Features Interviews

Bonkers for a bike race: interview with Yomp Bonk Crew founder James Hawkins

James McKay interviews Peaks 2 Day organiser and Cycling Sheffield rider James Hawkins

The Yomp Bonk Crew (YBC) could be the name of a punk band or warehouse rave promoter. Their Instagram profile drips with an edgy logo, emojis, hashtags, and invites visitors to slide into the DMs.  If you hadn’t guessed it yet, the YBC are a cycling club, albeit with more of a millennial flair than your traditional British club run.

Set up by some teenagers who wanted to meet up for regular rides, the YBC grew to become an affiliated club during the Covid-19 pandemic. As their club rides grew, however, they became increasingly frustrated with the lack of racing available locally. 

After reading The British Continental’s interview with race organiser Chris Lawrence last year, James Hawkins, one of the YBC’s founding members, decided to take matters into his own hands.

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

Chris Lawrence

Lawrence’s call to arms struck a chord with Hawkins who, along with his friends who make up the Crew, decided to put on the events they wanted to see. 

Eight months later and the YBC has put on a host of races, most recently the hotly contested Peaks 2 Day stage race. They also have a second National B stage race planned for later this year, along with many other events across several disciplines.

James Hawkins might still only be just 19 years old but he has already founded a cycling club, organised dozens of races, and still finds time to race himself for Cycling Sheffield, one of the seven men’s Elite Development Teams this year. 

We sat down with him to hear about the most lit cycling club in Sheffield, the challenges he has faced – and overcome – as a newly-fledged race organiser, and his ambitions for future events.

James Hawkins at the 2022 Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix. Photo: Olivia Coukham

What is your background in cycling? And how did you get into race organisation? 

I’ve been riding and racing bikes for quite a long time. I started with cycle speedway and moved on to the road. When I was 16, eight of us formed a ride group for the boys that raced in Sheffield. It was quite informal, essentially just an Instagram group chat. When Covid happened there was a rule of six for meeting outdoors. British Cycling said that registered clubs could ride as a group of 15. We’d been thinking of registering a club for a while anyway, so we did. After that, it really started to grow. 

We put the racing on simply because we wanted more racing in Sheffield. No one else was going to do it

The YBC was set up because there wasn’t really a club for racing cyclists in Sheffield. We put the racing on simply because we wanted more racing in Sheffield. No one else was going to do it. Organising in general – a get-together or meetup – has always been something I’ve been interested in. And there’s not enough bike racing…

I actually read your interview with Chis Lawrence in which he said if you don’t think there’s enough racing, get off your arse and organise some. I thought, ‘he’s right, why shouldn’t I organise a race?’

We didn’t stop at just organising a crit though, we organised a whole series of sold-out races. We went full gas with it. And now we’ve put on the Peaks 2 Day, our first road race, and a stage race no less. So no half measures.

How would you describe the Yomp Bonk Crew now?

Over the last few months, since the crit series, we’ve split the organisation. We’ve got the Yomp Bonk Crew, the club. We’ve got the fastest guys in Sheffield, but also now more mixed abilities too.  Some rides might be slower than others, but a lot of different people can now attend our rides which is great. We want to be able to hold training sessions and rides where we can get more people interested in racing their bikes and enjoying being out riding.

We don’t just want to bring more racing back to Sheffield, we want Sheffield to have the best racing

Then we have YBC events, which we’ve given a different name so we can separate things. Not everyone in the club is getting stuck in with the events, but everyone is supportive. We want to grow and bring back a really good racing scene to Sheffield. We don’t just want to bring more racing back to Sheffield, we want Sheffield to have the best racing. 

The Peaks 2 Day is a perfect example of that. We didn’t just want to put on a road race, we wanted to put on a two-day, three-stage race in a way that isn’t really being done anywhere else in the UK. We had one of the strongest fields for a domestic race in the early season. So it’s about not just making Sheffield cycling good, it’s about making it the best.

The men’s race at The Peaks 2 Day. Photo: Full Beans Ahead

The demographic of the YBC is really quite young, and it seems like something that’s attracting more local young people into cycling. And on the race organisation front, most organisers tend to be from an older age group. Why do you think that is? And how are you doing things differently?

