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The Way Ahead - Part Two

A year without racing. A post-Covid economy. A ‘boom and bust’ model.

Challenges and opportunities

Teams and riders, the principal actors in the drama of British domestic road racing, find themselves on the front line of a new battle for survival. 

Their plight is worsened by the handicap of competing in races unrecognised by the sport’s power brokers, and, for many young athletes hoping to build a career on their talent, the absence of any financial reward.


“I’m super happy that the calendar has been published well before the season starts. Assuming that the Covid crisis abates and the vaccine success works then, crossing fingers, we’ve got some racing to look forward to in 2021.” Phil Jones MBE


For every challenge, however, there is an opportunity. Phil Jones MBE, Brother UK’s Managing Director, gains real hope from a national programme of races forged among the metaphorical ashes of a sport decimated by lockdown.

“I’m super happy that the 2021 calendar has been published well before the season starts. We’ve heard from British Cycling that there will be an eight-round National Road Series for men, eight rounds for the women’s National Road Series, and, in the Elite Circuit Series, five rounds for men and three rounds for women,” he explains. 

“That’s really good. At least we know now that there’s something to look forward to. Sponsors can take comfort from the fact that a road series is going to take place, riders have something to train for, and teams, if they’re still trying to land a sponsor in the final hours, can throw this in front of a business and say: ‘This is a race series.’ 

“Assuming that the Covid crisis abates and the vaccine success works, then, crossing fingers, we’ve got some racing to look forward to in 2021.”

A year with no racing? Erick Rowsell, British Cycling’s Elite Road Racing Manager, has shifted the agenda from cancelled races and training bubbles with a surprisingly comprehensive calendar for 2021, an achievement made all the more impressive by his healing of relationships between the federation and disaffected race organisers. 

Economic downturn? Matt Hallam, owner and manager of the Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing team, will start 2021 by unveiling an association with arguably the coolest brand in the sport, proving that professional content can entice the biggest backers, even as the economy shrinks.

A lack of credibility for teams competing in races unrecognised by the UCI, cycling’s world governing body? British Cycling’s Elite Development Team status might just hold the key for amateur teams already operating to professional standards. 

Finding the way ahead will not be easy, but pathways to a brighter future do exist. In this article, we’ll identify the barriers to success for teams and riders and, with the help of expert witnesses, describe how they might be overcome.

 

A glorious irrelevance?

Erick Rowsell’s ultimate aim for the National Road Series is to develop riders for professional careers. That so few professional teams are aware of its existence is, therefore, a significant issue. 

Races cherished by fans of British cycle sport, jewels in the crown of the domestic road scene such as the Lincoln Grand Prix, are unfamiliar to the majority of managers and directors in the sport’s top tier.

Harry Tanfield (Team Qhubeka-ASSOS), whose experience ranges from the Chorley Grand Prix to La Vuelta Espana, puts it bluntly when he describes the irrelevance of domestic races to professional cycling’s power brokers.


“If it doesn't have a UCI status attached to it, it’s an amateur race, end of. That’s the only way of viewing it, through the eyes of someone in Europe.” Harry Tanfield, Team Qhubeka-ASSOS

 

“If it’s not got a UCI status attached to it, it’s an amateur race, end of. That’s the only way of viewing it, through the eyes of someone in Europe. You can argue the toss all day long, but if that’s their vision of the race, then that’s their vision. You could tell them that you’ve won the Lincoln GP or a National B race, and it wouldn’t change. If it’s non-UCI, it’s non-UCI - simple as that.”

Tanfield’s unflinching analysis is discomforting, but not malicious. He regards the UK scene with respect and affection and reveals that National Road Series races like the aforementioned Chorley Grand Prix are more demanding than many of the UCI-registered events he has raced as professional in Europe. Certification from the sport’s world governing body, it seems, is everything. 

Rowsell identifies a more recent benefit to recognition from Aigle: automatic inclusion on the vast and vastly influential Pro Cycling Stats website. Races not certified by the UCI simply aren’t included. 

“The first thing UCI WorldTour managers and sports directors do when they’re looking at riders is to use Pro Cycling Stats. They look at the races riders have competed in. The site doesn’t cover races lower than  UCI .2 events, so the Lincoln Grand Prix and those sort of races will never feature. In the eyes of a manager, they don’t really exist,” Rowsell says. 

