As the Newark Town Centre Races brought down the curtain on this year’s National Circuit Series, it would be hard to argue that the action in both the men’s and women’s races across July was anything short of thrilling. On the way to Ben Chilton and Corrine Side being crowned series winners, we saw emotional victories, epic solo breaks and brilliant displays of fast and furious, tactical racing.
Done right, criteriums can bring a buzz to a town or city that few other events can
Town centre races are the backbone to elite-level racing in the UK, with fewer road races being organised than ever before amidst an uncertain economic climate and spiralling costs for race organisers. Done right, criteriums can bring a buzz to a town or city that few other events can, and therefore can still be an attractive proposition for councils and sponsors alike. This season, after the closure of some high-profile teams, the product has proven itself to be good enough to continue investing in and, in time, grow.
To this end, here are seven simple but effective measures that British Cycling could introduce to improve the series further and attract further investment in the sport.
1. Better promotion
It would be difficult for British Cycling to do less in promoting their own series – the occasional tweet and brief race report insignificant in the sea of social media posts, news articles and videos all vying for our attention. Its website is outdated and difficult to use; finding any useful information on it is akin to a lottery [Ed: at the time of writing, the headline article on British Cycling’s road racing page is a report on the Otley GP, a race which happened almost two months ago].
July is a great time to attract new fans to the sport with the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes taking place – British Cycling must capitalise on that opportunity. Its Instagram feed has over 120,000 subscribers primed for quirky videos of riders taking a corner at breakneck speed or pulling a wheelie to the line, while they are absent from TikTok, the platform of choice for young people where such content could go viral. 180,000 X (Twitter) users are waiting for simple spectator guides, explainers and links to more content such as race previews.
British Cycling needs to actively promote and sell its product to fans and sponsors, something which they simply aren’t doing well enough at the minute
The series is void of any branding and is in no way recognisable as a top-level domestic competition currently. It may take time, but the series being recognisable and associated with good racing and great atmospheres are key to its success; consistent and quality engagement are the basis of this.
Content such as a weekly podcast would be a great way of adding narrative to the series, interviewing organisers, riders and team managers, allowing fans to get to know the series and its participants better. Live streaming of every race is a must, with 5-10 minute highlights available and video clips posted on social media.
British Cycling needs to actively promote and sell its product to fans and sponsors, something which they simply aren’t doing well enough at the minute. Interest in the series, TV coverage and sponsorship are all correlated and British Cycling needs to set the wheels in motion to achieve these.
2. Event format
The 50-minute format is perfect for town centre races in the 21st century. Short and punchy, it provides racing that is flat out from the gun with any attack being able to survive over the shorter race distance. It’s no secret that technology has made the fight for people’s attention an increasingly tough battle to win, and having a race that is sometimes twenty minutes shorter than the traditional hour and five laps certainly helps keep the public interested in what’s happening before them.
The absence of a countdown clock has also been felt across the rounds. A 50-minute race is simple yet rather abstract without an eye on the time
But could more be done? Primes could be added every ten minutes, offering small cash prizes and points counting towards an inter-crit classification, complete with a jersey, like in the Tour Series. This would give riders with little chance of the overall win something to focus on as well as creating attacking and unpredictable racing. Some of the women’s series has seemed rather formulaic, with the two powerhouse teams of DAS-Handsling and Pro-Noctis – Heidi Kjeldsen – 200 Degrees Coffee often dominating the leading group in the early stages and waiting for the final laps to launch their bids for victory; this classification could unlock a different dynamic in the race and force the moves to come earlier, resulting in a more exciting product.
The absence of a countdown clock has also been felt across the rounds. A 50-minute race is simple yet rather abstract without an eye on the time. It is small things like this which can vastly improve the spectator experience.
3. Race timings and dates
The block of criterium racing throughout July is a domestic cycling staple, although the calendar still remains jumbled, with the Lancaster GP, a savage National Road Series road race, falling right in the middle of the series. Instead of proposing a clear run of just National A circuit races, British Cycling could embrace having a mix of both criteriums and road races by running the National Circuit Series over six weeks, with each event on a Friday night, leaving Sunday for road races.
