The trajectory is clear: if the decline is not stemmed, road racing in our region … will cease to exist in five years
These are tricky times for road racing in the UK, at every level. COVID-19 has come along to largely obliterate the season, but even before the virus stepped in, it looked a long way from plain sailing. British Cycling (BC) hadn’t announced dates and details about the National Road Series and national championships until the season was well under way. Cherished national races, such as as the Lincoln GP and the Eddie Soens Memorial were close to being cancelled. BC had pulled TV coverage of the National Road Series. And the calendar at regional level was patchy at best – for several years the young riders I have looked after have all struggled to put together coherent race calendars – the national series wasn’t expanding and wasn’t happening country-wide, and UCI team numbers were declining.
Looking at the region I deal with, West Midlands, from the rider and race figures for recent years the trajectory is clear: if the decline is not stemmed, road racing in our region at least will cease to exist in five years. I don’t think we are alone in losing long-established National B races, and in seeing the frequent cancellation of both women and men’s Regional A and B races due to a lack of riders.
Why a vibrant road racing scene matters
It’s worth reminding ourselves why this actually matters. A sparse or non-existent regional race calendar drastically reduces development opportunities for riders, and doesn’t nurture those who make races happen, such as commissaires, drivers and organisers. The effect is then felt all the way up the racing food chain. In fact, it’s already being felt as a large number of the best British under-23 men and women have opted to race abroad via the Rayner Foundation because the right development opportunities simply don’t exist in the UK. Similarly, the men’s GB under-23 team clearly don’t feel the UK scene offers the right racing, because they don’t support it outside the Tour of Britain and the Tour de Yorkshire.
What is the long term goal? As a road racer for 35 years, and someone who has moved into supporting young racers, I feel as qualified as anyone to answer this and I suspect most would have the same answer: a calendar that offers riders a good variety of race opportunities – different distances, different kinds of courses – within relatively easy reach (max drive 90 minutes). A good progression ladder from circuit races up to the National Road Series so that riders know how to work their way upwards. Stage races as well – as these are a unique experience and the best way for riders to learn; the Irish calendar is buzzing with them. Ideally, races that work for many kinds of riders – masters and women and beginners – as well as the more experienced and ambitious.
The problems road racing faces stem from many sources. This is a very expensive discipline now, with entry fees between £25 and £35 a pop. It is also inherently dangerous due to the fact that it takes place on the open road. That its safety record in the UK is as good as it is is a tribute to organisers, commissaires, riders and the National Escort Group (NEG). It is difficult to find courses in some areas, for obvious reasons. It is the side of the sport which demands most and rewards least. There has been culture change: riders would now rather spend money on a coach than on entering races, and the input in emotional and financial terms mean that racing for the sake of it is no longer the norm.
There are fundamental issues with the way the sport is structured: there is no coherent form to it
Not all those things can be changed, so we will look at the issues that can. There are fundamental issues with the way the sport is structured: there is no coherent form to it. If you are a talented under-23 male rider, the gap between regional racing and the National Road Series should be met by National B events and an under-23 series, but Nat B races are harder to find and costly to enter and there is no under-23 series. There is not even a stand-alone national road race championship for under-23s. Moreover, there are very few regional stage races domestically in which riders can learn racing.
If you are a motivated junior or under-23, but not quite talented enough to get into national series races – or your parental resources/educational commitments preclude traveling the length and breadth of the country – you need races that are easy to reach. If you are a National Road Series level racer, what do you do in between the National Road Series events? It’s not an easy one to turn round, because everything is interlocked.
The club and team structure has a direct impact on what race opportunities there are, so let’s start there: there should be a strong network of clubs producing a stream of ambitious riders, of all ages, and the clubs should then organise the races to cater for these riders. The problems within UK cycling can partly be explained as an imbalance between the numbers of riders and the numbers of races. Put bluntly, the riders who need the races (and thus the parents/partners, etc, who can help run them) aren’t present in organisations which should have the wherewithal to organize the races for them; hence, those clubs have no reason or resource to run races.
Creating a ‘development’ team pathway
What riders and parents need is a clearly defined pathway through BC accredited clubs and teams. It should be possible for riders and parents to look at the cycling clubs and teams around them and know exactly what they are getting. This happens to a good extent with the network of Go-Ride clubs: these are accredited by BC to provide a certain service for developing riders – coaches who are CRB checked, a safe environment to ride away from the roads, welfare officers and so on.
