Features Interviews

Matt Hallam interview: why I decided to close Crimson Orientation Marketing RT

Matt Hallam lays out the reasons for his decision to call time on his Crimson Orientation Marketing race team

Matt Hallam’s Crimson Orientation Marketing RT was unquestionably one of the top-performing domestic teams in 2021.

The men’s team finished fourth in the National Circuit Series, besting several UCI Continental teams, fourth in the Tour Series, a slender three points behind winners Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling, and second overall in the National Road Series, including brilliant individual performances from young riders such as Isaac Peatfield and Toby Barnes. The women’s squad grew too this year, finishing in the top ten of every round of the Tour Series and achieving a top 20 in the Curlew Cup.

The performances demonstrated just how quickly the team had grown in its four short years, establishing itself as one of the best-run and best-performing domestic outfits. With both a men’s and a women’s squad, a strong focus on its northwest roots, and a set of striking crimson-coloured kits, the team had a unique identity.

From the outside, then, it seemed like the sunlight uplands had arrived for Matt Hallam’s Elite Development Team, and things could only get better. It had a squad of talented under-23s that looked set to flourish. The team’s social media presence was slick as any team’s. And it had sponsors keen to help the team build on its success with increased funding for 2022.

We had the money lined up, that was already there, and I had worked hard to secure that. We had equipment deals there, clothing deals there, it was all ready to go. But in the end, it wasn’t enough

So it came as a surprise to most when the team announced in October that it would close its doors after this year’s National Road Championships. The team didn’t explain the reasons for its closure in its farewell post, saying only that, “Multiple factors have led to this decision” and, “It hasn’t been an easy call to make”.

Now that the dust has settled a little, we sat down with Matt to discuss in detail the reasons why he decided to call time on Crimson Orientation Marketing RT. Here’s what he had to say…

Matt Hallam. Photo: Joe Cotterill

First of all, Matt, you started the year with big ambitions, Crimson Orientation Marketing’s fourth season. How do you look back on how the year went, from a sporting perspective? 

From the sporting side, we couldn’t have asked for much more really. My ambitions were high, I knew my squad was capable of some big results and it was just incredible to go and achieve them. The group of riders I had was riding incredibly well as a team, as well, and that is always rewarding for me to see.

The real pinnacles were our performances in the Tour Series and the National Circuit Series. It was our standout performances in the National Road Series that I was probably most proud about though. Seeing my under-23 riders come to the fore and compete for victories in those races was a far cry from where we’ve been in previous years. One of the moments I won’t forget was watching Toby Barnes sprint for the win at the Ryedale GP. The team DS Jason Ridehalgh, mechanic Jon Furman and I were going crazy in the team car. It was amazing! 2021 was our best season by an absolute mile. We were ranked the number one team in the UK on the British Cycling rankings.

We created an environment where riders could flourish, we created a culture in the team where we went to races and we knew we could win

What do you think was behind that success? 

I think the culture that we created in the team, it was awesome. Such a great group of guys and girls to work with, everyone just loving the racing, turning up to races, having a good time, enjoying it. We created an environment where riders could flourish, we created a culture in the team where we went to races and we knew we could win. In previous years we didn’t have that but this year it was there and it was clear to see, we were punching well above our weight, week in week out. I put it down to that that culture, everyone just enjoying it.

Some of the signs were there, early in the season in some of the National B road races, that your team could achieve big things. But was it a surprise just how successful the team was? To find yourself, for example, very close to winning the Tour Series, losing out by just fractions of seconds? 

I don’t think people realise how tight it was at the Sunderland round. We were, I believe, 0.8 of a second off being in the leader’s jerseys. The margin was that tight! But, when you have the National Criterium champion on your team, it brings you up a level. I knew I had an incredible crit squad anyway, I had riders that were training just for that, but I had hybrid riders as well, rouleurs that can do everything. Riders like Leon Mazzone and Toby Barnes, able to just jump in and produce incredible rides in both crits and road races. Yes, it was brill seeing the riders fulfill their potential and yes, I couldn’t have asked for much more really, this season.

Matt prepares the team car at the 2021 Lancaster Grand Prix. Photo: Joe Cotterill

You’d obviously put together a great squad, particularly on the men’s side. In 2020 you already had an excellent squad but then this year you brought in Joey Walker and Toby Barnes, you retained Isaac Peatfield and others. What do you think enabled you to build such a strong squad? Out of all the elite teams and, even compared to some of the UCI Continental teams, your squad was a real standout on paper at the beginning of the season. And then you obviously put it into practice. What do you think enabled you to do that? 

