Features Interviews

The Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix: saving a British monument

Alexander Smith talks to Rapha Lincoln GP organiser Dan Ellmore and Rapha UK Communications Manager about their efforts to create a sustainable platform for one of Britain's most cherished races

Cycling, as a spectator sport, is unique. Whilst providing a spectacle unlike any other in elite sport, racing on open roads, spectators pay nothing to watch their heroes battle it out. 

In the UK, this is no less true than anywhere else. For the organisers of the Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix, one of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious one-day races, this unique financial issue presents an annual struggle. 

This struggle saw the race nearly cease to exist in 2020, when, despite the status of the race, it was unable to put together the money to reach budget, until Rapha stepped in to help. 

Most importantly, the aim is to make sure the race is still here. The baseline is that it has got to happen

Dan Ellmore, Rapha Lincoln GP organiser

Dan Ellmore, the organiser of the Grand Prix, describes the pressures that finding funding each year places on organising a race, especially one with the status and history of Lincoln.  

“The bigger you get as a bike race, the bigger crowds you get, the bigger a loss you make!” he says. 

“It’s not a ticket revenue generating sport. In other sports, the better you are the more people pay more money to come and see it, and the more you generate. In cycling, you need to generate cash from somewhere, and that doesn’t come from ticket sales.” 

The aim for the race each year, then, is simple: make sure that it happens. 

“Most importantly, the aim is to make sure the race is still here. The baseline is that it has got to happen, so anything else is great!” Ellmore says. 

Jess Morgan. Photo: Calvino

In 2020, the race was saved by Rapha, who stepped in as a title sponsor. 

The British kit brand has now become a household name in the cycling community worldwide through its kits worn by teams from the WorldTour in Europe to the crit scene in the US and everywhere in between. 

Lincoln has got a special place in the history of Rapha

Jess Morgan, Rapha UK

Jess Morgan, Communications Manager of Rapha UK, explains how the brand came to be involved in this iconic event. 

“Lincoln has got a special place in the history of Rapha. Our first major win with Rapha Condor was with Dean Downing in the GP, and then Pete Kennaugh won the National Road Championships in 2015 at Lincoln in Team Sky Rapha kit,” she says. 

“It’s always been there in the background of Rapha’s history.”

She first heard that Lincoln needed sponsorship through the social media of Richardsons-Trek DAS, one of the teams they support, and thought that someone would step in. But, when Morgan enquired about it out of curiosity, she found that no one had come forward. 

“I got in touch with Dan, who said that they hadn’t had any interest in the title sponsorship. I found out how much it was and said, ‘leave it with me!’

“Simon [Mottram, founder of Rapha] said we should definitely save it. If he says something is a good idea then it probably is, so I went around different parts of Rapha asking to find space in the budget to pay the sponsorship!”

But, Morgan thought that a more financially sustainable model was needed to move forward, so asked the merchandise team what they could do to help. 

The 2021 Rapha Lincoln GP cap at the National Road Championships. Photo: Cadence Images

“If we make a Lincoln GP cap, could we put all the profits back into the race? 

“This would mean that every year instead of having to magic up this large sum of money as a sponsorship fee, we can just sell caps to people who love the race,” she says. 

“They have a momento of the day and by doing that they’re helping the race continue. Thus making it a more sustainable model.”

She adds that this model aligns with the wider aims of Rapha, to change the sport of cycling for the positive. 

“This fits in with the Rapha Roadmap, a ten-part manifesto on how to make the reform the road racing industry. One of the recommendations is about diversify revenue and the power of merchandise to provide alternative income streams. Other sports do this really well, thought Rapha, so why can’t a road race do that? 

“So, we designed the special cap, building the story of the Lincoln GP into it. 

“It sold out halfway through the race day [last year]. This year we have more caps to sell, and each year will be a different, limited-edition design, so that appeals to collectors too!”

