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Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) crossing the finish line at a race in Manchester with his arms in the air

The way ahead: Domestic cycle sport's return to racing

September sunshine enfolds Manchester in a warm embrace, bathing a city more accustomed to downpours in a heady atmospheric cocktail of heat and light.

While the hundreds of thousands of spectators drawn to the city centre by the prospect of free access to world-class sport luxuriate in such divinely atypical conditions, the brightest stars in professional cycling’s dazzling firmament put on a show to remember.

"September sunshine enfolds Manchester in a warm embrace, bathing a city more accustomed to downpours in a heady atmospheric cocktail of heat and light."

A peloton comprised of the biggest names in the sport explodes onto Deansgate, an arrow-straight thoroughfare at the heart of Manchester’s shopping district, repurposed by barriers and timing equipment as a drag strip.

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) wins in a scintillating sprint finish, sealing an overall victory that reinforces his status as overwhelming favourite for the World Championships in Yorkshire a week later.

This triumphant final chapter of an enthralling race represents a day in which every piece of professional cycling’s jigsaw falls into place: teams and riders, organisers and sponsors, public bodies and the sport’s governing body.

Manchester’s ten boroughs, acting as one beneath the banner of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, and sponsors with a presence in the city, notably Brother UK, reflect with pride on an unsurpassable day. People from across Manchester have been royally entertained. More importantly, they have bonded.

It might have been during an enjoyable afternoon on Deansgate, or at an unforgettable morning spent at the stage départ in Altrincham, watching an otherwise quiet town transformed by bicycles, bunting and tour buses. It might have been as they stood together outside their houses, waiting for the race to pass.

Sadly, the scenes described in Manchester are exceptional, rather than typical. This final stage brings down the curtain not only on the 15th edition of the modern Tour of Britain but on one of its longest-serving teams, too. Madison-Genesis, a British-registered, UCI Continental squad, ends its seven years of racing on Deansgate.

Their demise continues an unfortunate trend among teams and races. JLT-Condor quit a year earlier. NFTO, One Pro Cycling, Team UK Youth and Endura Racing are no more; see also a list of races as long as your arm, including, but by no means limited to, the Archer GP, Havant GP, and Grand Prix of Essex.

Six months later, just weeks after the long-delayed 2020 calendar is finally published, the domestic road scene faces its biggest challenge to date, and one that no one stood on the finish line in Manchester could possibly have foreseen - Covid19.

Unforeseen circumstances

Fast forward 12 months from that unforgettable day in Manchester and elite domestic road racing is again fighting for its survival. British Cycling’s Covid19-inspired moratorium on bunch racing, understandable perhaps in the face of a pandemic, has only felt like the steepening of an already downward trajectory.

Folding teams and races had become the norm even before the imposition of a ‘new normal’, but even the most pessimistic spectator on Deansgate might have struggled to predict a year without national road racing. Competition is the raison d’etre of any cycling team, and races represent some of the most important milestones on the cycle sponsorship road map.

"Sponsors, suppliers of cycle sport’s lifeblood, will not wait forever for it to embrace sustainability. Many are engaged in their own fight for survival."

It has now become essential to address the sport’s systemic weaknesses if it is to recover from a year of inactivity, enforced or otherwise. Piecemeal repairs can no longer fill cracks broadened by lockdown.

The domestic sport’s dependence on the efforts of a handful of ageing race organisers to stage the events that give the National Road Series its structure and character has also been exposed. A stand-off between British Cycling and members of the national organisers group over branding rights at flagship events delayed publication of the 2020 calendar even before the outbreak over coronavirus.

British Cycling’s relationship with title sponsor HSBC embodies the too-often transitory nature of cycle sponsorship. In February, the bank announced that it would end its relationship with the federation after the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. When coronavirus forced the postponement of both events, HSBC postponed its departure until 2021.

