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Rider Interview: WORS Series Director Don Edberg

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |January 9, 2011 7:52 PM
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For 18 years Don Edberg has been the driving force behind the largest mountain bike series in the nation Ė the Wisconsin Off-Road Series (WORS).  While going sometimes unnoticed outside the Upper Midwest the WORS series routinely hosts numbers of riders that would make other race directors mad with envy.

Each week anywhere between 650 to 1,000+ mountain bikers travel up to 4 hours or more to race in Edbergís events. What makes the WORS series so unique? It appears this state series in a land dominated by beer and the Green Bay Packers has uncovered the often-elusive secret to sustainable mountain bike racing.

Today he shares some of his secrets with MTB Race News along with the insights that have made him the most successful mountain bike promoter of all time.

MTB Race News - You run a series that many consider the Gold Standard in the USA. What are the keys to WORS success? And why do you think so many others have failed?

Don Edberg - WORS originated in 1992 when the directors of three small races agreed that it would be beneficial to create a series.  None of us were in it to make money.  The primary motivation was to increase local racing and riding opportunities.  The evolution to what is WORS today began with the sharing of resources.  For example, our first racer handbook, in 1995, reduced individual event cost by combining the mailing of race flyers.  We also saved on awards by combining orders. 

I used to tell everyone the secret to WORS success was that I didnít have to remember my mistakes for a whole year I could fix them at the next event in two weeks.  While that was helpful, the key to WORS success really boils down to cooperation and education.  As a business model, WORS is a partnership of dedicated race directors, their local organizing committees, a very hardworking group of WORS volunteers and myself.  These individuals are passionate about the sport and have bought into the principal that WORS events allow as many mountain bikers as possible to participate in safe friendly fun competition.  Combining events that are willing to set aside some of their individual goals for the good of the series has been huge.    

I donít know that so many others have failed, but it is hard to succeed if your measure of success or failure depends purely on financial gain.  I am always striving to make the racer experience better.  Racers are not just customers.  They are our partner in running great events.  Listening to them is essential.  

MTB Race News - Unlike many MTB events, your races include significant prizes, both monetary and merchandise, for doing well. How does this help your series?

Don Edberg - This has only been possible because of the number of participants we have and our generous sponsors.  In the big picture the awards are relatively small tokens for the time and commitment the racers bring to the series.  On the one hand, I wish they could be much bigger but, on the other, I never want the awards to be the primary motivation.  We are always looking for ways to recognize as many racers as possible.   We found out a long time ago that volunteers and racers alike really appreciate it when someone notices their effort.              

MTB Race News - The Border Battle between Wisconsin and Minnesota is always a highlight of the season. Tell us how this came about and why there is so much excitement surrounding this event.

Don Edberg - WORS and the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series have strong ties.  Greg Blasko, one of the originators of the Minnesota series, was a consultant to WORS when we took our timing and scoring in-house in 1998.  Adam Schmidt, the race director for the Border Battle, has long history with the Minnesota series and has run numerous events in both series.  The venue is at least a 4 hour drive for many of the WORS regulars, so creating the rivalry event seemed a logical choice to maintain the high level of competition and give racers a taste of each others series.  Bragging rights most always trump awards.           

MTB Race News - How do you create courses that can excite and handle 1000+ racers on race day? Do you change the courses every year?

Don Edberg - It is a constant learning process.  I always get out and ride the courses (in advance for new venues) and then discuss with the race director and chief of course how we can maximize the race experience for the greatest number of racers. Often trails that are extremely fun to ride donít make the best race course.  It is often hard to leave out a section of trail that took a lot of work to create.  Communication is key.  We have a lot of experience, but we still make mistakes.  We recognize those mistakes and work very hard to keep from making them again.           

The timing and breakdown of our races along with the lead-out from the start are paramount to making it work.  We strive to keep courses fun, challenging and interesting, but also firmly believe that a race is about racing the other racers more than the course.   The fast guys most always go fast and their skills come out, but the key is keep it fun on the other end as well.  Our best-attended races have generally been those that allow for the highest average speed.  Someone once said that the one way you can make any trail more technical is to ride it faster.

MTB Race News - Many race series in the US go without USAC sanctioning. What are the benefits to you as a promoter and to the racers that come with USAC sanctioning? What are some of the downfalls?

