Cyclist on an outdoor trainer wearing a Crimson Performance jersey looking over fields with a cloudy sky in the background

Life under lockdown: Responding to Covid19’s ‘new normal’

The Covid19 pandemic has had the most significant impact of any event since WWII.

Thousands of people have died, economies have been shaken, and outdoor sporting events have been cancelled across the globe as governments enforce a state of 'lockdown' to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

This last consequence is the least consequential. Sport, once described as "a glorious irrelevance", pales when set against the loss of human life. And yet for the millions of people who compete and spectate, and for the businesses whose sponsorship keep the wheels turning - literally, in the case of bike racing - the cancellation of thousands of events must seem far from irrelevant.

“Seeking new ways to succeed is Brother UK's go-to position in times of adversity. I would encourage everyone in British cycle sport to adopt the same approach.” Phil Jones MBE, Managing Director, Brother UK

Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK, is the architect of the company's comprehensive sponsorship of UK cycle sport. A passionate supporter with a keen understanding of ROI, his focus has broadened over the nine years since Brother UK became a partner to elite domestic road racing.

As might be expected from one leading a major business, he has always encouraged the sport to adopt a longer-term view and to place greater emphasis on sustainability. The pandemic and enforced break from racing offers a prime opportunity for the shift in focus required, he believes.

"Seeking new ways to succeed is Brother UK's go-to position in times of adversity. I would encourage everyone in British cycle sport to adopt the same approach. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the domestic road scene was in a difficult place, faced with the loss of teams, races and television coverage," he says.

"Now is not the time for a sport fighting for survival to bury its head in the sand and wait for next year. An enforced break from racing is a chance to show new sponsors the many ways elite cycling can generate value beyond turning rubber on tarmac."

The response to lockdown of Brother UK's four sponsored teams and their riders is a microcosm of society's embrace of a 'new normal'. Elite cycling's travelling show of gleaming team vehicles and sophisticated bicycles is people-powered. While the domestic sport's army of volunteers is indispensable, it is the riders and managers who are most affected by lockdown. In this article, we discover their adjustments, innovations and coping strategies.

Side view of a black Crimson Performance race team support vehicle with pink sponsor livery

Good Samaritan

Not every cycling team would use its support car to deliver provisions for vulnerable people isolated by social distancing measures, but Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance isn’t every cycling team. Matt Hallam, its owner and manager, has consistently demonstrated an understanding of the value of presentation and sponsor engagement impressive for a team starting only its third season.

Hallam’s motivation for using the Crimson Performance team vehicle for vital deliveries in his home town of Leyland, Lancashire demonstrates a practical strain. Racing is suspended. The car is idle. What essential purpose might it serve? He registered with @GoodSamApp, which sends him alerts for deliveries of essential provisions in his neighbourhood. It’s a broader reflection of his readiness to meet the challenges of lockdown with a positive mindset.

“It can be difficult to watch everything that you’ve worked so hard to achieve begin to crumble around you, but a positive outlook is the only outlook if you wish to survive.” Matt Hallam, Manager, Crimson Performance

“It can be hard to regroup, but acting swiftly and decisively, revising race programmes, training regimes and content plans is the only rational response. The lockdown has affected my bike fitting business as well as the team. It can be difficult to watch everything that you’ve worked so hard to achieve begin to crumble around you, but a positive outlook is the only outlook if you wish to survive,” Hallam says.

Crimson Performance has come out fighting. Films and images captured shortly before lockdown have already been deployed on its social media channels and shared with sponsors.

In addition, Hallam contacted each of his sponsors individually, including Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK. Jones urged the team to embrace indoor racing via the Zwift virtual cycling platform. Crimson Performance has made an immediate impact on British Cycling’s Virtual Race Series by registering podium finishes ahead of vast fields in elite races for men and women.

Hallam has not forgotten his smaller sponsors either. He intends that each will feature in a ‘Sponsor Spotlight’ series of articles to be distributed by the team’s newsletter. His message is clear: you have backed us in unprecedented times. We will now do all we can to justify your decision.

“Losing our sponsors would have had serious consequences,” he says. “Their loyalty inspires me to serve them with all the means at our disposal until the racing calendar resumes.”

