Expert, Sport, Novice: The Big Decision – Sandbagger Alert

OMBC Awards Plaques for James Knott

Here is my collection of OMBC awards plaques. I have raced six seasons, but one year I didn’t have enough races to qualify for year-end awards. Stupid DNFs.

There really is just one event that inspired me to get into mountain bike racing.  It can be summed up in 4 letters – OMBC – the Ohio Mountain Bike Championship series.

It was 2008.  In my entire life I had only ridden my mountain bike on trails two or three times, yet I was invited to go to an OMBC race at The Wilds near Zanesville, Ohio.  It was the fourth race of the year for the series and I was immediately drawn to the format.  Each year there were 10 to 12 races and they gave out points depending on how many seconds you finished behind the first place finisher in your age group.  You add up the best 6  scores to determine a season champion for each division.  It just sounded fun to me.

I never thought of myself as a particularly good racer, but I always looked forward to racing as much as possible to get the series points.

The first year I raced I started out in the middle of the novice pack and slowly improved over the remainder of the season.  I ended up finishing 2nd in the Novice Veteran 30-39 age group.  I thought that was pretty good for my first season, but it forced me to make a big decision.  Should I race one more year in novice or should I move up to sport?

With only a half season of riding on trails I didn’t really feel I was ready for the sport level of competition.  The races were 50 to 100 percent longer and the competition was much faster.  I didn’t think I had the speed or endurance to compete.  When I looked at the times of the sport winners compared to my novice efforts, I felt embarrassingly slow.

In my first season I finished second in the OMBC Sport Novice division.

In my first season I finished second in the OMBC Sport Novice division. I felt good about the results considering I hadn’t even ridden a mountain bike for a full season.

I thought it would be fun to race Novice one more season and go for first place in the division.  I felt like I could justify it considering I hadn’t even raced a whole season in my first year.

However, I was worried about being called a sandbagger, so I decided to move up to sport.

I’ve never been sure that I made that right decision that year.

Are you a sandbagger if you allow yourself to be the winner for one season before moving up?

What about you?  Have you ever felt like choosing which division to race in was a tough decision?  Did you regret moving up or staying where you were?

The next two years were highly demotivating.  I was racing against guys with dozens of years of experience and I was getting left in the dust.  I didn’t have the time to train or knowledge about how to prepare for these races.  Furthermore, my bike was in a constant state of disrepair because I didn’t have the skills to fix or maintain it like I should considering all the additional miles I was putting on it.  I felt like a big slow loser and the frustration nearly made me quit the sport.

Then gradually, over the course of a couple years, I started getting better.  My riding was more technically sound.  Endurance was increasing and I was getting faster.  Then I plateaued.  I felt like I had reached the limits of my genetic potential.  When you considered the amount of time I was willing to dedicate to racing combined with the amount of money I was had to spend on equipment it seemed like I no room left for improvement.

James Knott finishes 7th for the 2010 OMBC season.  This is really just a ribbon of participation in my mind.

I finished 7th for the 2010 OMBC season. This is really just a ribbon of participation in my mind.

In my mind I was destined to be a mid-level sport racer.  I was fine with that.  It was a good excuse to stay in shape.

Then, as anyone who has been reading my blog would know, I lost weight and I got a lot faster.  I started reading about training and discovered that my preparation for races was sub-par.  With my new body and training regimen I was able to increase my average finishes from the 50th percentile of sport finishers to the 90 to 95th percentile (this is just an estimate).

For the first time I won my age division in a race in West Virginia.  Later in the season, I got my first win in an OMBC race – a perfect score of 60 – at Scioto Trails.  It was exciting.  I was placing well in a lot of races and when you looked at the results I would be the winner of most of the sport age groups…  except mine.

I was racing in the most competitive sport age group, and despite my newfound speed and the fact that I attended every OMBC race, I was only able to finish 3rd in my age group.  It was great being part of such a competitive division but considering how much work I had put into it, the 3rd place finish was a little disappointing.  It left me hungry for a rematch – for my opportunity to be the winner.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I could already hear the word being whispered… sandbagger. defines sandbagger as:

A person who pads a handicap or acts as if he/she is at a lower skill level than he/she actually is so he/she can achieve better during competition that’s handicapped or by skill level.

James Knott finished fourth in the 2011 OMBC Sport Veteran division.

James Knott finished fourth in the 2011 OMBC Sport Veteran division. This is the first year that I actually felt like a sport level rider.

If I stay in sport for one more year, do you think I am being a sandbagger?

I take this decision very seriously because I don’t want to rob anyone of the chance of being competitive in races.  However, I feel like I have paid my dues and supported the winning seasons of plenty of other racers.  Someone has got to win right?

In six years of racing, I have only won one OMBC race for my age group.  The highest I have ever finished for a season is third overall.  If I look at the times that expert racers were getting last year, then I would be one of the slowest finishers in most expert races.