Sponsors, suppliers of cycle sport’s lifeblood, will not wait forever for it to embrace sustainability. Once lost, the support of a commercial backer can be hard to regain, especially in such challenging economic circumstances. Many are engaged in their own fight for survival. Sponsoring cycle events or teams might be low on their list of priorities.

The recent heyday, when six British-registered, UCI Continental teams, well-funded and well run, raced with panache and success at home and abroad already seems far distant, but can it be recaptured? Much of the despondency surrounding the sport can be counterbalanced with optimism.

A group of cyclists leaning into a bend after riding past a black metal gate with spectators in the background

Reasons to be cheerful

Reasons to be cheerful, one, two three: British Cycling will host a National Road Series in 2021, Brother UK will remain at the sport’s side during what looks set to be a pivotal year, and Erick Rowsell, appointed the federation’s Elite Road Racing Manager in January, has already won the hearts and minds of disaffected race organisers.

Rowsell’s appointment is of particular importance. Not only is he the first incumbent of a position specifically created to address the organisational challenges of domestic road racing, but he is also a popular appointment; a man who knows what a bike race looks like from the inside. The sport whose future he seeks to secure is one in which he has spent a lifetime competing. The races he seeks to save are those he has contested and treasures.

"British Cycling will host a National Road Series in 2021, Brother UK will remain at the sport’s side, and new Elite Road Racing Manager, Erick Rowsell, has already won the hearts and minds of disaffected race organisers"

That race organisers like Peter Harrison, the man behind the Beaumont Trophy and Curlew Cup, value his appointment is especially significant. Harrison is the most experienced of the volunteers who keep the show on the road; tireless servants of a sport that still depends largely on private individuals to deliver its biggest events.

There are further reasons for optimism. Many of the teams embraced e-racing during lockdown and, if they are savvy, will recognise e-sport’s enormous potential to generate revenue. New graduates from the domestic scene to the WorldTour peloton - notably, Matt Holmes (Lotto-Soudal) and Conor Swift (Arkea-Samsic) - have proved the worth of a cycling education gained on British roads.

And while many businesses have faced bankruptcy under lockdown, others have gained from the ‘new normal’ and might be seeking sponsorship opportunities. Further, cycling is experiencing the greatest boost to its popularity since 2012, even if the foundations of this new ‘mini boom’ are very different to Olympic success. ‘Active travel’ has flourished amid warnings to stay off public transport and on roads made safe by home working’s dilution of Britain’s seemingly endless rush hour.

This last trend, while not directly related to cycle sport, can deliver the same advantages. Local authorities - huge players in the health of domestic road racing, either as sponsors or enablers - have an economic interest in a healthier population. Many might be convinced of the advantages of staging a bike race as a halo event to inspire residents.

Phil Jones MBE listening to someone talking who is partially out of shot

A commercial perspective

The intersection of sporting and commercial imperatives is a fascinating topic for those who follow bike racing closely. The assembly of cycle sport's organisational jigsaw can be as engaging as movement in the transfer market. The outcomes, with the rare exception of a superstar signing, are almost always more significant.

Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK, has studied the sport's commercial development closely. He has made the company the domestic's sport's most trusted partner by anchoring his decisions solely on its ability to generate return on investment.

"Cycle sport's underlying problem is having only one major revenue stream. It continues to be one of the major difficulties that it needs to fix."

As with so many areas of daily life, the pandemic has brought systemic weaknesses into the sharpest focus. Lockdown's enforced reset is a clear opportunity for the sport to grasp the possibilities of a more sustainable future. 'More of the same' should not be an option, Jones believes.

"Domestic cycling has operated with a boom-bust business model. That's always been my observation of this sport. Teams don't have much else in the way of income streams other than a sponsor diving into their pockets and laying out some money, and that in itself can become a very high-risk model that provides sustainability only from year-to-year," he says.

"Everyone involved in domestic road racing should be engaged in reimagining its development, whether that be the federation, teams or other stakeholders. It's time to take a ten or 20-year view of how the sport begins to become more sustainable."