Cyclist Melissa Greaves standing and leaning over the handlebars while riding along a country road with trees and greenery in the background

Learning to play the game

Melissa Greaves has adapted rapidly to the ‘new normal’ imposed by Covid19. Until lockdown, Zwift had only been a training tool. A recent podium finish in British Cycling’s hotly-contested Virtual Race Series - her first-ever race on the platform - might have changed her view.

A rider for Crimson Performance, Greaves’ season had been built to accommodate the Tour of the Reservoir and the Ryedale Grand Prix: debilitating races far removed from the short, sharp shock of virtual racing.

“If not for the lockdown, I wouldn’t have considered Zwift racing. I come into my own at the end of a very long race and had thought an event lasting only 20 minutes wouldn’t suit me.” Melissa Greaves, Crimson Performance

“I’d spent a lot of the winter on Zwift because of my job and the weather. I work from nine to five, and it’s dark when I come home. Zwift is a safe place to get the miles in. If not for the lockdown, I wouldn’t have considered racing on it. It’s probably the race distance that had put me off. I come into my own at the end of a very long race, say after three hours, so I’d thought that an event lasting only 20 minutes wouldn’t suit me.”

Greaves has learned to play the game. She starts with a vigorous warm-up that increases her heart rate to near-threshold before the race begins. She has also recognised the platform’s in-built latency and the need to attack or to counter before events unfold in-game. She now monitors her rivals’ watts per kilo readings at the side of the screen, as well as their avatars.

She has raced since the age of 12, returning to the sport in 2012 after a two-year hiatus. Walter Greaves, her grandfather, held the annual distance world record. Matthew Greaves, her brother, was supported by the Dave Rayner Fund. A chance encounter with a schoolgirl race around a police station car park in Cleveland, more than 15 years ago, opened her eyes to the possibility of women’s racing. She followed Matthew to their local club, The Bronte Wheelers.

By day, Greaves works in Leeds University’s estate management department. She is working from home during lockdown, coordinating activities that include placing university property at the disposal of local NHS teams. A Skipton native, she had hoped to watch the Tour de Yorkshire roll out from her home town. The region’s biggest race, like her own season, is now suspended until further notice.

Simon Howes sat on the bonnet of a OnForm support vehicle in a car park with other vehicles in the background

Mr Motivator

Simon Howes is managing the impact of Covid19 and lockdown on the race programmes of two teams: Brother UK-Team OnForm and CAMS-Tifosi. The latter is the women's pro team which last year swept all before it as Brother UK-Tifosi p/b OnForm.

Experience and an unflinchingly positive outlook are significant weapons for Howes, who has spent a lifetime in the sport and who experienced success as a rider before entering management. Unsurprisingly, athlete welfare is his first concern.

“Our first priority is rider wellbeing. We support their pursuit of peak physical performance. It seems natural that we would offer the same support for their mental health.” Simon Howes, Manager, Team Brother UK-OnForm

The CAMS-Tifosi team have been able to call upon advice from chartered psychologist Peter Hudson since the start of the year. In response to the impact of self-isolation on mental health, Howes intends to extend this service to the riders of Brother UK-Team OnForm.

"Peter is a cyclist and knows the challenges our riders face. Moreover, he's a very experienced psychologist and so perfectly equipped to support our riders in such unprecedented circumstances. Our priority is rider wellbeing. We support their pursuit of peak physical performance. It seems natural that we would offer the same support for their mental health."

The absence of racing for such a goal-driven group as an elite cycling team is no small matter. Motivation is required to complete so demanding a schedule of physical preparation. Remove the competitive aspect from a programme of training and racing, and riders can soon start to question their purpose in riding.

Howes, a natural optimist, is a one-man motivational force. Now is the time for riders to work on their weaknesses, he believes, on the bike and off. From raising power thresholds to increasing output on social media, time is suddenly on the side of normally time-pressed athletes forced by the unrelenting pressures of a race programme simply to keep on keeping on.

He identifies one further upside: a chance for domestic cycle sport's small army of volunteers to spend time with the loved ones they live with and to phone, message or email those further afield. This enforced break from racing is an opportunity for the sport, indirectly, to give back to those to whom it owes so much.