“But Harry’s right: those races are often harder than a lot of UCI races, just because of the way they’re raced and the difference in the fields; it’s much more aggressive racing. It’s about gaining recognition, and the easiest way of doing that is to try and get those races, a select few of them, UCI status. 

“Then they will be on the radar, they will be on Pro Cycling Stats and the other websites that managers and teams use, and people will start taking notice of them. I think that’s the thing for me: to try and get more UCI racing in the UK, which gives those teams that benefit."

A peloton of female racing cyclists pacing a large, sandstone abbey

Raising the standard

Rebecca Durrell (CAMS-Tifosi) and Sophie Wright (Alé-BTC Ljubljana) offer a different analysis. They maintain that not even the toughest domestic races for women compare to the ‘Monuments’ of the UCI Women’s WorldTour calendar.

Both are well qualified to comment. Both have been crowned overall winners of the National Road Series (Wright in 2018; Durrell in 2019), and both have rolled out for the most prestigious races in the sport. 

Durrell rose to prominence in her two seasons with the British-registered Drops team. She has since won the Lincoln Grand Prix twice, but maintains that merely surviving a ‘Monument’  of the European calendar requires superior skills.


“There’s no doubt that the Lincoln Grand Prix is a really tough race. I just feel that the Tour of Flanders and some of the big Classics over on the Continent are on a different level.” Rebecca Durrell, CAMS-Tifosi


“There’s no doubt that the Lincoln Grand Prix is a really tough race. I just feel that the Tour of Flanders and some of the big Classics over on the Continent are on a different level,” she explains. 

“I think a lot of it is the strength and depth of the field and the pure skills that you need in the bunch, let alone being able to tackle the course itself. If you can’t get to the front and stay there, you’re never going to win or even achieve a top 20 result.” 

Wright offers a similar analysis, and adds a team dimension: the advanced positioning skills demanded of each rider is only to serve a superior tactical requirement.

“When I was on Torelli-Brother, I was riding as an individual, pretty much. When you step up to WorldTour, you have to learn to ride as a team. I know there are some UK teams that have proper team tactics, but it’s not as organised and tactical as when you step up to WorldTour. For me, it took a lot of getting used to because I’d been accustomed to racing as an individual,” she reveals.

“And also with the WorldTour, you’ve got the radio in your ear: listening to instructions from the team manager in the car behind and feeding back. You’re talking to the other girls too, asking how they feel. There’s pretty much always a strategy and the difference is, everyone else has got a strategy that they’ll have discussed in the team meeting the night before the race.”

 
Female racing cyclist, pink jersey, dark hair, dark glasses, smiling

Sophie's World

The allure held by the UCI WorldTour for young riders hoping to make a living from the sport and the prestige conferred by the title ‘pro cyclist’ separate a career in the sport’s top tier from reality. 

Even the biggest teams operate the ‘boom and bust’ model identified by Phil Jones in episode five: one entirely dependent on sponsorship. The result is chronic insecurity for all but the sport’s superstars. 

In 2018, Sophie Wright graduated to the professional ranks with Cervélo-Bigla, an established team with world-class riders and long-term sponsors. Two years later, it folded, but not before Wright had negotiated a two-year contract with Alé-BTC Ljubljana.


“When you go through university and qualify as a doctor or a teacher, whatever, your career is set in stone and quite secure, but with cycling, I’m just learning all the time that it’s not.” Sophie Wright, Alé-BTC Ljubljana


“I knew I wanted new opportunities, new challenges, a new environment and to step up, of course, to WorldTour level. I was delighted to sign a two-year deal with Alé back in September, “ she confides. 

Naturally upbeat and fiercely determined, the experience of her first team’s transformation from Cervélo Bigla to Equipe Paule Ka, followed by its demise a few months later, has not diminished Wright's enthusiasm. 

It has, however, equipped her with a healthy regard for the uncertainties of life as a professional cyclist. She cheerfully admits that she is living a dream, but concedes that the prospect of waking to a dramatically altered reality is part of the game. 