For the leader of a major business, the necessity of a sustainable model is obvious. Brother UK's success is built upon the pillars of efficiency, productivity, reliability and, of course, sustainability. Income streams are monitored. Opportunities are targeted and pursued. Risks are identified and captured on a matrix.

Last year, Brother UK celebrated 50 years of continuous trading; the type of longevity that any cycling team would look at with wonder, and which few British races have surpassed. Increasingly, events have become as unstable as teams. Both are almost entirely dependent on sponsorship revenue.

"The sport's underlying problem is having only one major revenue stream," Jones observes. "It continues to be one of the major difficulties that it needs to fix."

Cyclist Erick Rowsell riding with his arms in the air while being flanked by motorcyclists with spectators in the background

A new approach

Erick Rowsell has, arguably, the toughest job in British cycle sport. Appointed by British Cycling in January 2020 as its first Elite Road Racing Manager, Rowsell has had to win the hearts and minds of almost every community in the sport: teams, riders, fans and, most importantly, the race organisers.

If the challenge wasn’t sufficiently demanding, he has had to do so under lockdown. It says much for Rowsell that he has already has he gained support from members of the national organisers group and formulated a vision for a tiered structure for the National Road Series.

“We need to look at a more tiered approach with potentially three different series: a top series, a middle series, and a series for U23 and club teams.”

Rowsell believes that the present system represents a ‘one size fits all’ approach. This, he argues, is at odds with the diversity of domestic road racing, where postmen race against salaried riders. He identifies other anomalies, such as teams with an ‘elite’ designation unable to compete in the highest-profile British events but who can compete in UCI races abroad.

“We need to look at a more tiered approach where there are potentially three different series: a top series, a middle series, and a series for U23 and club teams,” Rowsell explains. “The structure would provide more certainty to teams, who could think: ‘Right, we know which series we’re competing in. If we can win that, potentially we can gain exposure in the next tier.’”

Rowsell does not underestimate the scale of implementing such a bold vision and is clear that it will not happen overnight. He is convinced, however, of its need. Teams are not calling for more National Road Series events, he maintains, only for a better structure and a broader geographical spread of races.

He denies that the domestic sport’s volunteer-based event model is broken, arguing that it provides popular and well-contested races. Rowsell believes that focussing on top-level races would further weaken a system whose ultimate aim is to develop talent. The domestic road scene’s biggest challenge is not to raise the bar, he argues, but to fill the gaps.

It is in the nature of UCI Continental teams to race abroad, he continues. Why else fork out for the designation? And how else to prepare for the Tour of Britain? Rowsell is determined to build his vision for a tiered approach from the bottom up, prioritising grassroots sport and rider development over razzamatazz.

Peter Harrison of Gosforth Road Club speaking into a handheld microphone with sponsorship logos in the background

A matter of organisation

Peter Harrison joined Gosforth Road Club in 1961 and has organised the Beaumont Trophy, a jewel in the crown of domestic road racing, since the 1970s. In 2011, he created the Curlew Cup, a National Road Series race for women.

Still more significantly, he has grown the Cyclone Festival of Cycling around both events. The relationship between family rides, challenge rides and two major road races is complimentary.

“We’ve got to have new, young organisers coming through prepared to put on races, because the appetite exists among riders to race, if we can get those organisers in.”

Worryingly, Harrison is not fighting off volunteers from Gosforth Road Club eager to replace or even assist him. Now in his seventies, Harrison’s principal source of administrative support is his wife. Between them, they process up to 4000 entries for the Cyclone Festival and superintend the huge variety of organisational duties for the club’s two national races.

“We’ve got to have new, young organisers coming through prepared to put on races, because the appetite exists among riders to race, if we can get those organisers in. I believe that we have 92 registered clubs in the North East region and only about five or six put on races. If they don’t start to help then races are going to disappear even more than they are now,” he warns.

