By James Spragg
Recently in a twitter conversation with The British Continental, amongst others, I explained some of my thoughts on the men’s domestic road racing scene: how I think it needs to be adapted moving forward; how to better integrate UCI and national races; how I feel that riders need a better pathway to professional racing; and how teams and race organisers need to be given more security.
This post is an attempt to put those ideas on paper to promote debate. I am sure not everyone will agree with my thoughts or proposals but please give me a chance to explain them…
A rider on a Continental team could race one week against the World Champion Valverde in a UCI race, and the next week they could be racing against a 4th Cat on a day licence in a regional C race
The current situation
Looking at the current organisation of men’s road cycling in Britain, it appears to me to be very confused. We have multiple categories of races (UCI, national A, national B, regional, etc) – read The British Continental‘s explainer on race classifications here – and multiple categories of riders and teams (elite, Continental, Pro Continental, World Tour, etc). It’s all very muddled.
I have tried to explain the current situation of who can race where, what category you need to be to race where, etc., in the following diagram. Apologies if it’s a little complicated….
For the purposes of this post, I am not going to go into the complexities of the World Tour. Instead, I’ll look at British-based teams, their race programmes, what races they are eligible for, etc.
If you look at the above diagram you can see that a rider on a Continental team could race one week against the World Champion Valverde in a UCI .HC or .1 race, and the next week they could be racing against a 4th Cat on a day licence in a regional C race. This is like playing football in the Champions League on Wednesday and then in your local pub league on Sunday!
Reforming the current structure
What I propose is a major shake-up whereby each category of team (from Continental down to regional) has a clear range of races in which they can race.
Each level of team, in my opinion, needs a range of competition:
- races in which they can dominate and win
- races in which they can compete directly against teams of the same level, and
- races where they are competing against the next level up.
Therefore, I think the level at which a team can compete needs to be bracketed.
Below is my proposed system.
You can see that a Continental team could race up to UCI .HC races (as they currently can) but could not race below a National A event. Likewise, an elite team could race up to UCI .2 races but could only race regional C events in their own region. In this system, both UK Continental and elite teams would have races where they can dominate and win, races in which they were directly up against teams of the same category and races in which they were competing against the next level up.
Having a system like this has a number of advantages:
1. Rider pathway
Firstly, it creates a natural pathway for a rider – if you are currently a talented regional rider then you can race and win regional C races against the best riders in elite teams from your region. Doing this is likely to earn you a place on an elite team. Once on that elite team you get to test yourself against Continental teams in both National A and UCI .2 races. If you can get results against riders of that level, then chances are you are going to progress onto a Continental team as you have already proven yourself at that level. Once on that Continental team you get the chance to test yourself against the world’s best in .1 and .HC races. While you are progressing you have had to chance to continue competing and winning in the same races you got results in the previous year.
How can you expect a rider to develop the necessary bunch and tactical skills to compete against the best in the world while racing completely out of their depth, hanging on at the back, and getting dropped halfway through the race and ultimately not finishing?
This pathway system is in my opinion much better than simply throwing riders into a UCI .1 who a few years ago were racing as a 4th Cat. How can you expect a rider to develop the necessary bunch and tactical skills to compete against the best in the world while racing completely out of their depth, hanging on at the back, and getting dropped halfway through the race and ultimately not finishing? Wouldn’t they be better progressing through the ranks, finishing races, learning all those skills in lower-level races and then applying them as they move up the ladder?
2. A strong National B series
Another advantage of this system is that it creates a strong National B calendar! British Cycling has already created the national road series comprising of all but one of the National A races. However, there is no reason this cannot be applied to a National B calendar. Having this calendar would focus attention on National B races, allowing observers to see who is performing well and therefore might step up to Continental level next year.
Additionally, I would propose that the rankings from this calendar are used to decide on invitations to both National A series and UCI.2 races. This would add extra interest to the National B races and rankings in the run-up to important events such as the Rutland-Melton Cicle Classic.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the merits of involving Continental teams in National B races. However, in the system I propose, having Continental teams in National B races wouldn’t work because the whole ideal of the National B series would be to provide direct competition between the UK elite teams and therefore automatic entry into higher level events.
The argument for continued Continental team participation in National B races seems to be that having them there raises the level of those races. Well, I would argue that if you need to be racing in National B races to get results, then chances are you don’t need to be racing against the world champion the week after. If the National B level of racing is the level a rider can be competitive at, then no-one has a problem with that, but that rider should then be riding on an elite team, not a Continental team.