“You don’t get much sense of security, really. I'm lucky enough to have signed a two-year contract with my new WorldTour team. Fingers crossed, that all goes well, but a sponsor could easily crumble and that could literally be it for the whole team. The whole 20, 30, 40 staff and riders within the team could just lose their jobs,” she admits.

“When you go through university and qualify as a doctor or a teacher, whatever, your career is set in stone and quite secure, but for cycling, I’m just learning all the time that it’s actually not. It’s the risk we take. I’m just passionate about cycling. I’m in it for the racing. I train to race. It’s pretty much my life. I just think it’s worth the risk of not having the security because it’s what I love.”

 
Racing cyclist, male, blue jersey, white helmet, drinking from white bottle

Harry's game

Wright’s experience is comparatively routine compared to Tanfield’s. Another graduate to the UCI WorldTour from a Brother UK-sponsored team, the likeable Yorkshireman has seen his employers conclude their activities, fail to renew his contract with only a few weeks remaining and, most recently, offer a lifeline back to the professional ranks.

Tanfield joined Team Katusha Alpecin in 2019, but before the season had ended, oligarch Igor Makarov had sold the team’s UCI ProTeam licence to Israel Start-Up Nation. After months of being assured by his employer that his contract would simply continue after the transfer, he found himself surplus to requirements.


“I don’t know why Ag2r-La Mondiale didn't renew my contract, but it’s unfortunate. It’s outside of my control. I pleaded my case and asked for another opportunity, but it’s not happened.” Harry Tanfield, Team Qhubeka-ASSOS


Miraculously, Ag2r-La Mondiale quickly came calling, but employment with the French team proved only to be temporary, despite a solid campaign. Shortly before making his Grand Tour debut at the 2020 La Vuelta Espana in September, Tanfield was informed that his services would not be required for 2021.

“Obviously, it was a bit of a shock when I heard at the end of the season. I did reach out to them in August, and they said they would think about it, but to tell me in September that they’re not going to renew…” Tanfield leaves his sentence unfinished.

“Maybe they didn’t want to take the chance. They’ve got more money, so they can just go and buy someone. Why would they need to pay me minimum wage when they can buy someone for £150,000 who is maybe going to get top 10 in some Classics or who comes from a better background or something? I don’t know, but it’s unfortunate. It’s outside of my control. I did plead my case and ask them to let me have the opportunity, but it’s not happened.”

The decision of Ag2r-La Mondale’s management makes little objective sense. Having welcomed a new title sponsor in French car giant, Citroen, presumably the squad is not short of cash. Further, having signed Classics kingpin Greg Van Avermaet as its new leader, a fundamental strategic shift after pursuing Grand Tour success for nine years with the departing Romain Bardet, the 80kg Tanfield might have been a valued lieutenant in the brutal one-day races of Spring.

Two further twists to the evolving plot of Tanfield’s professional career emerged as 2020 drew to a close. The first, his return to the domestic scene with the British-registered, UCI Continental squad Team Ribble Weldtite, was greeted as a welcome surprise by followers of the domestic scene.

The second, his almost immediate recall to the UCI WorldTour by Team Qhubeka-ASSOS, a squad which itself had only narrowly avoided extinction following the departure of previous title sponsor NTT, met with a further outpouring of goodwill on social media.

Three female racing cyclists, podium, smiling

Move on up?

Instability, then, is not confined to the domestic scene. Conversely, riders who find themselves embedded with a squad on the rise can gain similar, if not identical opportunities. Rebecca Durrell is a case in point. 

Durrell enjoyed an annus mirabilis in the colours of Brother UK-Tifosi p/b OnForm. In 2019, she was crowned overall victor in the National Road Series, thanks, in part, to a second consecutive victory at the Lincoln Grand Prix. Further, she claimed the British Elite Circuit Race title by deposing team-mate Anna Henderson in an enthralling duel in Rochester. 

Despite the result, Henderson ascended to the professional ranks with Team Sunweb, while Durrell's attempts to attract a WorldTour suitor met with a deafening silence.


