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Brother UK Cycling Podcast – Episode 6 (part one)

Episode description

Domestic road racing faced challenging circumstances even before the pandemic, including folding teams and races, a broken economic model, and a shortage of young volunteers willing to replace or even assist the sport’s ageing nucleus of race organisers.

In the first instalment of a two-part investigation into the commercial and organisational machinery that supports the British road scene, we focus on race organisation and the domestic calendar. Our examination is supported by the testimony of five expert witnesses: Erick Rowsell, Phil Jones, Jonathan Durling, Larry Hickmott and Peter Harrison.

Join co-hosts Timothy John and Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK, for a mature, even-handed consideration of the domestic sport’s most significant challenges and the methods by which they might be overcome. Erick Rowsell’s exclusive revelation that British Cycling will hold a National Road Series in 2021 is one of many insights uncovered.

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Episode 6: The way ahead – Part one

Episode contents

  • 00:37 – Episode introduction
  • 03:09 – Scripted introduction
  • 07:02 – Section one: The commercial and economic challenges facing domestic road racing
  • 13:57 – Section two: The sporting and structural challenges facing domestic road racing
  • 30:30 – Section three: Organisers
  • 35:23 – Section four: British cycling and the national organisers’ group
  • 48:49 – Outro
  • 50:46 – Social shout out

Transcript

Timothy John

Coming up in part one of our in-depth examination of British domestic road racing:

Erick Rowsell, British Cycling’s Elite Road Racing Manager, acknowledges the need for change in the structure of domestic cycle sport

Erick Rowsell

“It certainly is recognised that there do need to be changes and a clear sign of that is the creation of my role. I’ve not replaced someone. My role is a brand new role that’s been invented by British Cycling because there’s a gap there that needs filling. British Cycling does recognise the need for change and needs someone who understands the sport to do it.”

Timothy John

Phil Jones, the Managing Director of Brother UK, offers an unflinching commercial analysis of elite road racing’s systemic challenges.

Phil Jones

“It’s a boom-bust business model. That’s always been my observation of this sport. Teams don’t really 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 business model.”

Timothy John

Peter Harrison, long-term organiser of the Cyclone Festival of Cycling, including the Beaumont Trophy and Curlew Cup, warns that the future of domestic racing lies to a large extent in the hands of its participants

Peter Harrison

“We’ve got to have new young organisers coming through prepared to put on races, because they appetite is there from the riders to race, if we can get those organisers in. It’s in the hands of the riders, I have to say. It’s got nothing to do with British Cycling. It’s in the hands of the riders.”

Timothy John

Larry Hickmott, founder and editor of VeloUK, argues that race organisers need more support if British Cycling’s flagship National Road Series is to gain much-needed stability.

Larry Hickmott

“There is a great deal of uncertainty I think, moreso now than there ever has been. Every year we seem to go into this national series wondering whether or not ‘x’ event will be held. There are the long-standing events which are relatively secure,, but there are others that come on and then they disappear, and you never know whether or not they’re going to be held.”

Timothy John

And Jonathan Durling, Partnerships Director at SweetSpot Group, organisers of the Tour of Britain, Women’s Tour and Tour Series, explains how cycling’s lockdown boom offers the sport new commercial opportunities.

Jonathan Durling

“We’ve now got a mini boom again 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 less marketing pounds to spent on sports sponsorship as a result. Are we in a stronger position as a result of covid to appeal to brands thinking about sports sponsorship? I think we probably are.”

Introduction: Timothy John

Welcome to part one of this special, investigative edition of the Brother UK Cycling Podcast.

Coronavirus has affected every area of British life in 2020. While its impact on sport pales in comparison with the loss of human life, for those with an interest in British road racing - teams, riders, sponsors and organisers - the sport’s continued lockdown in the UK, and long after racing resumed in Europe, has felt like the steepening of a downward trajectory.

The recent heyday of British road racing, when as many as six well-run, well-funded, British-registered UCI Continental teams raced with panache and success, at home and abroad, already seems far distant. Sponsors have left, teams have folded and some of best-loved events on the domestic calendar are no longer held. This town, The Specials might have observed, is coming like a ghost town.

So should we look ahead to 2021 with optimism or trepidation? What systemic weaknesses must be addressed and overcome if the sport is to thrive again? The pipeline of British talent has not run dry, the passion of our tireless race organisers still burns brightly, and even the sport’s much-maligned federation has shown its appetite for change by appointing a young, dynamic Elite Road Manager, fresh from the domestic peloton.

In this opening instalment of a two-part investigation, we’ll consider the challenge of race organisation: constructing  a calendar, staging events and paying for them. In part two, we’ll turn our attention to teams and riders.