Our squad was really big and, you know, from a performance side of things, I had certain riders that I definitely wanted more from, but it didn’t click for them this year. Some of my riders weren’t racing at all, which was a real disappointment for me. But I had a core group of riders that were, week in, week out, absolutely smashing it and picking up results in every race we did.

How did I manage that? Well, I basically just gave them a platform to showcase what they could do, looking after them as best that I could. Joey Walker, for example, paying him a small salary, paying riders signing fees, making them feel like they’re part of something that is, perhaps, bigger than we are. I think we made the riders feel wanted. Every spot on this team was hard fought for and I think everyone wanted to give a bit back, as well. You know, they could see the opportunity with Crimson and how the team was progressing year on year and they wanted to be part of that trajectory too, so they wanted to impress. 

The team’s progress is something we’ve followed closely at The British Continental over the years. I remember when you described the team’s first season, it was a much more homespun affair. The budget was lower, you all had different bikes and different helmets, you weren’t troubling the results sheets in the top races. You grew things enormously from there in a very short space of time. What kind of support were you able to give to the riders this year, compared to those early days? How much have things grown? 

Huge amounts, yes, there is a massive difference really. The bits of equipment, you know, were there, we had custom bikes from Cipollini, a custom kit deal with Rapha, a nutrition deal with OTE. We were able to support riders financially in some regards as well, paying their race entries, travel costs, accommodation costs, and so on.

We really did step up and try to make it as easy as possible for riders to race without having a huge financial commitment behind them in terms of racing. So, yes, it’s a night and day difference from our first year. Back then, it was still just a group of mates that were enjoying racing their bikes and, you know, that snowballed year on year to where we are now, it’s a different game entirely. But still, the reasons why you jump on your bike and race are still there, you know, you don’t lose that. 

Sammie Stuart (right) at the 2021 Tour Series. Photo: Joe Cotterill

And now after four years, you’ve taken the difficult decision to close the team. You said in your farewell post on Instagram that there were multiple factors behind that decision. Can you explain what they were? What led you to the decision?

Well, I should start by saying that we had the sponsorship offers on the table from key team partners for 2022 that would have given us our biggest ever budget. We had the money lined up, that was already there, and I had worked hard to secure that. We had equipment deals there, clothing deals there, it was all ready to go. But in the end, it wasn’t enough. After I put the closing post up on Instagram, I know there was plenty of speculation behind the reasons for finishing. To be honest, there were multiple issues, and they all boiled to a head. In the end, I had to make a call and I decided to close the team, a call I still stand by.

Owning and managing a race team might sound like good fun but it’s a massive undertaking. You have to accept that the time versus reward is a very uneven scale. The time you commit to a race team is huge, but the reward can often be tiny. In my case this year I was spinning too many plates and I was very close to burning out. I was also a perfectionist with how I ran the team, this resulted in me taking on a lot more work and putting massive amounts of pressure on myself to keep up the polished image of the team. I found it difficult to switch out of work mode and just enjoy the racing too. I would be guilty of spending more time posting images on social media about a race rather than taking it in as a fan. In the end, I stopped enjoying the process and that created a lot of doubt around my motivations to continue running the team.

All it can take is for a UCI Continental team, or a Pro Conti team for that matter, to swoop through your squad halfway through the season, find your best riders, poach them, and you’re almost left with nothing

I was also finding it increasingly difficult to see how we could remain as a successful elite team within the current structures set by British Cycling. I found out the hard way how delicately balanced an elite team’s foundations are. All it can take is a UCI Continental team, or a Pro Conti team for that matter, to swoop through your squad halfway through the season, find your best riders, poach them, and you’re almost left with nothing. You have no protection – zero protection – of it happening; our contracts simply aren’t strong enough when salaries aren’t being paid. You’re not only at risk of losing your best riders, but you also lose a huge amount of confidence from your team sponsors.

Of course, you want your riders to progress up the ranks to Conti and Pro Conti teams to access the bigger races, and that’s an obvious attraction to riders. But when you invest thousands of pounds into riders for them to potentially leave halfway through the season, it just doesn’t make any financial sense, especially when you don’t get any kickback when they leave. 

Matt cheers on Joey Walker from the pits at the Sunderland round of the 2021 Tour Series. Photo: Joe Cotterill

It was a catch-22. We didn’t want to step up to the UCI Continental level without having the resources to do it really well. If we were going to step up to that level, we’d want to pay riders for a start. That’s just basics. There are plenty of riders at that level not getting paid, but I wanted to do things properly. 

