Features Interviews

Chris Lawrence interview: race organisation matters

How do you solve a problem like race organisation?

It has been tricky times for road racing in the UK in recent years. Even before the Covid pandemic put a temporary stop to British road racing in 2020, the outlook was less than favourable: the number of National A road races had been gradually dwindling; the last of the UK’s big-budget UCI Continental teams, Madison Genesis, had pulled out from the sport; landmark races like the Lincoln Grand Prix and the Eddie Soens Memorial had teetered on the edge before being saved at the last; British Cycling had decided to stop funding TV coverage of the National Road Series; and the number of women’s National Road Series races had dwindled. 

Then the pandemic hit, road racing shut down and there has been little in the way of good news since. The Tour of Scotland folded in financial ignominy, the RideLondon-Surrey Classic was axedVitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK shut down, the Tour de Yorkshire was postponed (twice), over half of the 2021 National Road Series races have been cancelled and the National Circuit Series is down to just one race at the time of writing.

As a community, the time for moaning and grumbling is over. If you think there aren’t enough races or something could be done better, then roll your sleeves up and muck in

Unsurprisingly, the shrinking calendar has been met with dismay by teams and fans alike. As the governing body, British Cycling has often borne the brunt of criticism from riders, teams and fans alike on social media.

Race organiser Chris Lawrence, however, recently posted a riposte on Facebook to British Cycling’s critics, arguing that the governing body has been working harder than ever to get racing off the ground again.

Chris organises the Barnsley Town Centre Races, normally a cherished round of the National Circuit Series but sadly postponed this year. He also sits on the boards of British Cycling Yorkshire and the National Organisers Group.

James McKay sat down virtually with Chris to discuss why he thinks British Cycling’s hands have been tied as a result of Covid restrictions, why the Barnsley Town Centre Races were postponed, and why those frustrated with the status quo can and should get proactive in putting on races in the UK.

2018 HSBC UK National Circuit Championships, Men’s Race – Barnsley, England – The rider pass through Barnsley town centre under the gantry. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

There have been many people frustrated with the lack of elite racing in the UK as racing begins to return. As an organiser yourself what are your thoughts on the issue?

I’ve been an unspectacular racer in my time; I competed over my late twenties and into my thirties. And I didn’t have the understanding that I have now. Particularly how races were developed, how you got a risk assessment carried out and what to do with it, and all the rest of getting a race delivered. I certainly didn’t understand how you got bigger races landed, well, not then anyway. There are differences, but there are many many similarities – we have to remember, it’s a bike race. 

Out of this [frustration], we need to tap into people’s curiosity. If they’re wondering why events aren’t happening, it has a natural lead on. Can I do something about it, can I organise that race? 

My journey started about six or seven years ago when I organised a road race at Hade Edge. It got me into the British Cycling Yorkshire events group and it all just went from there. The number of people who I could ask to become involved and help me just grew and grew.

People just need to invest. Not money, just time, and it will make the sport happen. It hasn’t cost me anything this year to go to and get involved with BC meetings. It’s easier than it ever has been because it’s all online. And free.

Can you tell us about your role in the Barnsley Town Centre races?

It’s delivered by Barnsley Road Club, but I’m the event organiser, and I have the support of eight wonderful other key volunteers. I have a direct relationship with Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, who are the guarantors of the event. They fund a large portion of it but we also go out for private sponsorship to help finance the events. We are responsible for quite a lot on top of that: logistics supply to the event, management of all promotional aspects like website and programme, all the branding around the circuit, and liaising with British Cycling. 

British Cycling invests a significant sum into national series events. Every single one has many thousands of pounds invested into them, both through money and infrastructure provision. Everything you see – hoardings, gantries, commentators, the presentation stage, numbers, chip timing, everything – is provided by British Cycling. It’s a fortune that they contribute.

As an organiser, as with any organiser in the country, I have field selection duties, managing marshalls, and a judging team. The manpower and volunteer management is a hugely critical part to this. 

I’m just one of thousands of people who volunteer every weekend to make the sport happen in some capacity

But I recognise that there are hundreds of other races and just because I have a national event doesn’t make me anything special. I’m just one of the thousands of people who volunteer every weekend to make the sport happen in some capacity. 