What is on offer is bewildering and incoherent
The problem comes when riders grow out of their Go-Ride clubs. What is on offer is bewildering and incoherent. I would suggest that BC should set up an accredited category of clubs/teams in between Go-Ride and UK Elite, called ‘development’. These should offer minimum standards in terms of budget per rider, so that riders and parents know what they are getting. Numbers should be limited to avoid them hoovering up all their best local riders, and they should be incentivised to organise races in their local area, with a deposit paid to the region which is reimbursed if they organise a race. They should have the same standards as Go-Ride in terms of welfare and safety checks for anyone involved.
To further strengthen this category, BC could smooth the way for Go-Ride Clubs to form affiliated academies and development teams with sponsors in the way that we have done at Halesowen and that I know a few other clubs have done or are trying to do. BC have said to me that they view this as a good thing, so they need to publicise this option. Go-Ride clubs could be permitted to register two recognisably similar kits, a plain one for the club, alongside one stating either “development” or “academy” and bearing sponsors’ logos. There are obvious financial incentives that could be set up: it’s already cheaper to register sponsors with a Go-Ride club, but this could be improved.
Strengthening the UK Elite team category
To make the pathway complete, BC could strengthen the upper category known already as UK Elite, which few teams bother to join because the incentives are so vague. To incentivise teams to join the category, they should remove the need to pay BC to be a UK Elite team, but set certain criteria so that riders know what they are getting. These could include: a minimum level of expenses to be paid to riders, minimum standard of suppliers/discount kit, minimum standards for the team’s race programme. These would at least ensure that riders would know what was on offer and could form the basis for BC accreditation.
This is not just about road racing: a coherent structure to the UK club network would benefit every discipline and by producing better-resourced clubs with greater reach, it would provide more opportunities for reaching out to groups who are under-represented within the sport.
Supporting new and existing race organisers
Let’s look at the UK road race calendar. There are tweaks which would improve the situation. Whatever the gripes about the online systems, for an organiser at a regional level, working with BC offers certainty in terms of insurance and how the race will be run on the day; there is huge expertise among BC’s commissaires. In some ways, it’s easier to run a race nowadays (if more costly) with the accredited marshal scheme and the NEG.
The bits of the UK regional calendar that work best are those that have been built from the ground up using a league format – historically the Surrey and Essex Leagues, more recently Cotswolds, East Midlands and Eastern. The reason for this is that in these groupings organisers are working together, in a way that is largely devolved from BC in Manchester. It is this model that needs to be followed – and it can only be done by the BC regions.
The main issue as I see it is that there aren’t enough people coming forward as race organisers because it feels hugely daunting.
The simplest way around that is regional road race work groups, which is the direction that BC seems to be currently headed. These can offer support and guidance which builds on the work that Regional Event Officers already do; they can also set up systems that simplify the race organisers’ task such as a regional race drivers’ register, a central list of medical providers and so on. Work groups can also run bigger races collectively, dividing the workload between several experienced BC members.
To strengthen the regional work groups across all disciplines, BC should change the way regions are funded. At present it’s not consistent across regions, for historical reasons: it should be a simple, small levy on all BC registered races in all disciplines in the region. That could fund regional services that benefit all disciplines – press and PR, boosting participation for groups that are under-represented, developing multi-use facilities and better using the ones we have. That too would feed back into road racing as a whole.
Regional road race work groups (RWGs) should be given pretty clear objectives: increase the number of active organisers, increase participation across all groups, and, medium-term, run major national events and at least one two or three-day stage race within the region.
Cost is probably the biggest impediment road racing faces
RWGs can work on cutting costs by bringing organisers together to agree norms across a region. Cost is probably the biggest impediment road racing faces, with the paradox that making races safer through accredited marshals has made them far more expensive to run, so organisers are scared of taking a financial hit if they don’t get the entries they need. Riders are more careful how they spend their entry fees, so they don’t enter races purely for the sake of it. They don’t race for “training” or even “experience” as they used to. Additionally, the increase in entry fees recently will mean that road racing has become a sport for the financially privileged.
There are solutions, but they need cooperation between organisers on a regional basis. Firstly, give organisers the option to eliminate prize money or reduce it to a basic level. Let’s face it: who races for the prize money now? Riders would probably rather have a cheaper race. So bring organizers together by region and agree a minimum prize list, at a low level.