3. More National A races
Currently most people agree that there is a lack of National A level racing. However, I argue that with the system I propose here, there is more reason for a race organiser to step up to the National A category. Currently, in some cases, there is little if no benefit in terms of the quality of the field in organising a National A category race over and above a National B race. Therefore, why would organisers jump through the additional hoops and incur the extra costs? Having a clear definition between the quality of the field in National B and National A level would provide organisers with a clearer picture of the quality of field they will attract at the differing levels. Importantly, however, allowing regional teams into National A events, at the organisers’ discretion, still allows races to have local teams that are often involved in the organisation of the races.
There are currently not enough riders in the UK of sufficient standard for all the places there are on Continental teams
4. Capping the number of Continental teams
When I first proposed this there was a bit of let’s say ‘pushback’ on Twitter. Let me explain my thinking….
There are currently not enough riders in the UK of sufficient standard for all the places there are on Continental teams. That isn’t a shot at the UK scene, it comes from the 2018 stats on how many riders at least finished UCI .1 or higher ranked race or scored UCI points in a UCI .2 race. Remember, if you look back to the original diagram, you will see that the only reason to be on a Continental team is to access those higher level races.
21% of riders registered on UK Continental teams in 2018 were unable to finish a UCI .1 race or higher! Another 7% failed to finish one of these races but did score UCI points at either national championships or in a UCI .2 race.
For these riders, they don’t need access to higher level races, they need to be able to grow and progress in races in which they can at least finish – with a view to stepping up once they are ready. If these riders were on elite teams, rather than Continental teams, they would still have access to UCI .2 races (both at home and abroad), National A and National B races; essentially the races they are already competitive in wouldn’t change, but they would be given the space to improve, and carry on winning races without being thrown in at the deep end of professional races.
This is why I propose capping the number of Continental teams. Fill the Continental teams with riders that can compete at the UCI .1 races and higher.
Additionally, the system I propose gives clarity to team sponsors. Any potential sponsor will be looking for return on their investment. At the moment no Continental team can 100% guarantee they will be racing Tour of Britain or Tour of Yorkshire – arguably the races that offer the highest level of exposure (I will park the Tour Series for the purposes of this blog). Sponsorship in sport is already a bit of a gamble in terms of return on investment for a company, but with guaranteed entry to races you at least be able to guarantee the team’s presence at races that a company can take VIPs to, run promotional events alongside etc. It gives some security in what is an already uncertain investment.
I also feel that the races would benefit – remember the buzz last year when Tanfield won a stage in Tour of Yorkshire? If the level of the UK Continental teams was such that a race organiser knew that were going to turn up and compete for stage victories, I am sure that would represent an added value – in promotional terms – for the UCI .1 and higher races in the UK.
In France they have a very similar system to the one I am proposing. In the Coupe de France series – a series of UCI .1 and .HC races throughout the season – the French Continental teams are up there racing and winning against the big boys. They aren’t there making up the numbers – in 9 out of the 16 races last year Continental riders were in the top 5 (NB Connor Swift was 5th in Poly Normandie – this gives an idea of the level you need to be at to compete in those races)!
I think to pull up our Continental teams to this level, riders need to be treated (as in France) as professional athletes. You can’t expect a rider to be competitive against the world’s best while they are working 15 hours a week in their local supermarket! I have outline below what I feel the minimum requirements should be for different levels of team in the UK.
Now some will say that the above represents a big jump in investment for teams and the money simply isn’t there. What I would say in response is that these changes wouldn’t have to come in tomorrow. However, a pathway could be put in place to move towards this system. I feel this system gives more clarity for sponsors, teams, riders and fans.
5. Return on investment
Cycling runs on sponsorship – I have already touched on the fact that I think there needs to be quantifiable, guaranteed return for those sponsors. However, I also feel we need to move away from a race to the bottom culture. Currently, I feel that essentially teams are aiming to get into the Tour of Britain and Tour de Yorkshire with as little budget as possible.
This squeezes riders’ wages, staff wages, the number of staff etc. This happens because team bosses cannot guarantee a certain level of exposure to sponsors. If the organisers of the higher level UCI races in the UK (Tour of Britain and Tour de Yorkshire currently, and hopefully more races in the future) would come on board with guaranteeing the 5 UK Continental teams an invite, then sponsors get some security in their investment. However, as I have already mentioned, that guarantee also needs to come with a certain level of financial commitment, not a ‘get by on as little budget a possible’ culture. Therefore, I suggest we put in place the same sort of minimum requirements that are in operation in the French domestic system. You will see these listed below.