"I'll be completely honest: I did put out the feelers to WorldTour teams, and there wasn't really any interest." Rebecca Durrell, CAMS-Tifosi


"I'll be completely honest: I did put out the feelers to WorldTour teams, and there wasn't really any interest," Durrell confides. "They don’t necessarily have to look for domestic riders from the UK who might have potential, unless they're under 23, or can do well in a U23 competition, for example, within a race."

Henderson's graduation is likely to have owed much to her dominant display at the British road race championships over a weekend in which she won the national U23 road and time-trial titles. This is not to suggest that she benefitted solely from her youth – Henderson's is a formidable talent - only that Durrell's failure to progress might be related to her comparative seniority. Ten years separate the 32-year-old Durrell from her prodigious former team-mate.

Durrell's tale has a happy ending, courtesy of a leading role with CAMS-Tifosi, the UCI-registered team that grew from Brother UK-Tifosi p/b OnForm with the blessing of Brother UK's Managing Director, Phil Jones MBE. Team manager Simon Howes was understandably keen to keep such a valued performer, and Durrell, now pregnant with her first child, values the stability of an established relationship. 

"As of March, I'm in completely new territory. I'm going to have a little human to look after, and I've not done it before, and you just don't know what to expect," she confides. 

"It's such a transition in life that having continuity with a racing team is very reassuring. I know all the girls on the team. I know how it all works. I can be comfortable in the thought that once I'm ready and able to return to racing, I can transition without the worry and stress of pressure to get 'x' result or having to return by a specific date because that's what's in my contract. 

"It definitely makes me feel a lot better. It makes me look forward to the process of having my baby and then getting back on track with the sport that I love."

 
Female racing cyclist, pink jersey, dark hair, dark glasses, looking down

Paid in full

Often, the force that compels riders to seek a berth in the UCI WorldTour is economic. A salary is as essential to a professional cyclist as to a professional architect. Passion will take you only so far and is a currency unrecognised by supermarkets, petrol stations, and other vendors of essential goods and services.

Sophie Wright is a salaried rider and so enjoys a reward for her efforts not shared by every rider in the UCI Women’s WorldTour, despite the introduction this year of a minimum wage obligation for teams who carry the WWT logo. For Wright, financial compensation simply allows her to do the job to the best of her ability.


“I am fortunate enough to be paid. I am living the dream. I’m being paid to do my hobby. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work, but I’m getting paid to do what I love.” Sophie Wright, Alé-BTC Ljubljana


“I am fortunate enough to be paid. I am living the dream. I’m being paid to do my hobby. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work, but I’m getting paid to do what I love. If I wasn’t getting paid, I’d have to get a part-time job. That probably wouldn’t pay that much with it being part-time. I’d have to live at home for longer. It would just be made very awkward. When it comes to booking flights, booking hotels and buying fuel, it really adds up. On a part-time salary, it’s very hard to do,” she says.

“Also, it would be very hard to get to the top and stay at the top if you’re not committed to your sport full-time. Yes, you can wake up at 7am, do a two or three-hour training ride and then go to work. Yes, you’ve got that three-hour ride in, but you’re spending the rest of the day working when you could be optimally recovering at home, getting the correct nutrition.

"Instead, you’re sat at a desk or on your feet, stacking shelves or whatever the job is, and not focussing on recovery. You can do all the training in the world, but if you don’t get the correct recovery that training is just useless because you’re not adapting from it.”

Harry Tanfield offers a more fundamental analysis. As a rider in the men’s UCI WorldTour, the minimum he can expect each year in exchange for his sacrifices is €40,045. Clearly, he has not turned professional to pursue a dream of untrammelled wealth. Instead, he argues that a salary marks the difference between vocation and distraction.

“It does bring into it a further aspect of stress, the question of what you’re doing with your time and, ultimately, you do need money to live. To go from a decent living income to nothing, it’s no longer a job. It becomes a hobby,” he says.

 
Racing cyclist, male, red jersey, black shorts, yellow shoes, leading line of riders beneath start-finish gentry

Right decision, wrong time

Should British Cycling follow the lead of the sport's world governing body, the UCI, and institute a minimum wage? The UCI's minimum annual salary for riders in the men's WorldTour is €40,045. A minimum annual salary of €15,000 for riders in the UCI Women's WorldTour was introduced in 2020. In 2021, it will rise to €20,000, and €27,500 in 2022. By 2023, the UCI expects parity between the men's and women's peloton.