Maybe there’s something you can do to help. Marshalling and driving a car in the convoy, things like this really make grassroots cycling tick. It doesn’t need very many people, it just needs a few more.

Picture by Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com – 19/07/2019 British Cycling HSBC UK National Circuit Series, Barnsley Town Centre Races, Men’s Race

How have BC and organisers had their hands tied with organising races this year?

They absolutely have. Local stakeholders, national stakeholders and the government response has held back domestic cycling. British Cycling also have a position of responsibility which they have respected correctly.

BC have been working their hardest so that the sport is recognised. I’ve spoken to those in BC directly, they’ve been working with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that cycling is an encouraged pastime, and that pastime needs competition. It also needs to get going because people rely on it for a career.

The sport has had its hands tied … by the border restrictions and the Covid response from the UK government 

It’s not like football where you can get signed to your local academy team. People need to go out and develop their skill sets in the continental system as well as the domestic system. We’ve got youths who have missed a year, now juniors, who have never raced on the road and they now need to press on if they’re going to fight for that contract and make cycling their life. It’s not easy, but the sport has had its hands tied in that regard by the border restrictions and the Covid response from the UK government. 

We saw several test events in Yorkshire and Halesowen. Both full fields and sold out. The Yorkshire event organiser had to turn off entries after five days because he had already had 110 entries for a field of 60. He also had a full field of 60 2/3/4 category women, which would have been a pipedream several years ago. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call that the audience is there and we have to find a way of supporting it as much as the sport can. 

But it wasn’t possible to run your national town centre event this year?

The National Circuit Series brings in big audiences. We see several thousand people at Otley, Colne, Sheffield, ourselves and other venues. The race is probably positioned about six weeks too early in the calendar to be in the right place for town centre racing this year. 

We have to bear in mind that the councils are our primary stakeholders. And not just from an investment point, they sign off on everything: safety, branding, marketing, road closures. They have to consider the situation in their local hospitals, and police forces. 

There’s a legacy to carry on delivering, it just needs to be dealt with responsibly which is why we can’t run the events this year

As organisers, 30 days out, we start being liable for costs, about three months out we get the statutory obligations out of the way such as road closures. Can we predict what is going to happen next week? No. Can we predict what is going to happen in a month? No. Can we predict what is going to happen in three months? Not a chance.

The councils really love our events though. All of our partners have said the money is in the bank. Without question we want these events to go ahead at the right time. There’s a legacy to carry on delivering, it just needs to be dealt with responsibly which is why we can’t run the events this year.

2019 British Cycling HSBC UK National Circuit Series, Barnsley Town Centre Races, Men’s Race Matt Bostock wins ahead of Connor Swift. Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com

What would you tell a racer who is frustrated with a lack of events at the moment?

It is unfortunately a supply and demand issue now. We have to be patient. There are going to be the opportunities: we’ve got crit racing back, we’ve got road racing starting. I was told that in Yorkshire alone there are at least 75 events that need planning in for the remainder of this year, and more will come. 

We just have just had a situation that no one in our lifetime has ever faced. We just need to try and keep away from being upset about not being able to do something in the first couple weeks.

Do you think this is connected with the idea that cycling is moving away from a traditional club culture in the UK?

I don’t think it’s dying, I think it’s as healthy as it’s ever been. In fact, Covid may have just pushed people back towards it because people want that social connection.

My club is Barnsley Road Club which has been in existence since 1924. So it’s rolled with the punches! It has had to adapt. The constitution has had to keep up with this too. There’s now a committee that tackles all aspects of our club, and anyone can talk to them to develop ideas, and we’ve introduced Go-Ride, a milestone for BRC. A classic road club could struggle to evolve if it doesn’t broaden what it offers. We’ve got kids on our Go-Ride who only ride off-road for example. It’s the classic case of ‘change or die’. 

Club members need to recognise how important AGMs are too. That hour or two a year is golden

Club members need to recognise how important AGMs are too. That hour or two a year is golden. I remember in our club AGM some years ago, I was the youngest in the room at one point, and I was 38. I think if I was being fair, the average age was around 55.

Clubs need to look at themselves in this type of way and keep finding opportunities to introduce young blood into the structure and the system. Those kids are out there and they are super keen. And get them involved in decision making too – this will get their buy in for years to come and will sustain your club. 