“You used to be able to race every weekend from March until October, and possibly even at a mid-week race. On a different night, you’d probably ride the track league as well. The amount of races has reduced right down. This is why riders are scrambling for places. So in that respect, the future really is in the hands of the riders.”

Harrison is prepared to share his wealth of experience with anyone willing to learn. He has much to pass on, notably a proven ability to raise the six-figure sum required to stage the Cyclone Festival each year. He has long experience of dealing with British Cycling, too.

The national organisers group, of which Harrison is a member, has been involved in a stand-off with the federation over the distribution of branding rights at National Road Series events. The impasse delayed the publication of the 2020 calendar. British Cycling, he says, promised 50 per cent to its title sponsor HSBC, who also stipulated that the organisers could not seek sponsorship from other financial institutions, however small.

Rowsell’s appointment has helped to defuse the issue, but it has not gone away. Harrison warns that he and his colleagues will not tolerate a similar deal if it is offered by British Cycling to HSBC’s successor.

Jonathan Durling partnerships director at The SweetSpot Group standing in from of a stone wall and an expanse of water while talking to someone who has his back to the camera

Sponsorship goals

Race sponsorship is an evolving field. Bike races continue to serve traditional marketing concerns - brand awareness and sales - but the new realities of public health and environmental issues have given the sport a fresh relevance to local authorities.

This brief summary is not our conjecture, but Jonathan Durling’s experience, and Durling is the Partnerships Director at The SweetSpot Group, organisers of The Tour of Britain, The Women’s Tour and The Tour Series.

“We’ve now got a mini-boom in cycling, and that can only be a good thing. On the flip side, the economy is struggling, to say the least.”

He has seen bike racing serve a range of purposes, from advertising the ‘reopening’ of the countryside, following the foot and mouth crisis of 2007, to driving economic regeneration in towns and cities. He talks too of the “postcard effect”, so important to regions like Cornwall, who next year will host a belated départ to the postponed Tour of Britain. New priorities are emerging, however.

“While all of the traditional sponsorship concerns remain important to local authorities, we’re now moving into an era in which cycling is regarded not only as a sport, but also as a means of active travel, and a tool to promote health and well-being,” he explains.

“Bike races can inspire local communities to get off the sofa and into cycling, or any form of exercise. I now have conversations with directors of public health. We wouldn’t have had those conversations two or three years ago. What’s important to them is a more active community, and they’re interested in what we can we do to help.”

Durling describes an increased appetite for collaboration, citing organisations such as British Cycling and Bikeability. The dovetailing of cycle sport and cycling advocacy ultimately delivers financial benefits by generating sponsorship revenue for races from long-term savings in health care costs.

Astonishingly, the deprivations of lockdown have created a perfect storm in which recreational cycling and bike commuting have flourished. Professional cycling, with its ability to excite and inspire, stands to benefit, Durling believes.

“We’ve now got a mini-boom in cycling, and that can only be a good thing. On the flip side, the economy is struggling, to say the least. There will be fewer marketing pounds to spend on sports sponsorship as a result. But are we in a stronger position as a result of Covid to appeal to organisations thinking about sports sponsorship? I think we probably are.”

Cyclist punching the air while crossing the finishing line with spectators cheering her on in the background

A job grown too large?

No one involved with domestic road racing attends more races than Larry Hickmott, founder and editor of VeloUK.net, the Brother UK-sponsored website that serves as the sport’s heartbeat. His coverage of every branch of ‘road cycling’ - bunch races and time-trials, circuit races, track races, hill climbs and cyclo-cross - is comprehensive, to say the least.

Hickmott makes no secret of his admiration for those who serve the sport, notably the small but ageing nucleus of race organisers collectively known as the national organisers group.

“Mike Hodgson was a really passionate guy. What happens now to his Tour of the Reservoir is a worry.”