While the aspiration of a minimum salary is admirable, the reality is more complex and dependent upon a funding model described by Phil Jones MBE, Brother UK's Managing Director, as "boom or bust". Jones supports the concept of a minimum wage in every context - sporting and commercial - but recognises the inherent challenges of introducing it to a domestic scene in which many teams can barely cover expenses.


"You can't just say, 'For 2021, we're going to insist on introducing a minimum wage,' because perhaps half the teams racing today would cease to exist." Phil Jones MBE, Managing Director, Brother UK


"You can't just say all of a sudden, 'For 2021, we're going to insist that there's a minimum wage involved in the sport,' because perhaps half the teams racing today would cease to exist. For many, their sponsorship income is just enough to purchase kit, fund travel and accommodation costs, cover race-entry fees, low-level expenses, and that's about it. There isn't a lot left in the coffers at the end of the day," he explains.

"We're back to this problem again: how does the team generate more income? To pay a full-time rider even at minimum wage to ride their bike for 'x' amount of hours each week is likely to require a salary of around £20,000. If you apply that to a squad of 10, 12 or 14 riders, the costs increase to nearly £300,000 a year, and that's just the salary bill. That's before you do anything else."

The "anything else" can add as much as £50,000 to a team's cost base. Travelling the length and breadth of the UK, never mind Europe, in branded vehicles (a sponsorship commitment, in all likelihood, and not a luxury) staying in hotels, feeding riders, buying clothing and equipment is not cheap. Jones believes that the current economic climate simply cannot support investments of this scale, whatever may have occurred previously.

"The environment in the UK simply doesn't support sponsorship deals of that size for this sport. I would love to see everybody back to where things were, earning money, being a full-time bike rider, a full-time mechanic, full-time team manager; my goodness, we'd see the sport really thrive.

"But the commercial realities and the economic realities of where we are, especially at this moment, mean that introducing a minimum wage requirement to British domestic road racing is probably the right decision at the wrong time.

Male racing cyclists, stood with bikes on start line, under start-finish gantry

Silver bullets

"We're back to this problem again: how does a team generate more income?"

Jones is right to pose the question. Happily for the sport, he can supply answers too. He argues that the "silver bullet" for teams lies in securing revenue streams lasting longer than the season in which they're competing. Multi-year agreements offer game-changing stability.


"Could British Cycling channel some of the money accrued from its annual income streams directly to the development of domestic road racing and support the sustainability of the teams who participate within it?'" Phil Jones MBE, Managing Director, Brother UK


Road racing has a unique economic challenge - promoters cannot charge spectators to watch the show - but does not exist in a vacuum. In any endeavour, an outward view is essential to avoiding a myopic obsession with sector norms. The likelihood that someone faced with a similar challenge has found a solution is high.
 
"Could British Cycling channel some of the money accrued from its annual income streams directly to the development of domestic road racing and support the sustainability of the teams who participate within it?'"
 
Brother UK are sponsorship experts who have partnered with some of the highest-profile sports teams in the world, including Manchester City Football Club, whom it served as shirt sponsor for a club-record 12 years.
The English Premier League, a commercial behemoth of unrivalled scale, offers cycle sport some useful templates, Jones believes.
 
"In the English Premier League, the clubs have a responsibility to send some money down the pyramid; to send the elevator back down to the smaller teams. You look at the money in the UCI WorldTour and say, is there a percentage that ought to be scooped off to support development pathways? So that's one opportunity."

 

Three male racing cyclists, podium, smiling

Developing an elite

British Cycling has made no commitment to funding domestic teams, but hopes to support them via its new Elite Development Team status. The proposed designation, a combination of publicity on the federation’s website and social channels, and perhaps even a UCI Europe Tour-style logo for the jerseys, is intended to confer recognition on exemplary teams.

The status aligns with a broader initiative, championed by Erick Rowsell, British Cycling’s Elite Rod Racing Manager, for a three-tiered structure for the National Road Series; an approach intended to provide more appropriate levels of competition for the various teams (club, elite or UCI Continental) and to end the anomaly of amateurs with full-time jobs competing against professionals.