Working together with organisers, you can agree a cap on entry fees, and issue a levy on an agreed number of entrants. If the break even number is set at 65 riders, set a levy on fields of 70+. Then, at the end of the season, divide up the levy and refund riders who have entered more than two road races pro rata. That way, a rider might enter 10 races, spending £250-quid, but they might get £5 per race back at the end of the season.
But don’t clubs run races to make a profit to make money for their funds? Yes, but if clubs are restructured so that they include a solid core of riders (and their parents/partners) with an incentive to run races, the club road race goes from being just a way of making money to a good for the club. “We run our own road race,” becomes another way to attract riders.
Tweaking race licence categories
There are minor structural tweaks that might help as well. One issue is the disparity in ability between 3rd and 2nd category and even within 2nd cat, which has become a catch-all from vaguely decent 3rd cats to aspiring pros. That is a disincentive for “ordinary riders” to race: this can be bridged with handicap racing, and BC should make it easier to run these events. The BC system should also be more flexible, allowing organisers to experiment with 3rd cat only and 1/2/3 only races.
You could make it easier to become 1st cat, which might increase the demand for Nat Bs; you could look at an NFL-style draft; a single national ranking for all categories, with (say) the top 100 given elite licences, the next 200 1st, the next 1000 2nd. There is also a debate to be had around 4th category – purely on safety grounds, is it sensible for literally anyone to take out a 4th cat license and start a road race?
Improving the national racing calendar
Nationally, the picture is different. The National Road Road series is in trouble and BC seem to have difficulty finding venues that will commit to running the national championships more than once. For men, there is no obvious development step between the national junior road race series and the National Road Series. For women, the pathway is better: the national junior series is in its infancy, but looks established; after that, the Team Series offers a handy intermediate step.
The first step for the governing body is to finalise the major dates and places in the season – the National Road Series and the national road race championships – very early, ideally in late summer for the following year. That in turn would give teams the chance to plan their seasons, sponsors the certain knowledge of what is on offer, and regional organisers a chance to run their races to fit in with the national events. There should be no exceptions to this. If organisers haven’t got their act together in time, tough.
I wonder if British Cycling is over-ambitious in wanting glitzy, all-singing-all-dancing National Road Series races as recent evidence is that there are only a limited number of organisers within the UK who can deliver this. Better in my view to ringfence what already exists – really good races such as the Lincoln GP, the CICLE Classic and Ryedale. Provide temporary “parachute” funding if any of those “heritage events” lose sponsors, and work hard on developing second-string races. Organisers need a development pathway as much as riders and they will come from running bigger Nat Bs and mid-tier races.
Offer the riders the choice and I suspect they would rather have a season consisting of 25 races with less glitz … rather than a half dozen National A races and a mish-mash
That would mean the inception of a mid-tier series, along the lines of the women’s team series, that would cater mainly for under-23 men and, in organisation terms, which should be pared down compared to National Road Series races. There are good races that aren’t National As – Perfs Pedal, Jock Wadley, Severn Bridge, Totnes-Vire, Victor Berlemont – and they could be the basis for a coordinated calendar. Offer the riders the choice and I suspect they would rather have a season consisting of 25 races with less glitz around them plus half a dozen truly prestigious national events, rather than the half dozen National A races and a mish-mash.
It would be easier for a region work group to envisage running this kind of race – a beefed up National B in essence – rather than a full-on National Series, and out of these mid-tier races, you could develop organisers and groupings who might be able to run larger-scale events – national series and stage races.
One addition to the calendar that could be looked at is a national development championships; in essence, a race for the best riders from the newly-formed development teams (see above). This would be for the regions, with each region putting in 5 or 6 under-23s in regional teams.
And UCI teams? The key is in the name. Their priority should be UCI races, and they have little to gain by racing anything other than the best UK races. So the numbers they can field in UK events which aren’t UCI or National Road Series should be strictly limited.
Priorities should be as follows:
1/ Cut rider costs by any means possible.
2/ Support clubs so they have more incentive/obligation to organise road races.
3/ Support organisers via regional work groups.
4/ Bring in a mid-tier under-23 series.
5/ Ringfence the “heritage” National A events.
6/ Confirm dates for national series (junior + elite men + women and U23/women’s team series) by September 1 to allow regional organisers to best position their races.
Featured photo: James York. East Cleveland Klondike Grand Prix, 2019
Words by William Fotheringham