Prominent among their number was Mike Hodgson, organiser of the Tour of the Reservoir, a two-day race for men and women that had become one of the few events of the National Road Series calendar guaranteed to take place each year. Earlier this year, Hodgson became another victim of coronavirus. Hickmott now fears for the future of “the Res”.

“For years and years, Mike put a lot of his own money into the Tour of the Reservoir and made it a race for both men and women. He was a really passionate guy about the sport. What happens now to his event, which has been part of the National Road Series for so long, is a worry. We don’t know whether or not an organiser will step into his shoes and keep the event going.”

The organisers are the most important piece of domestic road racing’s jigsaw, Hickmott maintains. It follows that the absence of younger volunteers is the greatest threat to its future, with the notable of exceptions of Sheffrec.cc’s Marc Etches and Richard Williamson of Velo29.

Anyone sufficiently committed to step forwards will need the commercial acumen required to raise tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in sponsorship and will require the organisational competence to stage a sporting event on the public highway.

Such demands bring us to a crux in the sport’s development. Should the National Road Series continue to rely on the passion and dedication of private individuals, or has the job simply grown too large for anyone other than a professional body?

“It almost needs a business manager working with an organiser with the skills and experience to deal with all the different bodies that one needs to deal with to put on a bike race,” Hickmott says.

“I’ve always thought we need more companies like SweetSpot to put on a Premier Calendar Series, for example. Whether they would have the same feeling and passion for the event of one put on by the likes of Bob Howden or Peter Harrison, I’m not sure.”

A line of cyclists riding past on a road which has a stone wall and stone building with turrets at the side

Completing the jigsaw

The jigsaw of British cycle sport contains many pieces, all of equal importance. Remove one - any, in fact - and the picture is suddenly incomplete.

To extend the analogy, investment creates the level surface required for its assembly. None of the ‘pieces’ - teams, riders, race organisers, or even the federation - can dovetail without it. Sponsorship then must be the most important component of all.

"The next 12 months will be critical. Existing sponsors will not wait forever for domestic cycling to fix itself, and new backers will hardly be attracted to a sport seemingly in continual disarray."

This is not an attempt to lionise Brother UK’s contribution to the health of the sport, despite its significance. Indeed, Phil Jones MBE, the company’s Managing Director, puts its well when he describes the sport’s total dependence on sponsorship as a problem to be fixed.

E-racing, he suggests, offers a significant additional resource. The numbers make a compelling case. Just 40 per cent of the revenues of a typical e-sports team come from sponsorship, he says. The remainder is made up from sources as varied as merchandise, prize money, premium content, fan experiences and more. Is it time for cycling teams to follow their lead?

Only some of these alternative revenue streams are available to race organisers, of course. Sponsorship seems likely always to be the dominant funding source for events, but the evolution of local authority support, as councils recognise cycling’s potential to address a raft of health, transport and social issues, is an encouraging development.

So too is cycling’s lockdown boom. Jonathan Durling’s work with stakeholders including directors of public health represents a more holistic approach. A future in which bike racing’s capacity to inspire is harnessed by public bodies to drive participation in health and transport programmes is one in which all parties should benefit.

The next 12 months will be critical. Erick Rowsell’s vision for the sport’s development is to be welcomed. His pledge that British Cycling will hold a National Road Series next year is heartening too, but the clock is ticking. Existing sponsors will not wait forever for domestic cycling to fix itself, and new backers will hardly be attracted to a sport seemingly in continual disarray.

Darkness is often greatest before the dawn, however. British road racing does not lack intelligent people able to pursue creative solutions, and in Brother UK it has a partner with an entrepreneurial culture hardwired to seek opportunity, even in times of the greatest adversity. Now, more than ever, the sport needs sponsors with vision and integrity. In 2021, a year which already seems pivotal, Brother UK will again remain at the side of British domestic road racing.

Images by SWpix.com, VeloUK.net, HardyCC and The SweetSpot Group


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