22-year-old Charlie Paige rides for Bourg-en-Bresse Ain Cyclisme, a top elite team in France. Supported by the Rayner Foundation, we’re delighted to welcome Charlie as a new journal contributor to The British Continental, in the midst of his best season yet. In his first post, Charlie looks back on the National Road Championships and considers how the British road racing scene could learn from France.
Thinking back to a typical summer day in Paisley, Glasgow 2015, I remember single-digit temperatures and rain as I lined up for my first Youth National Road Championships. It wouldn’t be for another eight years until I’d participate again in a National Road Championships. So, lining up on the start line in Saltburn-by-the-Sea this year felt particularly bizarre, only my second British event in over four seasons since moving to France in 2020.
There is a paradox in the British cycling scene. This is arguably the golden age of professional cyclists from the UK, with many more talents coming through the ranks. Yet it is saddening to see that racing within the UK seems to be at its lowest point
We hear the broken record again and again about the problems the British scene has, from the very elite right down to grassroots-level cycling. From what I can gather, these problems have dramatically increased over recent years, although, being based in France, I have not been a firsthand witness to this decline.
I am, however, aware of the blood, sweat, and tears put into organising events by clubs, volunteers, commissaries and everybody else involved. Without these good Samaritans, the British scene would be barren and I am forever grateful to everyone who helps our cycling community.
It would be unfair and offensive to heavily critique the British scene as an outsider without listing the positives we see in every race. It would be easy to compare it to the more thriving scenes that we see on the continent and say “Why not just do it like this?!”, proceeding to list simple solutions to complicated problems.
However, after being absent from a National Road Championships for eight years and racing on the continent since 2020 – my sole British race over the past four seasons being Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic in 2022 – arriving at the Nationals as an ‘outsider’ revealed the differences we see in France in comparison to the UK.
The hot summer’s day at Saltburn-by-the Sea attracted great crowds for the championships, which was great to see. Fans lined the infamous switchbacks that led up to the finish on the cliff tops of the seaside town, giving the race a great atmosphere on the toughest moment of the parcours. From what I could make out, the majority of these crowds were family and friends of riders in the race and local cycling fans; a small percentage were the general public who were enjoying a day at the seaside. When speaking to locals many knew nothing about the race. On the eve of the event when visiting a physio, for example, it was surprising to hear that they hadn’t heard about the race, nor had any of the local restaurant staff. This lack of knowledge was not only disappointing as a rider but must also have been a blow for the hardworking organisers.
This is in sharp contrast to my experiences of racing in France where there is a varying demographic drawn to a local bike race, creating a bustling party atmosphere similar to that of the Otley and Ilkley GPs but one that you get at almost every race. Chatting to a rider after the nationals, he recalled how at one race in Brittany crowds were over three people deep and this was for only a regional race! With races often being part of a weekend-long ‘fête’ in which there are various activities and goings-on, the community is brought together. Races, therefore, don’t just serve us cyclists but give back to the community and provide entertainment.
A separation of the amateurs and professionals as we see in France would be ideal for the UK, not only levelling the playing field but also allowing amateurs to race who may not gain entry otherwise
The brutality of the nationals road race resulted in 20 finishers, a marker that highlights the necessity of having separate races. This is not meant as a negative point but more of a celebration of how strong cyclists from the UK are. Previously it wouldn’t have been possible to have separate races, but the UK currently has 108 professional riders with a large proportion being WorldTour. A separation of the amateurs and professionals as we see in France would be ideal for the UK, not only levelling the playing field but also allowing amateurs to race who may not gain entry otherwise.
As the UK gets stronger so do our under-23s. It is therefore a necessity that we allow for their progression in home races and on the continent, seen already by the recent addition of the Men’s Under-23 National Road Series. France alongside others place a separate weekend for the Under-23 National Road Championships both for males and females. The importance of this is heavily overlooked by British Cycling, as the primary purpose of the under-23 category is to allow the progression of young riders. With many under-23s still physiologically developing it would seem irrational to place everyone in the same race.
It is very easy for articles such as this to focus purely on the viewpoint of us riders and turn a blind eye to those who keep the sport alive. This hard work can often go underappreciated and forgotten. As the work gets harder and the thanks get fewer, so do these good Samaritans. ‘Fighting a losing battle’ sums up the situation for many; if there is a decline in organisers, who can blame them?
As in the UK, France relies heavily on volunteers to keep the events running, however, their treatment is very different. In France, races are viewed as a communal event; large sit-down meals, music, race merchandise and, of course, a few glasses of vin are all great draws for the volunteers. However, none of this was in evidence at the nationals and I believe that the little things go a long way, reducing the stress and making it more enjoyable for everyone.
Everything costs money. This is why having sponsors of a race is essential. The nationals at Saltburn-by-the-Sea seemed bare of sponsors, unlike France where each race has an uncountable number of sponsors supporting every race. That said, the nationals was still a fantastic week of racing. The number of sponsors supporting French races not only increases the budget but by having many small sponsors the cost is spread out rather than one business forking out thousands. Entry fees can be reduced; the UK nationals cost each rider £39 whilst in France entry is free.
A bigger budget ensures volunteers are looked after and enables a communal event to be organised which attracts a different demographic and gives back to the community. Race security and safety are improved heavily allowing for fully closed roads and a fairer time limit (8% of winners time), unlike the harsh time cut of 10 minutes in the UK. These are just some examples of how an increased budget can transform a race.
But it then comes to the question of how and why. I don’t have all the answers. As I said earlier, there are often no simple solutions to complex problems. But there must be a reason why the French draw more sponsors and how they go about doing it. I don’t believe it’s purely a case of cycling’s popularity in France.
There is a paradox in the British cycling scene. This is arguably the golden age of professional cyclists from the UK, with many more talents coming through the ranks. Yet it is saddening to see that racing within the UK seems to be at its lowest point. The problem roots beyond cycling itself; the funding cuts, red tape, inflation and political turmoil we’ve seen over recent years have affected many areas, one of the victims being cycling. However, we should take pride in how strong a cycling nation we have become.
French clubs are the foundation of racing, connecting the youth to elite and elite to veterans. By forming a foundation, it means that an elite team can be built within the club rather than a team being formed purely through sponsors
If France has taught me one thing, it’s that the starting point is undeniably the clubs; simple yet something the UK has forgotten. French clubs are the foundation of racing, connecting the youth to elite and elite to veterans. By forming a foundation, it means that an elite team can be built within the club rather than a team being formed purely through sponsors.
This allows for stability meaning that as sponsors change the club will always remain. With stability comes better relationships. These clubs then rely on each other to put on events and share the responsibilities, meaning the calendar is never empty and creates an annual routine. This creates sustainability, with clubs continuing to develop young talent and making cycling more accessible for the local community, linking cyclists and racers. This then becomes a virtuous cycle through the structure of the clubs, something that I hope to see return one day in the UK, something that, in my opinion, is the possible catalyst for change.
Featured image: Zac Williams/SWpix.com. 2023 British National Road Championships – Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, England – Men’s Road Race – Riders ascend Saltburn Bank.
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