Don Edberg - By sanctioning WORS events with USA Cycling, our events, racers, and WORS receive the best possible insurance in the sport.  It also puts our racers on the map, as top racers get exposure through national media and juniors can qualify for development camps.  Also, by raising the profile of the series all riders are able to take a little more pride in their accomplishments.

The downfalls are primarily related to time.  There is the time that it takes to do the paperwork that is necessary to reduce risk, the time it takes to work through the system to respond to the desires of the racers, and the time it takes to educate racers on why a strong national governing body is in the best interest of the majority of those racing mountain bikes.  It is much easier to complain from outside than it is to get involved to make things better.   

MTB Race News - 2011 Is the 2nd year that a WORS race will be a part of the Pro XCT.  What benefit does this designation bring to you as a promoter and what benefit does it bring to your amateur racers?

Don Edberg - Our inaugural Subaru Cup Pro XCT event was a significant entrance for WORS to the national stage.   Having run a successful event that was very well received by WORS racers, the top pros in the US, the industry, and the press in attendance at the event has created the interest to allow us to bring this yearís event up a notch.  There was significant skepticism by many regarding the benefit to WORS racers, but those that participated as racers and spectators last year had a truly great experience.  There is nothing like being able to interact with the best of the sport.  The pros were very impressed by the enthusiasm of our racers and our racers were impressed by how approachable and appreciative the pros were.  Our ultimate goal, much like the history of WORS, is to get our sport back to the level of participation and awareness that mountain biking created in the mid nineties.  There is not only strength in numbers, but it makes the sport better on so many levels. 

We learned a lot from running the event and want to see just how good we can make it.

MTB Race News - Do you believe the model of forcing Cat 1 and above riders to purchase an annual license is reasonable?

Don Edberg - Yes, as a member of the USA Cycling Board of Trustees for the discipline of mountain biking I was in on the mountain bike category reorganization and although I feel that the current system is not perfect, it is an improvement on what preceded it.  In my experience there still is a lot of education needed about the new categories.  Cat 1 was never meant to be a straight-up replacement for Expert.  It is supposed be the top amateur level of the sport with an eventual goal of the Pro category becoming a designation of profession rather than a description of ability.  In other words, a top Cat 1 does not move up to the Pro category unless he or she becomes a fulltime mountain bike racer.  We still have a long way to go.  When racers understand that Cat 1 is the top level of amateur competition, licensing requirement just goes along with the commitment to compete at the level.              

MTB Race News - If you had to choose one category of racers that makes or breaks the sport, what would it be?

Don Edberg - Sport/Cat 2, they are the real core of mountain bike racing and to keep the sport growing the majority of races need to focus on them and their support (family and friends).  The sport needs them and they need the sport as a source of entertainment and good health.           

MTB Race News - What is the strangest thing that you have ever had to deal with at a race you promoted?

Don Edberg - There have been a few, but probably our best recovery would have to be in 1996 when we found out less than three weeks before our series opener that the venue where it was to be held had been foreclosed on and we would not have access to trails at the area or staff to man the race.  A racer who grew up in the area helped by securing a venue and developing a suitable trail, while I was able to put together a race staff of family and friends allowing us to get the series started on time just two miles from the original venue.  The substitute venue is currently in the series and boasts a very active local organization and one of our most challenging courses.             

MTB Race News - Have you ever raced? If so, what category and what was your favorite part of racing?

Don Edberg - Yes, I fell in love with mountain bike racing in 1983 after doing my first race.  Near the end of the race, I passed a couple of Cat 2 road racers (they would have killed me on road) and I was hooked.  One of my early motivations in running the series was to have races that I enjoyed racing.  I raced most all the WORS races until 2001 at which time WORS became a fulltime job.  WORS has a category we call Comp (what I would like to see USA Cycling make Cat 2 and add a Cat 4 for mountain biking).  It was created to help balance our fields (most Comps would race with Sport otherwise, making their fields very large), to create a bridge to Elite for men (most WORS races deal with a five mile lap and Sports do 3 laps and Elite men 5) and a spot for racers with close-to Cat 1 skills for whom an extra lap would make it much harder to go to work on Monday.  In WORS, I race the Comp category.  Now I race one or two WORS races a year, however after working from 6:30 a.m. right up to a 1:30 race, it is more like riding than racing.  I do race what we in the Midwest refer to as the triple crown -three point to point races- the Ore to Shore, Chequamegon 40 and the Iceman.  The point to point format is a real hassle, but having large numbers of people to race with is the draw for me.  If I didnít race, I donít think I would still be promoting events as I fear I would lose my passion for the Sport. 