Together, Rapha and the Lincoln GP want this partnership to provide a model of sustainability in racing, to help maintain the British racing scene.

The more we can work together, the more we can do things like that with local and national businesses, the more this becomes sustainable

Dan Ellmore

Off the back of this, the GP has sought to form these partnerships with other businesses. 

“We’ve added a partnership with Stokes Coffee [a Lincoln-based coffee roaster]. 

“We use their café to host an event the night before. We’ve brought them in on a similar model to Rapha, they have a product to sell, from which a proportion goes into the race.” Ellmore says. 

“The more we can work together, the more we can do things like that with local and national businesses, he more this becomes sustainable as we interact with them and there is more engagement with the sponsorships. 

“We’re not just going to a company asking for money, which they may be unable to sustain each year. They get sales and brand awareness as well as supporting the race. 

“The Rapha caps sold out within 24 hours, and the coffee has been selling really well too. More things like that would be great,” he adds. 

The Rapha coffee stall at the 2021 Rapha Lincoln GP, National Road Championships. Photo: Cadence Images

Morgan is evidently enthusiastic about the spectacle of the event itself, and wants Rapha to play a role in making the race special each year. 

It’s like our only monument in the UK and it’s a spectacle you don’t get at any other event

Jess Morgan

“It’s such an iconic and important event. It’s like our only monument in the UK and it’s a spectacle you don’t get at any other event. 

“The cap also comes with a cowbell which really makes the atmosphere great. It’s a really good race for spectators to come to, and we wanted to make the experience a really fun one for all. 

“We want to get more people there on the roadside, as you’ve got 100 riders flying past you up Michaelgate just centimetres away. You feel adrenaline from being so close to the riders going all out up the climb, it’s not like any other race that I’ve been to!”

Along with the cap and cowbell sales, Morgan is keen to change the way in which some sponsors support events. 

“We don’t want to be the only brand out there sponsoring races, and we hope we’ve provided a model where the merchandise can support the race. 

“It’s a direct way for people to show support for an event they love. Some companies just throw money at the event to have their logos on the barriers, and don’t do much on the ground. 

“We’re selling the caps, giving away coffee, we’re at the event every day. Putting that extra time and energy into being there will generate more engagement and reap its own rewards! I want more brands to do the same as us,” she says. 

Photo: Cadence Images

Rapha’s aims for the event is to ensure that they are supporting the grassroots of the sport in the UK, without which there would not be the riders to come through to race at the highest level. 

We want to keep building the profile of Lincoln and make it the best UK non-WorldTour event to watch

Jess Morgan

“I think it’s a great way of showing that we are staying true to our roots as a company, and that we are still supporting the British domestic scene.” Morgan says. 

“Showing it is just as important to support the grassroots as well as the WorldTour. Without that grassroots scene we wouldn’t get the stars coming through to the WorldTour! It’s about inspiring the next generation in a local way. 

“We want to keep building the profile of Lincoln and make it the best UK non-WorldTour event to watch.” 

For Rapha, this includes funding coverage of races, through support to sites like The British Continental

“We want to make sure the coverage of grassroots racing is there, which hopefully will build more interest in the racing itself. That’s half the problem, I think, that it isn’t visible.

“Journalism is just as important to tell the stories of the races and the human stories behind them, so funding The British Continental is something we wanted to do to make sure those stories are told.”

Prior to Rapha’s involvement, and even despite their support, Ellmore knows the struggle to get the race on each year. He has been involved in the race for two decades, organising for six years, and every year they have the same difficulties in finding the funding to put on the event. 

The more sustainable model which Rapha and the GP have developed helps, but there is still often a battle to find sponsors willing to help cover the costs of the event. 

He describes some frustration at the way the race is seen by some, with the assumption that each year the event will find a way to be run. 

Photo: Cadence Images

“Pre-pandemic, there was a complacency that the event would be run every year. 