Each of our guides can be described, without fear of contradiction, as an expert in their field.

Erick Rowsell has been British Cycling’s Elite Road Manager since January. For six of  the previous eight years raced on British-registered UCI Continental teams for six years of an eight-year professional career. His two seasons with Pro Continental outfit NetApp-Endura brought appearances in three Monument Classics: Milan-Sanremo, Liêge-Bastogne-Liége and Il Lombardia. He knows what a bike race looks like from the inside and has a clear vision for domestic road racing, as we’ll hear.

Phil Jones MBE is the Managing Director of Brother UK and this podcast’s co-host. The architect of Brother UK’s long-standing and comprehensive sponsorship of British cycle sport, Phil combines genuine passion for the sport with a hard-headed insistence on ROI.

Peter Harrison joined Gosforth Road Club in 1961 and became organiser of the Beaumont Trophy in the 1970s. In 2011, he added the Curlew Cup to the club’s portfolio, a National Road Series women’s race, that cemented racing’s position at the centre of his hugely successful Cyclone Festival of Cycling.

Larry Hickmott is the founder and editor of VeloUK.net, a website that serves as the heartbeat of domestic cycle sport. His vast experience and eye-witness view of seemingly every race in the country - no one works harder than Larry.- more than qualifies him to comment.

Finally, Jonathan Durling is the Commercial Director at The SweetSpot Group, organisers of the Tour of Britain, Women’s Tour and Tour Series. A consultant to Skoda on sponsorship matters, he understands race sponsorship from both sides of the fence.

Brother UK’s strict adherence to government guidance on coronavirus and unwavering commitment to Covid secure environments and practices means that each guest was interview remotely.

Timothy John

Let’s start by considering the scale of the challenge faced by British road racing. Although the focus of this episode is on race organisation and the structural concerns of a national series and calendar, neither can be divorced from financial realties or from the actors without whom the show would be dull indeed: the teams and riders. In short no aspect of British road racing acts in isolation, as Phil Jones explains.

Phil Jones

There’s a lot of interdependency on all of these things. Teams need sponsors and sponsors need platforms and platforms need races and races need organisers and organisers need to find funding and they also need to have the full support of the federation. There is a great interdependency on these things.

Right now, we are entering into quite a difficult environment for everybody because of course we’re in our post-Covid world where businesses are having to make lots of decisions about their future and possibly reducing the amount that they spend.

You’ve got teams who naturally continue to look for new sponsors, but part of the sponsorship roadmap is having a race programme and therefore a platform for a potential sponsor to amplify their messaging. In the absence of racing and the absence of that platform the teams are going to find it very, very difficult to attract new money.

Timothy John

Finance, investment, sponsorship, call it what you like, elite level cycling costs money. Staging a bike race on the public highway requires more time, more people and more permissions than holding a football match on public ground or even a tennis tournament at a private club. For Larry Hickmott, who has seen more bike races than most of us have had hot dinners, the most important ingredient in a recipe for renewed success is obvious.

Larry Hickmott

“I guess it would have to be money. The cost of putting on races has just gone through the roof in the last 20 years. I go to time-trials and other club races and see the number of vehicles on the road. I think there are too many different elements for there to be one magic bullet, but certainly money does talk in being able to get in the infrastructure to put on a bike race on a closed road.”

Timothy John

Peter Harrison’s Cyclone Festival of Cycling must be the largest cycling event in Britain run by a volunteer organiser. The cost of staging four-days of closed-road challenge rides and racing, from the urban streets of Newcastle city centre to the beautiful Northumberland countryside, is not cheap.

Peter Harrison

“It’s about between £90,000 and £110,000.”

Timothy John

“Say that again, Peter?”

Peter Harrison

“It’s about between £90,000 and £110,000.”

Timothy John

The scale of Peter’s achievement in raising six-figure sums by selling the social benefits of recreational cycling and the thrill of bike racing to corporate backers including Northern Rock and Virgin Money should not be underestimated. Peter has succeeded on charisma and contacts, but even he acknowledges that the fight has been tough and, post-Covid, is likely to get tougher.

Peter Harrison

“It goes right across the board, this. It goes back to this whole pandemic thing, and nobody at the moment, least of all the government, knows what’s going to happen. I feel sorry for people like, for example the timing company. They’ve got no income coming in, because they’ve got no running or cycling events to time.

“It’s going to be interesting going forwards into next year, who will come on board; if anybody new, whether they have an appetite for it, or whether they want to boost themselves and be seen to be putting something back.”