“It’s very much about providing a status that teams can use to say to sponsors: ‘Look, we are an Elite Development Team. We are highly regarded by British Cycling.’” Erick Rowsell, Elite Road Racing Manager


“It’s very much about providing a status that teams can use to say to sponsors: ‘Look, we are an Elite Development Team. We are highly regarded by British Cycling.’ We want to create a page on the British Cycling website which is dedicated to these teams, so that when they’re talking to sponsors or even to race organisers, they have somewhere to direct them,” Rowsell explains.

“Some teams are fantastic with their social and digital presence. Other teams might need a little more support, and it’ll be a huge benefit for them. I’ve spoken to some managers who say that when they try to get invitations to UCI races, and they’re not a UCI team, they approach them, effectively, as a club team. But if they can go to them and say: ‘Look, British Cycling recognises us as an Elite Development Team,’ it offers a little more status for them.”

The proposed designation also aligns with Rowsell’s view that the domestic scene needs fewer and better UCI Continental teams. He believes the designation is valuable only for teams competing in a wider programme of European racing to prepare for the Tour of Britain.

“In the UK, we need to get away from judging ourselves by how many UCI Continental teams we have. I would prefer to have one ‘Conti’ team in the UK, but for that one team do things properly and correctly, to provide the riders with a really good race programme, and to place really effective support around them, rather than have eight UCI teams which aren’t much different to a club team.”

 
Racing cyclist, male, purple and blue jersey, seated, profile view

Style and content

For Matt Hallam, owner and manager of the Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing team, Jones’ “silver bullet” lies in presentation, notably the content (specifically, films and photography) with which the team fills its social media channels and shares with sponsors.

The concept is simple, powerful and not exclusive to Hallam's team, but the skill and commitment with which he has embraced it has elevated Crimson Performance above its rivals in the fight for sponsorship. Next season (2021), the team will carry the logo of arguably the most desirable brand in the entire sport.


"In my opinion, the biggest thing that has allowed the team to grow at the rate it has done is the image it's achieved." Matt Hallam, Team Manager, Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing


"In my opinion, the biggest thing that has allowed the team to grow at the rate it has done is the image it's achieved. I can confidently say, we'll be turning heads next year. We've got an absolutely massive deal in place. It's a culmination of a three-year project, and I'm absolutely just amazed that I've been able to pull this off. I can't believe it," he says.

"A brand like the sponsor I've signed a deal with, would never, ever have approached someone like us if they didn't think we were on-image. It's a reward for all the work we've done through social media, through outreach opportunities, through online news channels, and through sponsors: Brother UK, for example, provides us with a lot of outreach opportunities. 

"That's what's got us to this position: utilising every one of those opportunities and investing in professionally-produced content that makes us look like a Continental team."

Hallam celebrates his team's partnerships in high-quality images and short, engaging films that place the riders and their bikes literally in the same frame as their partners. While their rivals groped for ways to activate sponsorship investments in a year with no racing, Crimson Performance decamped to the Lake District, home to two of its major sponsors, to create a fresh portfolio of films and images.

Hallam's entrepreneurial instincts (Crimson Performance is his cycling power data analysis platform) and industry contacts (he is a highly-respected bike fitter, working principally from the Rapha cycle club in Manchester) have provided the motivation and opportunity to turn the dream of team ownership into reality. Content has provided the mechanism to generate return on investment.

"I show sponsors my portfolio of content, and I can guarantee you it's on par with a UCI Continental team, if not better. I can provide them with an opportunity to come into this for not a lot of money. I can get deals signed quickly because people want to be involved with our project," he says. 

"We look cool. We look good on bikes. I've got a great group of riders who are approachable. We provide sponsors with continuous content, and that's what really set us onto the trajectory that we're on at the moment."

Man, white, 50s, dark hair, black jersey, silver arms, concerned expression

The Personal Touch

The financial support of private companies seems likely to remain a critical part of a cycling team’s funding model, what ever else might augment it. For many managers at the domestic level, equipped with a knowledge of the sport but perhaps lacking the commercial understanding to create a compelling sponsorship proposal, securing corporate backing can be a significant challenge.

Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK, knows more than a little about sponsorship proposals and winning business more generally. Equipped with 30 years’ experience in sales, and the daily experience of receiving sponsorship proposals from a diverse array of sports teams, cultural institutions and others, he is well placed to offer advice.


“The more personal you make the proposal, the greater your research, the higher the propensity that you will achieve success when you’re trying to gain sponsorship.” Phil Jones MBE, Managing Director, Brother UK


“The trick that I’ve learned after 30 years in sales is really, really simple: the more personal you make the proposal, the greater your research, the higher the propensity that you will achieve success in what it is your trying to do when you’re trying to gain sponsorship or asking for some sort of paid partnership,” he says.

“It really comes down to that. The most successful proposals have tended to be highly personalised approaches where we’ve thought: ‘Now that is not a blanket proposal. This is something that has been prepared for us. It’s of genuine interest to us, and we can see the value in it.’”

The personal touch is of such obvious benefit that it seems impossible to overlook, yet many cycling teams turn their proposals into an act of self-sabotage by focussing only on how they would gain by it. The sponsor, naturally, is infinitely more concerned by how it might benefit them. Jones has a neat, two-word phrase to describe the penalty paid by teams who fall prey to this fundamental misunderstanding: the “we fee”.

“If all you talk about is you - ‘We, we, we’ - the fee you’re going to pay is that we are not going to listen to you. So you will pay the ‘we fee’ if you don’t personalise your proposals, and if you use the word ‘we’ far too much in your inbound communication - ‘We’re this, we’re that, we’re the other,’ - rather than, ‘you’. Have a look at what you’re preparing, have a look at the process you’re undertaking and make it all about the person that you’re approaching.”

Female racing cyclists cross the finish line

Rhythms and stick shifts

After a year without racing and faced with ongoing lockdown restrictions, it could be argued that British domestic road racing is more badly positioned than ever, but the scene is built on a bedrock of passion likely to resist even the storms of pandemic and recession. Further, it contains a cast of believers, ranging from Phil Jones MBE, Brother UK’s Managing Director, to ambitious managers like Matt Hallam and riders as dedicated as Harry Tanfield, Sophie Wright and Rebecca Durrell.

Further, Erick Rowsell, British Cycling’s Elite Road Racing Manager, has already proven his ability to deliver a comprehensive calendar and speaks with real conviction when he describes his plans for a three-tiered National Road Series and Elite Development Team status for squads attaining the highest standards. After years in which the scene has been allowed to stagnate, British Cycling has appointed an innovator as the first incumbent of a much-needed role.


“I haven’t seen any stick shifts in 2020 which are going to change the fabric of the sport for 2021 and beyond. Whether that’s ever going to change, well, we’ll see.” Phil Jones MBE, Managing Director, Brother UK


The most challenging issue to overcome is likely to remain the sport’s economic model: a dependence on sponsorship more likely, in the current climate, to deliver bust than boom. Sponsors like Brother UK, willing to offer multi-year, monetary agreements, are a cherished exception. Jones, who has long championed a more sustainable future, remains open-minded about the sport’s ability to heal itself, arguing that its cyclical nature is far from unique.

“Businesses start and businesses fail, and, in the sport of cycling, teams will start and teams will fail and end. This is just the natural rhythm of life. I think in the longer term, if we’re looking at the domestic sport and asking: ‘Have you witnessed any systemic shift in the way that the business model works, either in the teams or in the governing body or anything around the model, such as events,’ then I would have to say, ‘No, I haven’t,’” he concedes.

“I haven’t seen any stick shifts in 2020 which are going to change the fabric of the sport for 2021 and beyond. Unfortunately, problems still exist at a structural level. Whether or not that’s ever going to change itself, well, we’ll see.”

The way ahead will not be easy, but driven by the passion of those who cherish its speed and excitement, its community and camaraderie, from the biggest sponsor to the humblest volunteer, a new path can be forged. 

With a blend of commercial acumen, administrative innovation and effective promotion, the National Road Series can gain the stability and recognition it deserves. For the riders, whose courage, skill, sacrifice and determination provide the spectacle we admire, sustainability is the least their talents deserve.

 

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