Chartered psychologist Peter Hudson advising the CAMS-Tifosi team who are straddling their bikes in front of a support vehicle

A psychological perspective

Lockdown is hard for anyone. For athletes - competitive, goal-centred, and with lifestyles driven by the routine of training and competitive goals - it is arguably harder still. The importance of their ‘work’ pales beside key workers, but this does not make the scenario easier to bear.

The riders of Brother UK-Team OnForm, however, can at least call upon the advice of an expert. Peter Hudson is a chartered psychologist with 25 years of clinical experience. When the government’s edict to #stayhomesavelives became a legal requirement, Simon Howes, manager of the CAMS-Tifosi women’s professional team, asked Hudson to broaden his remit to include the development team.

Rather than having to think of days in lockdown as hours to fill, planned activities at scheduled times can provide an anchor.” Paul Hudson, Psychologist, Cyclotherapy

“Athletes, and cyclists in particular, are at a great advantage compared to rest of the population as they normally have structure to their day and week, which fortunately hasn’t altered too greatly as a result of lockdown. Most can continue to train, and their coaching days are periodised: they’re completing a specific session on a particular day. Structure comes from training, sleep and nutrition,” Hudson says.

“For a lot of them, the biggest impact of lockdown is disruption to their routine. Many are either studying or working part-time as well as cycling, so not having that activity in a daily routine can be difficult. I’ve suggested structuring days into a new routine: completing different tasks on different days to mimic the ebb and flow of a normal week. Rather than having to think of days in lockdown as hours to fill, planned activities at scheduled times can provide an anchor.”

Zwift racing serves a purpose greater than retaining physical condition, Hudson believes. It is a tool for social interaction, as well as working out. Further, its competitive aspect allows riders to practice strategies for mental preparation in a familiar environment and so for the process to become more familiar.

“I’ve encouraged Simon’s riders to approach Zwift races as they would a real race: to continue with mental and physical preparation and to retain the practice of getting ready to race, completing the event and reviewing the event. That process becomes familiar and normal, rather than going three of four months without competition and being forced to start again. It's about exercising competitive muscles as frequently as possible,” he says.

Cherie Pridham talking on a CB radio viewed from the back seat of a cycling team support vehicle

Social coordinator

Team meetings held on Zoom represent just one aspect of the ‘new normal’ embraced by Cherie Pridham’s Vitus Pro Cycling Team, p/b Brother UK.

Pridham is no stranger to pioneering efforts - she competed in what would now be called the Women’s WorldTour, 20 years before such a thing came into being - but these are unprecedented times. Characteristically, she is keen to accentuate the positives. She has found time to re-engage with her health and wellbeing and enjoys ever-closer working relationships with her riders.

“We’ve been doing team meetings on Zoom and Skype and collecting footage. I’ve had more contact and banter with the lads than in a normal season.” Cherie Pridham, Manager, Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK

“I can’t tell you have much I miss the racing scene and the environment, but I can genuinely say that the team’s response to lockdown has brought us all closer together. We’re in regular communication with the riders, and they’ve even been checking in on me, asking if I’m ok, which is lovely,” she says.

“We’ve been doing team meetings on Zoom and Skype and collecting footage. I’ve had more contact and banter with the lads than in a normal season. Each of them has a unique perspective. Some are more comfortable with social media than others, but it allows their characters to come out.”

Social media has not been the team’s only digital response. Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK have recorded impressive victories online, beating professional road racers in international leagues hosted on the Zwift platform. Big wins for Chris McGlinchey and Mikey Mottram offer a clue to how their road campaign might have begun.

Pridham’s team is one of the few who’ve managed to clock up any racing miles this season, competing overseas in Le Samyn and the GP de Lillers. While the enforced cancellation of the Tour de Normandie registered an unavoidable financial impact, the team has suffered no further loss from races planned for later this year. Re-investing budget from this season into next is a conversation for later, she maintains.

Pridham is now the UK road scene’s most experienced DS. She is also a member of British Cycling’s road commission. Now is the time for those at the top of the domestic sport to lead change, she believes, citing long delays to the publication of the 2020 National Road Series calendar as a keen example of areas to improve.

Cyclist Tom Mazzone taking a selfie at the side of an empty road

Maxonian Manx

Tom Mazzone believes he boarded one of the last ferries to leave the Isle of Man before lockdown. Established now in Macclesfield, in accommodation he'd secured before the season, the Manxman is training on local lanes and in the Peak District, as well as racing on Zwift.