Here is what I would like to do and I hope you will give me your feedback.  I want to race one more season in sport and then move up to expert the following year.  I think I will continue to get faster now that I am training with a power meter and I understand the underlying concepts of race training.  So, even if I don’t win my division, I would still move up.

Let me be clear, I truly think that I am on the bubble – good for a sport racer, but not yet fast enough to be even close to competitive in expert.  Once you move up to expert you can’t really move back and I don’t want to regret it like I did last time I moved up.

There are many reasons to move up or to stay where I’m at and they aren’t all about my skill level, some of them have to do with my life off the trail.  We weekend warriors have to juggle the needs of our racing goals with other factors in our personal lives.

In 2012, I was a little faster, but still finished fourth in my division.  This year I was fast enough to develop a nemesis - Chris Knapp from Team 614.  It made for a really fun season.

In 2012, I was a little faster, but still only finished fourth in my division.

I’m not going to lie.  I would like one more opportunity to try and win in sport.  If you look at the short six-year arc of my mountain bike racing career (Can you call it a career?), I have spent most of that time being mediocre.  It would be nice to think that six years of hard work could lead to some kind of success.  If I move up to expert too soon, it might just lead to frustration.

Here is a little of my reasoning…

On the personal side, I am a stay-at-home dad.  That might make it sound like I have a ton of time to workout, but it’s really quite the opposite.  My children are still too young to leave them on their own.  I am constantly having to attend to their needs and I can’t leave the house to ride until my wife gets home from work.  Many times I end up squeezing in rides after the sun goes down and that starts to limit my training options.

Also, I don’t want to bolt every moment my wife is home.  I’d like to have a balanced family life too.  The training commitment for expert level races is higher and I don’t want to take that time away from my family.  As my children get older, they will get more independent and that will give me more freedom to train and get better.  Postponing a move to expert buys me a little more time.

Furthermore, when last season started I was still in the middle of losing weight and I would like to see how my riding develops when I can focus on building up power in my legs versus shedding pounds.

Improving in racing is also limited by your body’s ability to adapt to training.  It takes time for your muscles to repair and get stronger long-term.  I improved my training and started using a power meter in the middle of last season.  I would like to see how a full season with my new methods turns out.

Usually during the winter I allow my fitness to wane.  This year I’m focused on staying fit during the colder months and I would like to see what affect that has on my early spring races.  Scoring high at the beginning of the year might be what I need to finally win a very competitive sport division next year.

Also, I am considering trying to qualify for the USA Cycling National Cross Country Mountain Bike Championships, which are scheduled for Bear Creek Resort in Pennsylvania for 2014.  I don’t think I can win this, but it would be a cool, once-in-a-lifetime race where I can hang out with other like-minded folks and experience the energy of a national event.  This is definitely the perfect year for me to try and do this since it is on the East Coast.  It would be a little weird for me to race expert and then move down to sport for nationals.

On the other side of the coin, with all the improvements I’ve made to my training, maybe I need to strike while the iron is hot.  I’m not getting any younger and maybe moving up to expert would give me the extra motivation I need to take my riding to the next level.  You never know until you try.

James Knott finished third in the Sport Veteran 30-39 year old category in 2013.

In my best season, 2013, I finished third in the Sport Veteran 30-39 year old category.  I was a lot faster than I had ever been, but I was competing in the toughest sport division with some really solid competition.

What other advantages or disadvantages can you think of?  Even though I’m leaning towards staying in sport for one more year, I haven’t made my final decision and I would love to get your thoughts.  Do you think postponing a move up for one year makes someone a sandbagger?  What about when you consider the arc of my mountain biking “career”?

Regardless, I plan on keeping you updated on my racing season here at  You can find out firsthand if I made the right decision or not.  And, you can learn how I am training to prepare for my races.  Maybe you can leave me some advice in the comment section and  we can help each other get faster over the course of the season.

Let me know if you’ve had to make this decision in the comment section.  If you know someone who is struggling with this same dilemma then pass this article on to them.  Also, if you thought it was interesting, then please share it on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

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Happy trails!


15 thoughts on “Expert, Sport, Novice: The Big Decision – Sandbagger Alert

  1. James,
    It’s time to move up to the “old fast guys” cat based on your past performance and the fact that you now have a great strength to wattage ratio. Honestly, there will always be the 2-3 guys s-bagging ahead of you in sport, so ditch em and enjoy an “honest” finish in expert. Check the results, these sbagger guys post up lap times that would put them in the running with the upper 1/3 of the young experts, albeit without riding the longer course. These guys will ALWAYS be there to hand it to you, no matter how much faster you get. Pluses for moving up-No more socks or hats as prizes, once in a while you will make enough $ to cover your gas money to get home……..The best thing about expert cat is that you get enough miles in to make the ride worthwhile.

    • What about the fact that I’ve been working towards the goal of winning a division for six years and now that it is within reach I would be abandoning that goal?