It’s either stay at elite level and have zero protection from British Cycling or move up to Continental level and have the UCI backing your corner

I felt like the only way we could move things forward was to go Conti. Unless you step up to that level you have zero protection from the federation. And with British Cycling having next to no requirements, apart from the bank guarantee, to become a UCI Continental team, the system tempts teams to step up without having the financial capacity, infrastructure and management to do it well. It’s either stay at elite level and have zero protection from British Cycling or move up to Continental level and have the UCI backing your corner. 

The problem we have is that until something big changes you’re going to get these elite teams trying to step up to Conti level without the proper resources to do it well. That’s why we end up with so many teams that come and go at a Conti level. It’s almost a repetitive cycle.

Securing rider contracts for next season was also going to be really, really difficult. What I didn’t want was to start from scratch again in 2022 with a skeleton squad. I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I loved going to races this year and having the ability to win, and I didn’t want to go back to being spat after 50 miles in a prem. For me to say to a rider; we’re going to stay as an elite development team next year, I’m still not entirely sure what programme of racing I can offer you because who knows what the National Road Series will look like next year. I’m not too sure whether European racing is on the cards because of Covid and so on. You can imagine that most of my star riders like Toby Barnes and Isaac Peatfield would be searching for more than that.

With all the difficulties I’d faced this year, all my energy had been sucked out of me. I almost resented it at the end. I just didn’t want to run the race team anymore

And another big reason was my passion to do it: I didn’t have it anymore. With all the difficulties I’d faced this year, all my energy had been sucked out of me. I almost resented it at the end. I just didn’t want to run the race team anymore.

Toby Barnes during the 2021 Tour Series. Photo: Joe Cotterill

So from what you described, there were three issues, and that ultimately led to the fourth and potentially decisive issue: that you’d lost your passion for it all. The first was the British Cycling team structure which afforded you no protection as an elite team. Second is the issue that British Cycling sets no minimum requirements for UCI Continental teams, almost forcing elite teams to step up before they are ready. The third was the fear that your squad would be substantially weaker in 2022 because of difficulties in securing new riders. And all of that combined to create this perfect storm, to decimate your passion and energy.   

From a squad insecurity side of things then, you went public in August when you spoke out about Saint Piran approaching a number of your best riders before the Tour of Britain. From what you’ve just said, that must have really rocked you? 

Yes, it did, it really did. Not just me, my sponsors as well. I can see why they did it, they wanted to have the best possible squad for the Tour of Britain, I completely understand that. But what it did was create enormous damage for us. And that damage was something that changed the trajectory of the team and massively dented my passion to keep running the team. 

We don’t get anything back if a rider moves halfway through the season, there’s no signing fee. All the resource you’ve put into a rider just disappears. You’re just left to, kind of, suck it up

What would you say needs to change then, what could change? 

I don’t know whether readers will realise how much resource goes into riders even at an elite development team level; it’s thousands of pounds. We operate in the dark ages when it comes to ‘transfers’, it’s a murky world. We don’t get anything back if a rider moves halfway through the season, there’s no signing fee. All the resource you’ve put into a rider just disappears. You’re just left to, kind of, suck it up. I think that’s wrong. Team PB Performance lost their star rider overnight; Josh Whitehead won the Lancaster Grand Prix and then, a week later, he’s riding for SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling. PB Performance didn’t even get the opportunity to wear the National Road Series leader’s jersey because of that – with all the kudos and publicity that would have earned them – and I think that’s appalling.

Photo: Joe Cotterill

So what needs to change. A contract system for Elite Development Teams that British Cycling enforces to prevent those kinds of overnight team changes?

Yes, exactly that. 

If that was something that British Cycling introduced then, if another team did approach a rider about a mid-season transfer, you’d need agreement from all parties for it to happen?

Yes, we need some level of professionalism in the sport, even at elite level, and it’s lacking. When you make that step up to UCI Continental level, you can’t have Conti riders being signed by another Conti team halfway through the year, it’s not contractually allowed by the UCI. But at our level, you know, we don’t have a leg to stand on. It needs to change.

So, if there was a bar, if British Cycling set some minimum requirements for Continental teams, like they do for the Elite Development Teams, like the French federation does for French UCI Continental teams, is that part of the solution from your point of view? 

Yes, absolutely. 

And therefore, as an Elite Development Team, you’d know you would only lose riders to teams that have more resources than you, that can support a rider more than you can?

