“We’re getting to the point where we need more people to give back. Otherwise, we’ll see more races getting cancelled.” The message from Yomp Bonk Crew’s James Hawkins could not be clearer. Speaking to The British Continental after the cancellation of Nick’s Big Race, a two day National B stage race set to take place in Yorkshire at the start of September, the Cycling Sheffield rider focused his attention on the declining number of volunteers when setting out some of the major issues facing race organisers in 2023.
If you see a call for volunteers and you’ve got the free time, just go for it and help because this sport relies on volunteers. Instead of going to Twitter and whining about it, get involved and try to make it better
“The major issue with Nick’s Big Race was the lack of available accredited marshals. There just isn’t enough trained up,” explains Hawkins, who, despite only being 20, has organised some of the most innovative and treasured National B races in the country with the Yomp Bonk Crew (YBC).
Hawkins begins by running through the process of running a race, explaining that accredited marshals, who are trained and have power to stop traffic, are provided by British Cycling as well as motorcycle marshals and commissaires, with other volunteers the responsibility of the organiser.
“It starts with the idea and then it kicks off a bit of a process. You have to talk to British Cycling to ensure it can sit in the calendar and that they think they can supply their volunteers, then it’s a case of finding our volunteers, booking a HQ and medic, putting everything together piece by piece.”
Hawkins says that British Cycling completes a risk assessment on every course, determining the amount of marshals needed. “Every risk assessment is different. You have to have a minimum number of red flag marshals, which can be anybody, accredited marshals, who can stop traffic, and most have a minimum number of NEG motorcycles, too.”
Without accredited marshals, it just isn’t safe. Cars can just drive onto the course at a junction and collide with the peloton
While ‘red flag marshals’ are able to warn riders of hazards, the Accredited Marshal Scheme was introduced in 2013 by British Cycling to allow trained volunteers to legally stop traffic and allow safe passage of a race. “Without accredited marshals, it just isn’t safe. Cars can just drive onto the course at a junction and collide with the peloton,” Hawkins says bluntly, inviting everybody to remember exactly what is at stake when racing on open roads.
“It’s an hour online module then half a day course in a car park somewhere, and in return you get Bronze BC membership along with some other perks,” Hawkins explains when asked about the level of training required to become accredited. Once accredited, you are expected to volunteer at five events a year, although in Hawkins’ experience, it can still leave organisers struggling for numbers.
“More than once this year, we’ve struggled. At Trofeo Terrington, we didn’t have a race until 3 minutes before the race briefing because there wasnt enough accredited marshals. We ended up finding someone in the car park who was accredited. It’s a major worry for us next year wanting to put on the events we’ve got planned.”
Sport developers from every region allocate accredited marshals to races, although they find themselves working through a short list, literally. “If you’re using a very marshal intense course they will provide you with as many [accredited marshals] as they can, and ask you to get some trained up yourself, but sometimes you just get unlucky with circumstances and you have to find them yourself at short notice,” says Hawkins, adding, “Some of our guys have been trained up, so on the event of an emergency, the race can go ahead, which we’ve had to use several times this year. I’m getting trained up on the next course because it’s worth doing!”
Hawkins is due to take the only course in the country on offer this month, in Harrogate. The lack of courses is symptomatic of the absence of interest in gaining accreditation.
You often find yourself in the last few days before an event messaging everyone trying to find marshals
The problems with finding volunteers doesn’t end there, with Hawkins describing a recurring battle to find the numbers of ‘regular’ marshals to make the race run. “You often find yourself in the last few days before an event messaging everyone trying to find marshals. Through our social media presence and people we know, we normally scrape together enough people.”
There are numerous jobs to be filled on race day, from drivers and judges to overseeing the sign on. “If you run a race on the absolute minimum skeleton crew, it’s never ideal. If something comes up or things change, it’s good to have some extra. It makes life so much easier.”
YBC offers various incentives for volunteers, including paying expenses and reduced entry fees if a rider can provide a volunteer or volunteers at a different race at the same event. “It’s a tricky one,” Hawkins mulls, noting that the volunteer expenses bill for the Peaks 2-Day reached almost £2,500. “It requires so many people that you can’t give endless incentives. We can’t pay marshals, and British Cycling hasn’t got the resources to.”
It’s not necessarily a problem that everyone races for small teams. It’s a problem that very few want to put races on; they just want to go to them
After speaking to various people within the sport, Hawkins believes the changing culture within the sport over the past decade has contributed to the volunteering issues. “You look back at five to ten years ago, before it was all about teams, it was clubs who had people racing, so they had the incentive to help organise and volunteer at a race. Because there’s so little club racing culture now and it’s all team based, there needs to be one or two weekends a year riders can pitch in. It’s not necessarily a problem that everyone races for small teams. It’s a problem that very few want to put races on; they just want to go to them. There’s quite a big culture, almost of ‘I’m a pro now because I race for a team, and I don’t need to help out at races.