  2. I won my first season racing Novice class. Not because I was the fastest racer. I didn’t win any races that season. I just happened to be most consistent out of the three guys that met the race quota. The next season I stayed in novice and got a lot of crap for it. Funny thing is I only ended up in 4th place that year. My third year I did move to sport. Only to be discouraged by being last at every race. Oh well. It got better. I got faster. This past season I placed second in my age group. I also won my first race ever at 331 Royalview. I like the sport distances. And plan on racing in sport again this year. If I happen to win overall champ I’ll move up to the big boys next season.

    • Cory, I feel like you and I are on the same page with this. I would actually like to move up to expert in the future, but I just don’t want to move up too quickly and suck all the fun out of the races.

  3. James,

    I’ve always thought about moving up (at least until I stopped racing last year), but it’s fun to be in the mix and with other commitments (you of all people know what I’m talking about!) there is no way I’d be competitive in the expert field, even though with enough training I’d be fine. Life has gotten busier (yes!) and gymnastics, ballet and soccer have made the lonely, boring night rides few and far between.

    I will say that the biggest draw is the distance – if I’m driving all that way and paying I might as well ride longer! I agree with other commenter’s “honest win” idea. Who cares about sandbaggers, really. If your goal is to get faster, then you want to beat them! If you think about it, categories are silly. Winning a race feels good, but I’d choose being faster over winning any day.

    On the flipside, who knows? You’ve pushed yourself harder than you ever have before. Maybe you would do better at the longer races? Really, you would be fine doing both. No way you should be called out a sandbagger for racing sport. Chris Knapp and I’ve been working on a racing plan to take you down a few pegs, so hopefully you stay in sport and not mess up our scheme.

  4. Do you think the Sport Plus thing will be back for the 331 races? Maybe that’s a cat to consider……At least at the Mohican 100 there is only one cat for your age group, not counting one coggers….

  5. Move Up! Racing another season in Sport is just another year of not taking the extra step forward. Racing at the next level will be a whole new world, and the skills you will gain from the riders around you, as well as the longer rides and harder workouts, you will find to be far more rewarding than a pair of socks and a 10 second photo op on the podium. The rewarding feeling will come when you’ve pedaled yourself for 20+ miles to exhaustion and you want nothing more than to do it again. Also, definetely do bear Creek. It’s a really fun, technical course. Good luck racing!

  6. The top guys, including you, should move up. You’ll only be able to brag that you won a sport division with expert fitness. Last year I raced expert for the first time. It was a blast. I fit in fine with the old experts. 3-4 guys in your class, you among them, came by me a few times like a freight train. What you really do when you don’t move up when you are that fast is discourage the less experienced riders in sport class, then they drop out and our sport fails to grow. Nobody should be a novice for more than one year. When sport racers start passing experts, in a paceline of team colors, posting faster lap times, after training with their power meters, it’s time to move up. Racing expert is a challenge. This sport is not about winning. It’s about challenging ourselves individually. Let’s face it, winning the sport class in one of the two Ohio MTB race series in age group 30-39 is not exactly going to make you famous.

  7. from what i read it looks like your best series standing was third…one year on the series podium does not a sandbagger make, multiple years, then yes…i say go for the win…good luck.

  8. I agree with nate, I would not call this sandbagging at all. If you don’t want to move up to expert then stay in sport another year.

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  10. This is a tough one for many to decide but I have come to this conclusion. Everyone knows who the sandbaggers are. The ones that need to move up are the guys that every single race finish a mile or two or three in front of everyone else in their class. They rocket out front and then stay just far enough ahead to win every single race. THAT is sandbagging. They know who they are. We know who they are. There are also the CAT1 or whatever the highest CAT is for roadies that show up and steal a race and then claim they had no idea what class to race in pffffttt.. here’s a clue, guys that ride a 9 hour Leadville should not win the 2013 Manatoc Sport 40-49 race by 12 minutes….THAT is sandbagging.

    You are not a sandbagger. You have worked your way up figured out training, lost weight, invested in equipment, put in the race time and now – it should be your turn to get to lead some races and possibly win a series. That’s how a “race series” works.

    We are in a simliar situation. I had never raced a bike before my 38th birthday. I raced 3 Novice races in 08, raced 8 more in Novice in 2009. Set a goal to win and did win OMBC Novice in 2010 while I “raced” sport in 331 that year and destroyed myself since I wasn’t ready. I stepped up my training after that season and since 2011 I have only raced sport. I plan to stay put in OMBC and move up in 331 If I ever manage to win one of their races. To date, I have never won a sport race. I’ve come in second twice and third a handful of times. In the OMBC Series I have come in 5th, 4th and 4th. Each year it has been a different group in front of me.

    Funny thing s, my times have gotten faster each year but I still have yet to finish an OMBC race within sight of the winner. That is my goal this year!

    • Hey Wayne,
      Thanks for your perspective. Good luck with your races this summer. I’ll be watching for you in the race results. Make sure you come up and say “hi” if you see me at the races.

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