The best part of a race is the interaction with other riders.  You could be in fiftieth, but if you are battling back and forth with one or two other riders, youíre having a great time.

MTB Race News - Which event is your favorite to promote?

Don Edberg - For the most part I donít promote individual events I promote WORS as a whole.  However, I do have some favorite events within the series.  One is our long-time finale of the series.   It is held in two city parks in Sheboygan, WI.  The parks are connected by a viaduct under the highway that runs between them.  To be able to have a fun mountain bike course in town is awesome and the local organizing committee and community involvement is incredible.

I should say the Subaru Cup, because it was an amazing event last year and it is the only event in the series that WORS runs without a local organizing committee.  My brother and sisters, my daughter, a lot of my daughterís friends, many great people I have met through WORS, and our fantastic sponsors make the event possible.  Leigh Smith, our chief of timing and scoring does an amazing job with all of our events, but goes way beyond to make all of the intricacies of the Subaru Cup work. We are working on increasing community involvement for the event, but it is not very close to a significant population.  I donít think I would have had the courage to take the risk of running the event without the additional marketing and media savvy Claire Cannon has brought to WORS over the last several years.  My hesitation stems from how much work the event is to put on, but as one friend always tells me, "What have you got to complain about, you only work 12 days a year.Ē  (For those who donít know, there are twelve races in the series.)           

MTB Race News - Who is your favorite all time racer? Why?

Don Edberg - Jesse Lalonde.  He is close to folk hero in WORS and Midwest mountain biking.  He won the series riding primarily Singlespeed bikes in 2007 & 2008.  He wrote a great blog and is an awesome ambassador of the sport.  Instead of training, he would "practice his bike.Ē   He rarely races now as he is spending most of his time at his computer doing graphic design for Trek.  We miss him a lot at the races.                         

MTB Race News - What advice would you give to:

1. A new racer

  • Make friends with your local bike shop.
  • Have fun and remember quality not quantity when it comes to training.  You have to be able to ride one mile fast before you can ride twenty fast.
  • Join a club or team. 
  • Participate in a learn to race clinic.
  • Donate some time to trail maintenance and support advocacy.

2. A new promoter

  • Make a schedule, publicize it, and make it happen.
  • Start small, donít try to do too much.
  • Concentrate on the elements of your event that will benefit the greatest number of participants.
  • Donít become the chief of course.  You canít direct the event from out on the course.  You need to be accessible to as many people as possible.  The race is about the people, participants, volunteers, staff, families, and spectators.
  • Get good people to do your timing and scoring.  Timely results and awards are highly valued by all racers
  • Be eternally grateful to your volunteers.
  • If you are in charge, you are responsible.  Own up to mistakes and try to make them right.
  • Make sure you have plenty of portable toilets and water.

3. A Junior racer

  • Have fun! 
  • Work on your skills and speed.  Endurance training is for when you are physically matured. 
  • Riding farther seldom makes you faster, but riding faster will help you ride farther.           

MTB Race News - How do you think the sport can attract more youth? How can the sport assist entry into racing for youth?

Don Edberg - The more family friendly the Sport is the better.  Kids come from families.  If mom or dad ride there is a much greater likelihood that the kids will too.  For parents that donít race, we need to make sure that they have every opportunity to see their son or daughter as they race.  Race courses need to be spectator friendly. 

The development of High School racing shows great promise for getting more juniors excited about the sport.  That development is highly reliant on family involvement, making it an excellent vehicle for the growth.

There needs to be local trail access, but that is far from enough.  The creation of a complete network to promote mountain biking and mountain bike racing as an activity that is both fun and social is the real challenge.  Too many times programs have the organizersí rather than the participantsí goals in mind.  We donít need to be training young riders, we need to be offering them opportunities to hangout with their friends, make new friends, and have fun. 

Sue Hawkins 07/13/2011 10:37 AM
I am astounded by the accuracy and speed of the results. Our club puts on the Ouachita Challenge in AR and I would like to know how you do it so that we could perhaps use it. Do you have a special software system? If so, what is the name of it and how could we find it to look at it. Thanks for putting on great events!
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