I believe that having a fixed cost for a guaranteed level of investment – i.e. paying 8 riders and 2 members of staff a living wage + the associated costs of running a team – would put a fixed value on that level of exposure! It no longer becomes a race to the bottom in terms of the budget. Rather, there is a fixed entry requirement that is easy for potential sponsors to understand.
Additionally, limiting the number of Continental teams to 5 not only ensures that the quality of riders is high across all the UK Continental teams but it also makes title sponsorship of a continental team a limited commodity – which in itself gives value.
The same can be applied to elite teams – albeit at a lower level of financial commitment. This is the guaranteed exposure you will get, through the National B series, plus the chance to earn additional exposure should your team be one of the better elite teams, and here is the minimum price that this exposure will cost.
6. Re-working of the rankings system
If you are on an elite or continental team part of your ‘job’ is to ensure that the team gets results. That sometimes means putting in the hard yards on the front, fetching bottles, etc. Not sexy, but part and parcel of bike racing! Now I can’t understand why we are making riders on Continental team fight for points in races open to 2ndand 3rdcats! If in this proposed system you are good enough to be in the top 5 domestic teams in the UK, you have already proved yourself! Likewise, if you are in an elite team potentially competing in UCI .2 races then you have proved your worth to get that spot on that team. This is why I propose giving Continental riders an automatic elite category licence and giving riders on an elite team a 1st category licence. I also think that to protect riders in the case of injury, or if they don’t quite make it at the top domestic level, that they only lose 1 category should they drop down a level. So a Continental rider would automatically get a 1st category licence should their contract not be renewed.
I then argue we should actually go further and scrap the entire points-based system for riders on elite and Continental teams and just have a ranking based on points scored in the relevant national series. So the National A ranking is based on results in the National A series only! The same goes for the National B series.
|Continental Team||Min. salary (equivalent to living wage)
Min. number of UCI race days per season – tbc
Min. of 8 riders
Max. of 16 riders (+ 4 specialist riders)
Bank Guarantee (15% of total salary commitment – min €20000)
Life insurance for all riders (as per UCI regulations)
1 FTE Sports Director
1 other FTE member of staff (mechanics, soigneurs etc.)
Min. budget – to cover racing and salary commitments – British Cycling to audit
|Guaranteed entry to all UCI races in the UK
Guaranteed entry to all Nat A races in the UK – National Series races
Can qualify for automatic entry into all UCI .2 races Europe-wide (based on overall Europe Tour classification)
Guaranteed entry for all riders to National Championships
Possible benefits: entry to all LCT races
|Maximum of 5 teams
Obliged to ride all Nat A and UCI races in the UK
All riders to automatically qualify for an ‘Elite’ racing licence
|Pay riders’ travel expenses
Minimum budget to cover expenses for Nat A and B calendars – British Cycling to audit
Maximum of 12 riders
|Guaranteed entry to UCI .2 events in the UK for top number of Elite teams
Guaranteed entry to all Nat A events in the UK for top number of teams
Guaranteed entry for top riders from individual Nat B series ranking into National Championships (quantity to be decided)
National B race series
|Maximum of 12 teams
Obligation to ride all Nat A events in the UK and all Nat B events in own region
All riders to automatically qualify for a “First category’ racing licence
All of this would, of course, needed to be controlled and audited. The UCI does some of this – for example with the bank guarantee for Continental teams – but I feel that this is where British Cycling could put procedures in place to audit and control team finances. For example, in Belgium teams pay the national federation who then deducts taxes and then pays the riders. This system ensures that riders are getting the money it says on their contract.
One problem still remains, however: I think that is the lack of lower level stage races in the UK (National A or UCI . 2). Now, this is a problem that can in my opinion only be solved by creating more publicity and exposure and therefore creating viability for those races to be run.
As I said way back to the start of this piece (well done if you have stuck with me this long!), this is a proposal and is designed to spark debate on the way forward for the men’s domestic scene. You may not agree with the points I have raised here but hopefully this blog helps in furthering and improving the organisation of the domestic scene and at least puts some ideas out there on paper! Thanks for reading!
All images by James York / JamesYorkPhoto.com
About the author
James Spragg left the UK at 18 and rode on French amateur teams for 3 years, supported by the Dave Rayner Fund. He then signed with a Dutch / Asian continental team competing across Asia before signing a full professional contract with a Belgian team and then remaining in Belgium for 7 years. He has competed in, amongst overs, races such as Kuurne – Brussel – Kuurne, Brabantse Pijl, and Tour of Belgium. Later in his career he switched to the cyclocross where he competed at a World Cup level.
James is now a cycling coach working with amateur and elite athletes alike, in total he has coached athletes to over 20 National, European and World Championship medals. Post his cycling career he completed