Yes. But at the moment you’re losing riders to teams that have the UCI badge but are otherwise no different. We could have got the badge as well, but we didn’t want to do it that way and then become one of the many teams that fall by the wayside after a year when they realise they have made the step up too quickly. These are key issues with the sport. I didn’t make that step up to Conti level, but I could see what would have happened if I did. 

Of course, there’s the Tour of Britain too. It’s the main reason teams want to step up.

It must be a difficult decision. If you step up, even with little budget, and you then get into the Tour of Britain, it means you expose yourself to more future sponsors, it’s a shop window as it were, which then, in turn, may increase your budget in future years?

Yes, that’s the calculation teams make. That stepping up is a move that can catapult you if you do things really well. But do you want to take that risk without the resources to do it well? For me, the answer was no.

Photo: Joe Cotterill

And what about the Elite Development Team status? It was announced at the beginning of the year as a big new initiative to help improve the domestic scene. Some teams have been very vocal in their criticism of the way British Cycling has implemented this new status, arguing that BC has reneged on many of the promises they had made to Elite Development Teams, and that the initiative has made little material difference. Is that that the way you see it?

Yes, it is. I haven’t seen any value in it whatsoever in my time as an Elite Development Team. It’s purely just for something to retweet on Twitter. 

What promises did British Cycling not fulfil? 

It’s going to always be difficult for someone to come in and enforce change, but some change would have been good. I just struggle to see a value with it at all. 

I think they’d promised to promote, to market, the teams with Elite Development Team status. Did that happen?

Well, we got an Instagram and a Twitter post from British Cycling. If you can call that marketing then, yes, they could tick that box. But there was nothing beyond that. 

And they were going to offer courses and other support too? 

No, none of that. But you’ve got to remember as well, we didn’t pay for that status this year, there was no fee. It was kind of a gesture of goodwill to elite teams that were doing well. ‘We’ll give you this status,’ and that was really it. I struggle to see the value in it, really. It’s frustrating. I realise now, after doing this for four years, you’ve kind of got to make your own luck in this sport. 

 Matt puts an arm around Leon Mazzone.Photo: Joe Cotterill

What could have kept you in the sport? What could have British Cycling or the others in the cycling world done differently? You clearly had the passion for it in previous years. What could have helped you to maintain that, to help the team to stay alive?

It all comes down to issues I’ve highlighted, about having a clearer delineation between Continental and Elite Development Teams, giving the latter better protections and benefits. Another good example of this is the National Champs. Just three of my riders were given an entry into the crit and the road race, despite us sending full squads of eight riders to every round of the National Circuit and National Road Series, and we’ve had exceptional results in them too. But we only got three riders in those races. After a highly interrupted UK race calendar, that’s our biggest shop window of the year. Our one opportunity to show ourselves to a truly national audience. 

I don’t want to start going into the full intricacies of it all, but my time now is done, and I accept that I don’t have a magic wand, I don’t have all the answers here. But for the reasons I’ve highlighted, my passion to run a race team was completely lost. And if someone at BC had resolved them, then we’d probably still be running next year.

I’ve put a lot back into the sport over the past four years, huge amounts of my time and money. I have absolutely no regrets about that but I need time for me and my business now

Do you think you would ever come back into the sport? 

Never say never with anything. Although it’s been a season of mixed emotions, it’s mostly been incredibly positive. I’ve had an amazing time running the race team for four years. There are so many people that have helped me. Too many to mention, from the founding sponsors to my family and partner, they have had to put up with the stresses over the years too. I’d never say never but right now I need some time to focus on me and my business. I’ve put a lot back into the sport over the past four years, huge amounts of my time and money. I have absolutely no regrets about that but I need time for me and my business now. That’s key. Hopefully, we’ve created a kind of template for new teams to follow in the future but, yes, for me now it’s pastures new, for a little while at least. 

What are these pastures new? What do you think you’ll be focusing on now? 

I have been running a bike fitting studio out of my new space at Rapha Manchester since the lockdown eased at the start of April. It has been so busy, the busiest block of bookings I’ve ever had in eight years of doing bike fitting. I was working five, six days a week in the bike fitting studio and trying to run a successful elite team alongside it. I was burning myself out completely. I’m looking forward to getting back on my bike again. I haven’t ridden my bike properly for a long time and I have missed it a huge amount. So I’ll enjoy riding my bike again and then focus all my attention on the business side of things, making my bike fit studio a massive success. I’ve got an incredible studio space at Rapha Manchester now and it’s all in with that.

Featured photo: Joe Cotterill