Cartoon courtesy of Patrick O'Grady hizzownself.
A question came up on my club’s listserv recently about junior gear restrictions, those USA Cycling declarations from on high that theoretically prevent our young men and women from destroying their knees by limiting them to something around a 52x14 gear ratio, instead of the 58x11 they’d inevitably choose if left to their own devices. Mention of gear restrictions was jarring, as it’s been a quite awhile since I’ve had to consider such things. My own junior gears were on a 6-speed Regina freewheel, if that tells you anything, though it should be noted that I was a bit behind the technological times, even then.
Back then, our 18-and-under set accepted the USCF’s “save your knees and learn to spin” argument at face value, though not without adolescent derision and whining about the unfairness of it all. Now, with some time and distance between me and those particular regulations, it occurs to me that the gear restrictions really aren’t about saving young knees at all. That argument just doesn’t hold water. Because really, what damage is little Johnny really going to do with big boy gears that he can’t do with a 52-14 if he really puts his mind to it? If there’s anything teenagers are good at, it’s using seemingly harmless things in a harmful manner. Sure, giving them a 52-14 instead of a 53-11 is like giving them an apple instead of candy in the name of health, but being teenagers they’ll just turn around and make a bong out of the apple. I certainly can’t figure out how to cause any permanent damage with a 52-14, but I’m over 30 – find a 16-year-old with some spare time, and he’ll show you how. (And besides, USAC lets masters riders use whatever ridiculous gearing they want, and those guys should be more worried than most about their joints. You can almost smell the glucosamine on the start line.)
Nah, the gear restrictions ain’t for health reasons, and it’s my firm belief that they are, in fact, a sort of thinly veiled training program. Not a Bicycling Magazine “Get Faster In Two Easy Steps!” training program, or even a Chris Carmichael “400 Line Graphs to Your Best Season Ever” training program. Rather, the gear restrictions serve as a sort of live action procedural manual, carefully engineered by USAC to acclimate potential pro prodigies to the post-race drug testing procedures that they’ll encounter later in their careers.
To train its young charges, USAC carefully replicates most of the elements of a ProTour dope test in a less intimidating form and environment, and they hit the mark from pre-race through the testing. At the start line, there are the stern warnings from officials that tests will be conducted (even when they won’t be), and that violators will be rooted out, punished, and shamed in the media (or on district listservs, but whatever). After the races, juniors are promptly rounded up, detained by blue-shirted officials, and escorted to the testing area to ensure they don’t engage in any test-cheating shenanigans, like wheel changes or fiddling with derailleur limit screws. Then, the juniors get to sit by and practice being nervous regardless of guilt or innocence while their sample is processed by a stern man with a clipboard, badge, and indeterminate nationality. For a further air of pro authenticity, gear restrictions also provide the requisite confusion over whether you need to report for testing if you didn’t finish the race, whose responsibility it is to know, and why nobody told you.
So for the most part, it’s a complete dope test dry run, and it’s probably as accurate as USAC can get without wantonly violating Federal statutes against forcing minors to disrobe and urinate while a bunch of old men watch. And since they are still wee lads and lasses, juniors get the additional concession of an immediate B test when they turn a positive – no sense in the case of the 53-13 dragging on until they’re masters. Through this groundbreaking training program, USAC has been able to guarantee that none of its graduates will ever soil its good name by botching a dope test on procedural grounds.
Though ambitious, USAC’s plan isn’t without its hitches. For instance, gear restrictions also inadvertently introduce juniors to the type of backroom chicanery that tends to come in handy when you’re trying to fool the testers before the first mountain stage of the Giro. Sure, using the old indexed downtube cable adjusters to surreptitiously lock out your 13 cog post-race is hardly a shot of Kenacort in the arse, and juniors’ late night, self-administered rollouts and constant search for that ideal combination of chainrings, cogs, and tire size isn’t quite as insidious as pros carrying around saline drips and a hematocrit machine. Besides, cable adjuster trick aside, setting your bike up to achieve the maximum allowable rollout isn’t illegal – unlike hematocrit levels or other biological markers, the rollout measurement itself is the determining factor of guilt or innocence, and it doesn’t matter how you got there. But remember, we’re teaching broadly applicable processes and behaviors here, good or bad.
And finally, the junior gear testing regime doesn’t prepare our future stars for all the evidence compiling, questioning, groveling, and appeals that follow a positive dope test. That’s what the USAC upgrade process is for.