Timothy John

Paying close attention to the UK and global economies is literally part of the job for Phil Jones. Leadership of a major business like Brother UK requires a keen understanding of financial trends. Like most business leaders, Phil deals in economic realities, however harsh. Cycle sport, he warns, must prepare for a chilly economic climate.

Phil Jones

“I think it’s going to be very, very difficult, I really do. You’ve only got to start seeing now some of the results announcements coming out from business. Teams and race organisers are generally looking to business. There’s very few philanthropists around that are just chucking money at the sport because it’s their hobby. Ultimately, it’s businesses that are funding the sport.”

“When we’re seeing some of these results being announced, you can see the very large impact that Covid has caused them. You can see the financial impact, in some good cases, may be a 15 per cent reduction in sales; a 50 per cent reduction in profits and, in some bad cases, 70 per cent reduction in sales and closure of the business.”

Timothy John

Phil’s analysis is borne out by Peter Harrison’s experience. An entrepreneur who has run several businesses in Newcastle, and who worked for two decades as an executive at Madison, title sponsor of Erick Rowsell’s now-defunct Madison-Genesis team, he has a keen understanding of how wider economic shifts effect cycling and first-hand experience of the often frustrating search sponsorship in a post-Covid economy.

Peter Harrison

“I’ve talked to, you name it, from Greggs right the way through to financial institutions, the whole gamut, trying to get them involved in the event. There were a couple this year. Just before the pandemic, I was talking to. I was talking to an energy company trying to make bigger in-roads in the area, and they’re an energy company focussed very much on the green side of energy, and I thought I had that in the bag, and then the whole pandemic thing kicked off.”

“Companies are, let’s face it, going to be scaling back their marketing budgets. Some of them are going into financial loss or massively reduced profits. Maybe it’s my inexperience of not being someone who’s a commercial marketeer, someone who’s just, although I would like to think I can forward a good pitch.”

Timothy John

Someone who is a commercial marketeer, and who certainly can deliver a pitch, is Jonathan Durling, SweetSpot Group’s Partnerships Director` and a sponsorship consultant to leading brands, including Skoda UK, in 2016, Jonathan brokered SweetSpot’s three-year agreement with OVO Energy for title sponsorship of the Tour of Britain, Women’s Tour and Tour Series. He too maintains a close analysis of economic trends. While he isn’t blind to the economic impact of the pandemic, he sees reasons for optimism in one of its bigger trends of lockdown.

Jonathan Durling

“We’ve now got a mini boom again 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 less marketing pounds to spent on sports sponsorship as a result. Are we in a stronger position as a result of covid to appeal to brands thinking about sports sponsorship? I think we probably are because I think we can play on the community angle, the health and wellbeing angle, the cycling boom…”

“What it needs is organisations like us and our colleagues around the world to become a lot more digitally savvy and to be able to offer opportunities to brands that they can find in other sports, and I don’t  think we’re doing that necessarily at the moment.”

Timothy John

Phew! If you weren’t already convinced that there are no free lunches in domestic road racing, you must certainly be now. And while we could devote the rest of this podcast to contemplating tough economic certainties. let’s lighten our spirits with some positive news: British Cycling will host a National Road Series next year. How can we be sure? Well, we have it on the best authority: Erick Rowsell, the federation’s Elite Road Racing Manager.

Erick Rowsell

“I’m confident we’ll have a national series next year. I think it will look quite good. I’ve been working very closely with the organisers. They’re all really engaged still. They’re all really enthusiastic to get going again. Everyone wants to get bike racing happening again. I’m quite confident we will have a good national series next year.”

“Our aims for the future won’t happen next year, but I think going through what the country and the world has just gone through, to have bike racing at that level will be a big achievement in itself. We could be in a situation where most organisers or authorities or sponsors just say: ‘We’ve taken such a big hit this year, we’re not even going to attempt it next year.’ So the fact that we’re having these conversations about races for next year is already a positive, given the climate we’re in, I think.”

Timothy John

We’ve started this section of the story at the end. How Erick Rowsell and his colleagues at British Cycling have  fashioned a National Road Series for 2021 must be at least as interesting as the pledge that they have done so. For a start, he has forged new working relationships with disaffected race organisers - no small achievement given the acrimony that surrounded a disagreement over branding rights at National Road Series events that delayed the publication of the 2020 calendar until March. Peter Harrison, vastly experienced and no stranger to British Cycling’s often mysterious ways, approves of its new man.