The older of the Mazzone brothers (Leon recently scored a victory for Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance in British Cycling's Virtual Race League), Tom is one of the few to have raced outdoors this season. Solid performances at the Belgian semi-Classic Le Samyn, and the GP de Lillers in northern France, had augured well.

“I rode the team’s first two European races, Le Samyn and GP de Lillers, and was just starting to find my legs. A week later, the Tour de Normandie was cancelled.” Tom Mazzone, Vitus Pro Cycling Team, p/b Brother UK

"A lot of my targets were early-season, which became quite frustrating when race cancellations began. The Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic was quite specific as a UCI race in the UK, and I love that race anyway. My overriding goal for this year had been to perform well at UCI level. I rode the team's first two European races, Le Samyn and GP de Lillers, and was just starting to find my legs. A week later, the Tour de Normandie was cancelled," he recalls.

"At first, it was disappointing to have enjoyed those races and then to have further races taken away when I was starting to relax in the rhythm of the bunch. At the same time, I've taken heart from those performances. They proved that I'd come out of the winter at a good level. If anything, they confirmed that the training I'd done had been correct."

He praises the supportive atmosphere within Vitus Pro Cycling Team, p/b Brother UK, who had established good relations at a pre-season ride out in Derby. The banter of that first ride has continued into group sessions on Zwift that sometimes include the entire set-up: riders, managers and support staff. CALM, the team's charity partner, are also keen.

Mazzone uses digital communications to connect with family back on the Rock. Manx people come together in a crisis, he says, and draw upon a natural concern for one another felt by members of an island race. Now supplies from the mainland are reduced, support for ferry providers like the IOM Steam Packet Company and for small businesses and food producers gains emphasis.

Side view of team manager Ian Watson holding the front of his flat cap

Checking behind the mask

It is the second week in April when we call team manager Ian Watson. The Brother UK-Team LDN elite women’s team should be days from travelling to Holland for the Healthy Ageing Tour, a prestigious race in The Netherlands and a fixture of the UCI Women’s WorldTour calendar.

The Covid19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown of the United Kingdom and The Netherlands has forced him to shelve his plans. He does not underestimate the effect on team morale and has contacted riders individually to try and boost their spirits.

“A lot of riders struggle more than they let on. Our riders are very active on social media, but sometimes that doesn’t tell the full story. It can be a mask.” Ian Watson, Team Manager, Brother UK-Team LDN

“We’ve checked in with each rider to talk about how they’re feeling and to discuss future races. Even though nothing might happen this season, I have to keep the riders focussed on July to stay fit and motivated. We have to adopt a ‘business as usual’ mindset and to regard the season only as delayed, rather than cancelled,” he says.

“I’m a coach as well as a team manager and coach lots of individual riders. A lot of riders struggle more than they let on. I need to reach out individually to find out how they’re feeling. Our riders are very active on social media, but sometimes that doesn’t tell the full story. It can be a mask. WhatsApp chat groups tend to be driven by about four or five people. Keeping in touch on a one-to-one basis is so important.”

Watson considers himself fortunate that race cancellations haven’t yet made an impact on his budget. The Healthy Ageing Tour was cancelled before he booked the ferry crossing, for example. He is mindful however of commitments made already to races at the end of the season and is keeping an especially close eye on team finances in such an uncertain period.

He recognises the opportunity to make long-term changes to the team’s activities, such as including a programme of indoor racing on the Zwift platform at the beginning of every season. He is grateful for the support of sponsors like Brother UK and eager to repay their loyalty.

There is a wider opportunity for change too, however. Watson highlights British Cycling’s long-delayed announcement of this year’s National Road Series calendar and poor communication between regions. Calendar clashes affect the women’s sport particularly, he maintains, resulting in low turnouts and small fields.

Cyclist Tim Allen standing in front of his bike at the side of a country road with green fields in the background

Isolate and refocus

Tim Allen has been doubly affected by the Covid19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. As a rider for Brother UK-Team LDN, coronavirus has decimated his race programme. As a sponsor, it has compelled him to consider new revenue streams for his Soigneur London business. The first consideration is a setback. The latter is an opportunity.