Having Friday as a set day could create anticipation for the next round, a sense of routine and familiarity for riders and fans, a ‘welcome to the weekend vibe’
Having Friday as a set day could create anticipation for the next round, a sense of routine and familiarity for riders and fans, a ‘welcome to the weekend vibe’. Town centres are busier at weekends and spectators, especially children, are more likely to stay for the duration, making a party atmosphere all the more likely.
The jury is out in regards to whether racing until past 9.30pm is the best thing for the sport. The streets of Sheffield may have been busy with a city centre buzz late into the night, but for smaller towns with less public transport and population, the jury is still out – Newark remained busy with a brilliant atmosphere under floodlights but Guildford saw crowds disappearing as the racing came to a halt at nearly 10pm. If there’s a night the current timings work, it is most definitely a Friday.
4. The scoring system
British Cycling introduced a new scoring system this year with points all the way down to 40th place, in descending order from 50. It was a success – the small gaps in the points kept the series alive until the riders had crossed the line in Newark and points down to 40th gave every rider something to race for.
The fact is that many riders are not full-time cyclists and logistics will sometimes bar them from competing in a round, especially if the series is truly national
However, what can’t be overlooked is the very small number of riders who competed in every round – series winner Ben Chilton was one of them, his great adversary Matt Fox missing in Guildford. The fact is that many riders are not full-time cyclists and logistics will sometimes bar them from competing in a round, especially if the series is truly national.
In a six-round series, four races should count, including a compulsory final round, ideally based in the Midlands. This fairer system ensures riders aren’t pressured to make events they ordinarily couldn’t and should keep a wide range of riders in contention for the final round, which would offer a great spectacle as a season finale.
5. A clear leader’s jersey
Something which British Cycling has got right in other series, such as the Cyclocross National Trophy, is a clear and bright leader’s jersey, instantly recognisable in a large 100+ rider field.
A yellow skinsuit would draw attention to the series leader, not only great for sponsors but also helping to contextualise the race for the public
A yellow skinsuit would draw attention to the series leader, not only great for sponsors but also helping to contextualise the race for the public. The drama of Ben Chilton crashing in Dudley or the titanic battle he was involved in on the streets of Newark would have been much clearer to the untrained eye had he stood out from the crowd.
The most technical point on the list, one of the main controversies this season has been the gridding order, namely the preferential treatment of UCI Continental and Elite Development Teams.
Racing on narrow technical circuits, positioning is key from the gun, as witnessed in Sheffield where the break formed early and stuck the duration, having the advantage of riding in the slipstream of the sole camera bike
Racing on narrow technical circuits, positioning is key from the gun, as witnessed in Sheffield where the break formed early and stuck the duration, having the advantage of riding in the slipstream of the sole camera bike. Ali Slater, a veteran of the JLT Condor team, who was on the start line in Sheffield, pointed out he had no chance of gaining that advantage and joining the break with the current gridding system, being stuck at the back behind the gridded riders.
It is worth noting that Ben Chilton, the series winner, was not part of a team and worked his way to being gridded due to his position in the series, proving a good grid position isn’t always decisive. However, in the interests of good racing, the system needs a revamp – a random grid for the first round, followed by the top twenty overall receiving preferential treatment from then on. This would award good performance and force riders with gridded teammates to work their way up and fight for position, providing another exciting dynamic to proceedings.
7. Finish the season with the National Circuit Race Championships
It may seem strange to improve the National Circuit Series by moving the date of the National Circuit Race Championships, but a move away from the June date would benefit the series by adding context to it as preparation for the biggest criterium in the UK.
This year’s National Circuit Race Championships took place without any prior National A criteriums, leaving many riders unsure of their form
With the unfortunate absence of the Tour Series, this year’s National Circuit Race Championships took place without any prior National A criteriums, leaving many riders unsure of their form and ultimately unable to fully target the coveted jersey. The best in the country could use the series to try and deliver psychological blows to their rivals, develop different tactics and hone their form ready for the championship race. It is another layer of context for the series as a whole and adds to the fascinating and under-reported narrative of the British racing scene.
The finishing touches
The foundations are in place for British Cycling to capitalise on a quality product and help the sport get the investment it desperately needs. The series is currently in the realms of football prior to the Premier League, darts pre-PDC and cricket before T20. It is a case of presentation, minor details and a missing spark. If British Cycling were to implement at least some of these recommendations the presentation would be slicker, racing more exciting and most importantly, the series would give off the air of being bigger and better, hopefully leading to the status it deserves.