If I didn’t do it now, I think I’d find myself doing it in however many years anyway. I’ve always had these ideas in the back of my mind. I’d be out riding my bike and think ‘wouldn’t it be cool if there was a hill climb or time trial or road race up here?’ But I don’t just want those to be ideas, I want those to be real things. 

Just because we are a younger demographic doesn’t mean we can’t put on events. What it’s meant is that we can put on better events because we utilise social media to market them. The crit series had 30 riders in the women’s race, which is unheard of for most other midweek crits in the country. We had music blasting, our prizes were in sweets. We brought that childish, playful approach. 

You’ll find with crits, in comparison to some other events, they’re really not that hard to put on. You just have to speak to BC, book the track, book your medics, book chip timing. And that’s it, you’ve got a race

As soon as I turned 18 I started thinking about it. I’m 19 now and I’ve got quite a few events under my belt, with a lot more planned. I’d like to see more younger people doing this, putting on a crit or something. You’ll find with crits, in comparison to some other events, they’re really not that hard to put on. You just have to speak to BC, book the track, book your medics, book chip timing. And that’s it, you’ve got a race. Everyone just has to turn up and be in the right place. 

Just because we’re young and we’re some of the first young people to do this doesn’t make us alien to other race organisers. We’re still just race organisers.

Can you tell us about the races you’ve put on so far?

So the crit series was our first experience of race organising. We ran a four-week series with four races a night. That went so well and we got so much recognition for it. I had Tyler Hannay come up to me in the bunch at the Junior Tour of Wales, who was in the KOM jersey at the time and who ended up going on to win the race, and he asked me about the crit series. In the feed zone, all the parents were talking about it.

We put on another day of racing later that year in September. We put on YBC Day @ Da Races, which was eight races [including two National B crits] that day at Forge [Valley]. We were also supposed to have a roller racing night organised but that was cancelled due to some Covid-related issues. 

I’ve never been to a ‘cross race – or I had never been to one. But one of the young lads in the club asked me if I was planning on organising one and I thought why not?

We did a cross race in January. I’ve never been to a ‘cross race – or I had never been to one. But one of the young lads in the club asked me if I was planning on organising one and I thought why not?

We had a bit of a nightmare sorting the venue [changing courses several times due to Council requests and flooding], but we had a lot of help from Yorkshire Cyclocross to make it happen. It ended up being a really good event. I had people coming up to me saying it was their favourite course that they’d ever ridden. We had Hattie Harden, who is the national cyclocross champion, riding it in a stripey jersey which was awesome. She went on to ride the world champs the next week.

Photo: Tom Hutch

What events are you looking at putting on this year?

We are putting on a similar event to The Peaks 2 Day in September, but it will be three days. That’s called Nick’s Big Race, in memory of Nick Clayton from Sheff Uni [Nicholas died in 2021 aged 23 after suffering with T-Cell lymphoma, a form of blood cancer].

We’ve also got the crit series coming back, but it’s going to be five rounds over six weeks long this year. But there’s going to be some added cool features to it, which I won’t reveal yet. And then we’re hoping to put on a mountain bike race, which is quite a big undertaking. And hopefully another ‘cross race towards the end of the year is something I’d like to do.

It sounds like you’ve put a lot of time into it…

Yeah, I do. I’ve gone part-time at work so I can train more ‘cos I’m still racing my bike a lot. But part of that also is having a bit of time to do events. I’m very lucky with the circumstances I have to be able to do that, so I have taken advantage of it. 

It can be stressful at times, like the week leading up to the Peaks 2 Day. We didn’t have quite enough marshals, and then some of our marshals got Covid. But we got support from people sharing our stuff online and then we were back to having enough. 

It is still just a hobby, and although it can be time-consuming, it’s worth it.

It’s pretty time consuming but I do enjoy it. No one’s asking me to do this and it’s not just me you know, there’s a few of us doing it. We only do it because we enjoy doing it. It is still just a hobby, and although it can be time-consuming, it’s worth it.

Photo: Olivia Coukham

Let’s jump into the 2 Day. What was the inspiration for the race?

Actually, this was originally supposed to be the Tour of Bradfield, which, for the readers’ sake, is an area in Sheffield that the Tour de France went through in 2014. It has some really beautiful, steep hard roads, and there’s already a road race course there. So I thought, right, what we’ll do is use that course and make another course.

