the same next time but you can see the thinking.  By all means feel free to share your thoughts and / or vent your spleen on the usual social media groups.  I will of course read them and may take them into account for future editions.  I might spare you any lengthy replies however.

Mike Hall

Race Director.