2019 British Cycling HSBC UK National Circuit Series, Barnsley Town Centre Races, Women’s Race. Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com

What is your view of British Cycling more generally? You say that people shouldn’t leap to bash BC. But as the governing body, do you think there is more they can and should do to help support domestic road racing? 

British Cycling brings together a huge, diverse and vibrant family – Road, Para, Track, MTB, BMX, even those crazy kids in CycleSpeedway. They are an organisation that has the sole purpose of ensuring that people ride bikes in whichever form that takes. 

Domestic road racing has a business model that is formed from the ground up – it is volunteer-based. We, as volunteers, shape that through our membership. Yes, there is always more that can be introduced, but we have a very creative and effective support system in place and this shouldn’t be forgotten. Yes there are difficulties that we all know and recognise, courses change and cannot be used, organisers drop out, clubs face internal changes and financial challenges; hence my call to arms.

We wouldn’t have systems in place without British Cycling and volunteers willing to support the sport. A great example of this is the White Rose Youth League, a series of races that travels around circuits in Yorkshire delivering racing opportunities for U8s to U16s. It doesn’t have a bad track record for the riders that have raced in it either – Tom Pidcock for a start, Gabz Cullaigh, Rob Scott, Abby Mae Parkinson, Joey Walker, Jake Scott and the list goes on and on. It is quite rightly, the envy of all other regions.

I’ve mentioned earlier about the accredited marshal scheme which British Cycling brought in around three or four years ago, but only really took full effect in the last two years, which I see as a game changer – it strips out costs, it introduces consistent practices from volunteers, trained, and competent people, mostly from within the sport which comes with a wisdom of how the sport (and races) play out. This has been no easy introduction as each police force, independently, has had to sign off on both the approach, and each risk assessment. This has taken time and hard work to build confidence and trust around.

Just by doing this, British Cycling has made the sport infinitely safer compared to a marshall with a red flag who might never have managed any traffic flow or even been at a cycle event; and kept costs to a reasonable level compared to private traffic management contractors, who through no fault of theirs have overheads to cover and a price to deliver a service. That makes racing more accessible. And this access, for me, is something that is vital, and cannot be underestimated. 

The more we can do to let the kids that have the appetite to ride, race, at a modest and affordable price, the better. We are a traditional sport, set in traditional roots. We look at the eras before our own, such as Tommy Simpson, from a mining village in Nottinghamshire called Harworth. Bradley Wiggins from a housing estate in Kilburn. We mustn’t forget that kids have the potential, and they are our sports future, and we, together, have a collective responsibility to open doors to them all, not just the ones with the shiniest of bikes or blingiest of Italian names.

And this, through our club is something that is at the heart of our Go Ride and junior club coaching, with a supportive pathway towards cyclesport. British Cycling have done nothing but enable that.

2019 British Cycling HSBC UK National Circuit Series, Barnsley Town Centre Races, Women’s Race. Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com

What advice would you give to people or clubs looking at promoting their own events?

Do it! The first thing I was told when I put on my first road race was that the club will support you. It’s broader than that too; the region will support you. People need to be aware that British Cycling is there and should be exploited. You can get a wealth of knowledge and a network of resources. There is so much of a mechanism to support organisers which can be tapped into.

BC have invested in the accredited marshalls system which takes away a huge amount of cost. My road race needed a thousand pounds worth of traffic management once upon a time. It now needs a couple of hundred quid and I’ve got seven accredited marshalls with better training. 

People need to stop complaining about the lack of racing, especially if they are able enough to get together with their mates or clubs and get a race organised

People need to stop complaining about the lack of racing, especially if they are able enough to get together with their mates or clubs and get a race organised. If you are unconfident go and talk to your BC regional staff. There is a support system, and once it is deployed it becomes remarkably easy and straightforward. 

There are a lot of things that, once you’ve done it through the first time, just fall into place. Some simple practices that become habitual.

As a community, the time for moaning and grumbling is over. If you think there aren’t enough races or something could be done better, then roll your sleeves up and muck in. Get your clubs mobilised, get involved with your region, get involved with BC. And have fun doing it.

An open letter from Chris and the organisers of Sheffield GP and Colne GP races regarding their cancellations and their futures can be read here.