Then we started actually designing a new course. Basically, all the roads around Bradfield are too narrow. We had to scrap the idea and think about how we make this event happen… it’ll be The Peaks 2 Day, we thought. I already had in mind the Bolehill course in Peak Dale, which we used. 

I ended up joining forces on it with the organiser of Nick’s Big Race, Eugene Cross. The whole time I was planning the Tour of Bradfield people kept saying to me you need to talk to Eugene, because he’s been planning something like this. So I did. I think I would have been overwhelmed without Eugene. 

So that’s how it came about. It was just an idea that evolved. And again, it was from the point that this is an event that I’d like to see more of in the UK. Right now the UK has not really got anything, stage racing wise. 

In the UK, at the National B level, there are just not a lot of stage races about

I think anyone who’s ridden a stage race, [knows] it’s a very different dynamic to a one-day. In the UK, at the National B level, there are just not a lot of stage races about. From memory, we saw one that happened last year. And I haven’t really been aware of any others before that. I mean, I’m probably too young to race them anyway. But it’s something that I think I’d like to see more of. 

The trickiest thing about the 2 Day was the logistics for the time trial and day one overall. The time trial was something we didn’t have to put in but wanted to as we felt it really added to the event. Adding it made the whole first day a lot longer though, and therefore even harder to find marshals, which is already a proven challenge. We tried as much as we could to minimise that challenge and luckily there’s people that like what we’re doing and wanted to help. In the end we just about got by with a good crew.

And what lessons did you learn about running the actual event itself that weekend?

The number one lesson learnt is not to race an event you’re organising unless it’s a simple one. My race was over before it started with the stress and having to juggle everything going on. Chip timing definitely would’ve been useful on the time trial; we had originally booked it but unfortunately the chip timing people could no longer make it so we had to use timekeepers. Ideally, we would have liked more time between races on the first day however that wasn’t really possible due to the amount of daylight we had.

We learned a fair bit about the event itself such as which HQs work best and parking which will help for next year, and I think my final main takeaway would be to try and work much closer with local villages and councils. The Peak Dale people weren’t really aware the event was happening and they wish they had known so they could’ve been more involved.

How pleased were you with the fields you got?

We knew the men’s race would fill up, but with the women’s race, there was some concern about it. We pushed it a lot online and I spent some time emailing teams. We ended up with around 45 riders in the women’s race, which for the field limit of 60, I’m really pleased with. Hopefully, in future years this race will carry the reputation and prestige of a really big and exciting early season race that everyone wants to be part of. 

But with the men’s race, we had a 60 rider limit on the field, due to the risk assessment of the courses, and we ended up with about 100 people entering. So it was quite a big selection process. And quite a few people would have been disappointed not to ride. But we were pretty lucky with it; there were some really good riders who entered.

Photo: Tom Hutch

On the point you made about entries for the women’s race, I’ve heard that this year, in particular, there’s actually been a shortage of riders applying to men’s races too. I wonder what your thoughts are on that. Is there a problem with race participation?

I’ve been so focused on our own events, that I am actually quite surprised to hear that. We knew that the Peak’s 2 Day men’s race would fill up, because it’s such an exciting event and it’s so unique. We were so oversubscribed with it.

But I don’t really know why that is. Some people have said to me that it might be Covid but then you look at races last year and some races were really quite hard to get into. I don’t know if people are not riding the bike as much because of the weather. It is pretty strange. And I hope that we don’t carry on seeing that. We’re early in March. So hopefully, by May, we’ve got full fields for everything. It is really not great to see people having to cancel races due to lack of entrants. 

And when you organise races, do you always look to put on a women’s race at the same time?

Yeah, where we can. There were some people who had concerns over the entries for this women’s race. That maybe wasn’t unwarranted, that was probably from experience. That was coming from people who are quite familiar with women’s cycling saying: “what are you going to do if you don’t fill the field?”

To put all the infrastructure in place to actually run the race, to put on the women’s race, it’s not even a question of putting it on as well. It’s all one event. And it doesn’t make sense not to

But for us, why would we not? To put all the infrastructure in place to actually run the race, to put on the women’s race, it’s not even a question of putting it on as well. It’s all one event. And it doesn’t make sense not to.