“Because the race has always run, we have this feeling where we go to companies for sponsorship, and they say they love the event and how good it is for Lincoln, but they don’t want to sponsor it,” he says. 

“But they think that that doesn’t matter because it always runs, and never fails to run. 

“Companies use the race for exposure, which is fine, but we want to work better with them so they can help us, and we can do more for them. Because the race has never failed, they assume it will always come off.”

For Ellmore, this is about engaging with local businesses who profit off the event, to make it mutually beneficial for all, like with their support from Rapha. For instance, he says that last year, for the National Road Championships, the event brought nearly £2.5 million into the city. 

The Nationals also helped to raise the profile of the race, which in turn helped bring in new sponsors. 

“The way the Nationals were received last year was really good. It was a higher profile event than usual, with more TV coverage and media than before. We managed to attract more interest and sponsors, which is great.”

But, he says that this increased sponsorship has been almost written off as costs post-pandemic have continued to soar. 

In 2019 we ran at a cost of £45-48,000 for the two races. This year it will be £70,000. That’s a shock and it’s caused us some big issues with funding the race

Dan Ellmore

“In 2019 we ran at a cost of £45-48,000 for the two races. This year it will be £70,000. That’s a shock and it’s caused us some big issues with funding the race.”

“Costs across the board have gone up. Events companies suddenly had huge demand for events post-pandemic, really crammed together, so their prices for barriers, marquees and the like went up as they returned. 

“Costs for stewards, police, drivers, commissaires and all other staff have all gone up, too.”

Photo: Cadence Images

As a result, despite the help from Rapha, the GP was once again searching for sponsors to meet the budget required to run. Following a tweet that was sent out, a new presenting sponsor has been found, in Pro-Noctis.  

“We have this ongoing thing every year. We know what the race will cost, and if we don’t get the funding, we can’t run the race. Rapha stepped up when we said we couldn’t run in 2020, but again this year we were in a situation where we were 10 to 12 grand short. 

We got more sponsorship than ever before for this year, but the costs increased to a point where we were still short

Dan Ellmore

“We got more sponsorship than ever before for this year, but the costs increased to a point where we were still short and in a situation where if we didn’t make it up, we won’t make a race,” Ellmore says. 

“It’s always been an event which has never been profitable. There’s not a big bank balance behind it that means if we don’t get a sponsor we can just rumble on and continue anyway.”

It is hoped that more partnerships similar to those which the GP has with Rapha and Stokes Coffee will help the race fund itself each year, to reduce some of the fears of funding that Ellmore faces every year. 

2021 Men’s National Road Championships – Rapha Lincoln GP – Lincoln, England – Dan Ellmore on stage. Photo: Will Palmer/SWpix.com

As for race day, Ellmore says that by now, it just runs itself. 

“We always get great officials from British Cycling, and once the policing and road closures are sorted it all just happens on the day. 

“There is more work involved in making the budget than running the race itself!”

As a result, both Ellmore and Morgan both stress the need for this financial model of sustainability, to ensure that each year the costs are met without the need to constantly being on the hunt for sponsors. 

Many more partnerships are needed to continue to cover the costs year on year. But, this model is hoped to be a new way of tackling the same issues that have often troubled the British domestic race scene.

For the Lincoln GP and Rapha, their partnership is set to continue into the near future. 

After a fantastic occasion at the National Road Championships in 2021, the GP returns to its traditional spot in May for 2022, taking place on Sunday 8 May. 

It is certain to be a fantastic event in both the men’s and women’s races, as the National Road Series looks to return to a fuller calendar after a shortened series in 2021. 

Join Rapha in Lincoln for rides and a panel talk hosted by The British Continental, featuring some influential racing figures including Lizzy Banks, Dean Downing, Colin Sturgess and the Rapha Lincoln GP organiser, Dan Ellmore. Find Rapha at the foot of Michaelgate on Sunday for the duration of the men’s and women’s races for coffee, music and cowbells.

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