Allen has been “in love with bikes” since the age of 11 and a racer since his early teens. A graduate in sports science from Nottingham Trent University, his keen understanding of biomechanics underpins his bike-fitting service at Soigneur London. Conversely, his refusal to ‘digitise’ the service with online bike fits, even temporarily, has broadened his horizons.

“I set-up Soigneur London to be service-oriented. I’ll hopefully get into product development, my long-term goal. Lockdown is giving me an opportunity to think about that more deeply.” Tim Allen, Rider, Brother UK-Team LDN

“I set-up Soigneur London to be service-oriented. It started as bike-fitting and advising on bikes. Now I do a lot of new bike builds. I’ve got other projects on the go, working very closely with Stayer Cycles, for example, to help design a series of frame geometries and hopefully get into product development. That’s my long-term goal. Lockdown is giving me a bit of an opportunity to think about that more deeply.”

After many years away from racing, he reconnected with the sport two years ago via Ian Watson, founder of Brother UK-Team LDN. He shared ‘Watto’s’ vision for a team that would train and race together and which would seek sponsors with a genuine connection to the project. Watson persuaded Allen to return to racing and is now his coach.

The Lincoln GP, Allen’s home event, was his main goal this season. Its enforced cancellation has detonated this ambition. His focus rests on a 200km gravel race in Iceland at the end of July. He has consciously avoided news of the Icelandic government’s response to Covid19 to retain his motivation for long rides in the lanes of Essex and Buckinghamshire.

“It would crack me to learn that the race in Iceland wasn’t going ahead. If you’re goal-driven, it will be tough to transition to riding for fun. Some riders train to race and some race as a means of staying in form. I’ve spent a long time racing bikes and always train to race, so it’s quite a difficult mental switch.”

Phil Jones MBE wearing a helmet and Brother cycling team jersey as he rides towards the camera with grey sky in the background

Setting a new agenda

The many and varied responses to lockdown made by Brother UK’s sponsored cycling teams and riders are illustrative of society’s grasp of the biggest crisis since WWII. Each has been affected. Some have consolidated, hoping to emerge with finances and morale intact. Others have taken a proactive stance, seeking to drive change amid enforced stasis. All have made wellbeing and adherence to government guidance their overriding priorities.

Brother UK’s response, led by Managing Director Phil Jones MBE, is by necessity the most comprehensive. Steering a major business through an unprecedented public health crisis requires a cool head, sound planning and the agility to respond to unfolding events. By setting the effectiveness of Brother UK’s principles as a template for the sport, however, Jones has helped to advance an agenda for change long overdue in domestic cycling.

“There can be little doubt that innovation and entrepreneurship are qualities sorely needed by the UK’s elite road scene, along with Brother UK’s wider belief in sustainability and long-term partnerships.”

There can be little doubt that innovation and entrepreneurship are qualities sorely needed by the UK’s elite road scene, along with Brother UK’s wider belief in sustainability and long-term partnerships. Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK and Brother UK – Team LDN are among our squads already making the most of unprecedented circumstances by expanding their traditional campaigns with Zwift racing and making a creative agenda their default for social media.

Each of our team managers can take credit from having prioritised athlete wellbeing. Increasingly, they hold themselves responsible for their riders’ mental health as well as their physical performance. Simon Howes, who has placed a psychologist at the disposal of Brother UK-Team OnForm, deserves much credit for extending to amateurs a level of support traditionally reserved for professional riders.

Matt Hallam can take pride too in maintaining an outward focus when his personal view must have been dimmed by the effects of lockdown on his business, as well as his team. Far from bemoaning his situation, Hallam registered with @GoodSamApp and placed the Crimson Performance team vehicle at the service of vulnerable members of his local community needing provisions.

As spring turns to summer, we will all hope for the defeat of Covid19 and the lifting of lockdown. For all members of the Brother UK Cycling family – sponsors, managers riders and volunteers – the return to racing can’t come quickly enough. Those who have used the enforced break for self-improvement and a further professionalism of the sport will roll out again with particular pride.

Images one and two: Crimson Performance/Joe Cotterill

Image three: Matthew Greaves

Image four: Sean Hardy

Image five: Bob MacGregor

Image six: Sean Hardy

Image seven: Tom Mazzone

Image eight: Victoria Creer

Image nine: Rosi Digne-Malcolm

Image ten: Sean Hardy


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