Especially at National B level, basically to put on two races, you’re just getting people to stay there for longer. You might have to book the HQ a bit longer. But theoretically, if you’ve got a full field, you’ve got double the entry fees coming in. So that’s not a financial challenge. It’s just having people there for a longer amount of time. 

There was not really any question on this one, and all events we’ve done so far have been for men and women. I think you definitely see more problems with filling up women’s races than men’s races. The original women’s race in our crit series was an E1234 race. But I spoke to Ride Like a Girl, who are now known as Klatsch. They gave me some advice on it and said they’ve changed it into 3/4 because that’s a lot more appealing. So we made ours a 3/4 and they filled up a lot. 

One thing I’ve discovered is very important is finding the right people to work with. We’ve got some people really high up within the sport on our side now, helping us out. We couldn’t do a lot of this without them. 

I think one of the reasons that we have seen so much success in our entries over the last six months is because of the way we market things. We go on social media, we make daft reels from the crits, and videos, and put a little bit more effort into creating consistent, nice looking posts for people to share

I hope that decreasing entries doesn’t carry on. But I think one of the reasons that we have seen so much success in our entries over the last six months is because of the way we market things. We go on social media, we make daft reels from the crits, and videos, and put a little bit more effort into creating consistent, nice looking posts for people to share. Now we have the technology in the 21st century, bike racing needs to move on with that as well. 

If we do carry on seeing lower entries hopefully that can be a fix for it; getting the word out via mobile, rather than just putting the event on BC and hoping people enter. Actively going out and seeking entries. Because that’s what I found is how you make a good event. Going out and seeking entrants, getting good people to enter, getting full fields and just making it a really exciting race.

Photo: Olivia Coukham

Apart from entrants, what other challenges have you found are involved in putting on a race? And what would you like to see improve to help make the organisation easier?

One thing that could help aspiring race organisers is having more regional events officers. Finding how to start is a big challenge. You have to contact your regional events officer and they will give you the permissions on the British Cycling [website] to organise the event. But finding the venue, the medics, chip timings… British Cycling just need more staff to help race organisers.

Our regional staff [in Yorkshire] do a very good job, but if BC was able to have more staff supporting race organisers we would see more events. The more support that new organisers can get, the more events we would see, because it would be easier to put on an event.

Yorkshire Cyclocross helped with our cross race; they did a lot of work for that race. If every events officer did that amount of work for every race then they’d be drowning in work. But if we were to have more support staff then it would definitely be easier for people who might not have as much time to put towards it as I do. I’d like to be able to help people putting on races, like Yorkshire Cyclocross did with me.

What would be your advice to others putting on a race?

Just get stuck in. Like I said with the crits, it’s not that hard to put them on. It’s not that time-consuming to organise. You don’t even have to have medics at crits, although I’d advise that you do because people quite like to crash at crits! Once you’ve found the track, medics are never too hard to find. If you contact any other race organisers you may know, they’ll give you contact numbers for medics. Just email your regional events officer at British Cycling and they’ll help you with it [all]. 

I think crits are a good place to start, because you learn how to operate with British Cycling and it’s a lot less pressure. It’s a lower commitment and less time consuming

What about a road race in particular? 

I think crits are a good place to start, because you learn how to operate with British Cycling and it’s a lot less pressure. It’s a lower commitment and less time consuming. But if you don’t have a local crit track and want to get stuck in with a road race, my advice would be to think about races that you’ve participated in and what you enjoyed about those. Look at those events and take what you can from them. 

I think why the events we have put on so far have been so successful is because we know what makes a good bike race, as bike racers [ourselves]. If you race bikes, you’ll find you actually know quite a lot about events because you go to them every week.

We need more racing in the UK road racing scene. There’s a lot of people that would find that they really enjoy it, like I have.

Would you ever consider putting on a Nat A?

I am considering it. We have some pretty exciting goals and whether that will happen next year, the year after or three years’ time, I don’t know. With The Peaks 2 Day, I don’t want that to become a National A. I like the freedom of a National B and it’s early season. But there’s definitely scope for us to do that [with other races]. 

Maybe in future years you’ll see me in a grey BC jacket shouting at people at a National A

The way I look at it, a National A is just a shinier National B. It’s definitely more difficult, you have to work a lot closer with British Cycling on it. But we have the right people on our side, and work with a very good group who could help us achieve that. So maybe in future years you’ll see me in a grey BC jacket shouting at people at a National A.