“It’s a tricky job to sell. You’re stuck on the corner of the road all day, particularly for longer stage races. You have to love the sport,” he concedes, noting that each region relies on a small but dedicated number of volunteers. “You find it’s the same people all the time, and it gets to August, and none of them want to do it anymore. It would be nice to see more people doing it, just giving something back to the sport.”
Hawkins admits one of the mistakes YBC made when organising Nick’s Big Race was a clash with the Tour of Britain, leading to a potential shortage of both NEG motorcycles and accredited marshals. “We shouldn’t have clashed with the Tour of Britain, that was an oversight from us. But once upon a time, there were enough marshals to run races in two regions on one day.” The fact the Tour of Britain did not visit Yorkshire on the weekend of Nick’s Big Race, however, demonstrates the lack of available marshals nationwide all too clearly.
The lack of volunteers can also affect the quality of the race when it goes ahead. “We wanted to run Trofeo Terrington on a bigger course with more marshals, but we barely had enough for the shorter course,” says Hawkins, who as part of the YBC has promoted some of the most inventive National B races, such as the Upton 200, the longest in the UK, and the popular Peaks 2-Day stage race.
We’re thinking of spreading out into different regions and spacing out our calendar a bit. Hopefully, that will help
“We’re thinking of spreading out into different regions and spacing out our calendar a bit. Hopefully, that will help,” Hawkins admits, looking at alternatives after relying on the same volunteers over and over again. “In life, there’s people who volunteer and people who don’t,” he says with a hint of resigned disappointment. “It can be a commitment at times, but five times a year means it’s not every single week.”
“There’s a misconception that British Cycling organises bike races.” The online entry system, liveried uniforms of the marshals and commisaires and a points system give the impression, in the eyes of many, of a large corporation organising races from beginning to end,” believes Hawkins.
“Outside the National Championships, that has never been the case,” he continues, pointing out that even National A races are put on primarily put on by volunteer organisers with British Cycling support. “Ultimately, the system British Cycling has had for many years has worked. As an organiser, there’s work to do, but you haven’t got to sort out insurance, traffic management, or police permits. It’s actually quite a good level of support that British Cycling provides.”
Hawkins, now a British Cycling Yorkshire board member, is clear that no matter the amount of support British Cycling offer, they can’t provide the most essential piece of the jigsaw – volunteers. “If those people go away, there’s not much any governing body can do,” He points out bluntly. “No one is getting paid on a National B race.”
Declining participation numbers are another issue facing road racing, something which was a major factor in the cancellation of Nick’s Big Race; a trend being felt across almost all sports in the current post-Covid-19 economic climate. “That was the other concern for Nick’s Big Race. We were struggling for volunteers, but we can’t afford to keep losing money on events. I don’t think entries would have been high enough to make it happen.”
YBC saw its current account take a hit after promoting Trofeo Terrington, with the women’s National B race getting only 18 entries and the men’s race not filling. “To have only 18 entries for a women’s National B, there was no way we could have made that race break even. We lost a lot of money on those races, which wasn’t the end of the world because we had some money in the account.
I still believe in making it as cheap as possible; when I see one day National Bs at £40 it scares me. If that’s the example being set, we won’t see entries go up
“We’re not doing this for the money, we don’t make anything personally,” Hawkins stresses, saying that the YBC philosophy is to make the entrance fees as small as possible with the view to always break even. “With Trofeo Terrington, we based the price on the support men’s race filling and a healthy turnout for the women’s races. The 3/4 men’s race was half full, the women’s 3/4 got nine entries. It was an entry fee designed to break even, but it ended up losing a lot of money. I still believe in making it as cheap as possible; when I see one day National Bs at £40 it scares me. If that’s the example being set, we won’t see entries go up.”
Hawkins says that he understands that the economic climate may be a major factor in deciding whether to enter races where a favourable result is not guaranteed, although riders need to also realise the cost of a race isn’t going to change. “People are very quick to compare it to France or Belgium where you pay 8€ and come 15th with 30€ of prize money, but this is not the same. It is a national sport there. Small national races have the same infrastructure as the Tour of Britain. Everyone loves bike racing. I don’t think you can begin to compare UK cycling with it.”
People are very quick to compare it to France or Belgium where you pay 8€ and come 15th with 30€ of prize money, but this is not the same … I don’t think you can begin to compare UK cycling with it
Hawkins’ enthusiasm for the sport cannot be questioned. “I like to think I’m in it for the long haul,” he states when speaking about his commitment to organising races. “What people have told me is that we’ve been here before, with declining participation, fewer races, and a struggle for volunteers. With some changes that things like the Road Task Force could bring in, in a bit of time, we’ll come out of it, I’m sure.”
For the immediate, however, Hawkins’ issues surrounding organising races are all too present. “I’d definitely say if you see a call for volunteers and you’ve got the free time, just go for it and help because this sport relies on volunteers. Instead of going to Twitter and whining about it, get involved and try to make it better.”
Find out more about the Accredited Marshal Scheme and how to volunteer here.