Peter Harrison

Well, Erick has been doing a good job, in fairness. Erick’s got involved in our national organisers’ group. Funnily enough, I’ve been having regular telephone conversations with Erick. He is listening to the riders. He’s been along to a meeting with national event organisers and he’s prepared to listen and he’s putting forward points of view to those in the organisation who don’t know about cycling at that level. So, yes, Erick’s a very good ally and is doing a lot.”

Timothy John

So what exactly is Erick doing? The scope of his role involves nothing less than reimagining the structure of British road racing, up to and including the flagship National Road Series. So what changes has he planned? And what purpose do he believe the domestic road scene should serve?

Erick Rowsell

“The key thing to remember here is that the National Series should be seen as a development series. It should in my eyes be there to help progress British talent and help it move on to bigger and better things. What was needed in my opinion was someone who understood the sport; the way bike races happen, what riders need, what teams need. If we’re saying it should be there for developing riders then someone who understands what riders need to develop; what teams need to develop riders.”

“There are a hundred other things that play into this as well, but recognition that someone who knows the sport is needed. Effectively my idea for the future would be a three-tiered approach with a top series consisting of UCI events, a middle series where, effectively, you could use the old name of Premier Calendar and a new, under-23 development series to sit below that. The key things would be the calendar spread and geographical spread of those events.”

“If I could paint the perfect picture that’s what I’d like to try and achieve. It’s a huge task. If the appetite is still there, and people still want this racing in the UK and we’ve still got the riders and teams to do it, then we will do our best to make it happen as well.”

Timothy John

Erick’s vision for the development of domestic road racing and the riders within it is coherent, sincerely held, and based on eight years’ experience as a professional rider. He has clearly given careful consideration to fine detail like the race classifications that would underlie a tiered approach. Is there a broader consideration of the purpose a national series should serve, beyond merely developing rides? Should it be a national showcase to rival the Tour of Britain? A guaranteed passport to the UCI WorldTour? Is it even necessary, or has the reinvigoration of club time-trials under lockdown shown that grassroots can rival razzmatazz? Here’s VeloUK’s Larry Hickmott.

Larry Hickmott

“Because we’ve missed the National Road Series this year, basically the sport is missing that top level; missing that excitement. That said, having spent the last month since racing’s returned, going to club events, there is a great deal of happiness, joy, whatever, at racing returning. I look at the results, and I know where people live and I see where they’re racing, so they’re obviously travelling quite a distance just to pin on a number, so racing is obviously quite important to them.

So you have two levels. You have the grassroots racing, simply because people enjoy racing and getting that competitive spirit out. But when it comes to the National Series, that’s more of a business. There’s a lot of pressure on riders to perform in them. The problem there is that, whereas the Tour of Britain and even the National Championships can help a rider to win a contract in Europe, as Rory Townsend has found, after winning three Premier Calendar events last year, winning Premier Calendar or National Series events, whether its male or female, does not necessarily get you a contract with a big team in Europe.

“The difference between a Premier Calendar and the Tour of Britain is simply the riders competing in it. A domestic race, a Prem, is simply going to have British team riders, whether they come from Australia, New Zealand, wherever, it’s still dominated by British teams. The pro teams in Europe aren’t going to be looking at riders and what they’re doing here, whereas the Tour of Britain, if you do a good performance, such as the likes of Matt Holmes and James Shaw in the Tour de Yorkshire; they’ve done top five, top 10 overall. That shows their potential which has perhaps helped them get spots in WorldTour teams that they have managed to do.”

“I still think it’s an important part of that stepping stone to Europe for riders to be able to show their potential and give themselves their own morale boost to know that they can do this. If we lost the National Road Series, it would be a huge thing. It would obviously effect bigger teams; the UCI teams. Those teams would perhaps fall by the wayside. I think that would be a detriment to the sport. The ladder to the top would stop a few rungs earlier than if we lost the National Series.

Timothy John

Larry’s fears are certainly justified - this year’s National Road Series seemed imperilled even before the pandemic, due to the late publication of the calendar and British Cycling’s seemingly unilateral decision to abandon television coverage of its flagship road series. But Erick’s appointment has reassured many, not least the race organisers. His vision for a three-tiered National Series will not be delivered overnight, but its effect could be transformative.

Erick Rowsell

“My opinion of the direction the National Road Series should take in the future is that it potentially needs to be a tiered approach.”

“Imagine a pyramid, and at the top you’ve got the Tour of Britain, the Tour of Yorkshire, RideLondon, those sort of events. Below that, we’ve got one UCI 1.2 event, which is the CiCLE Classic, and then below that, you’ve got the National Road Series and National Bs. There are obviously some gaps there that we could fill.”

“If you’re a Conti team, you can ride the top races and you can ride the CiCLE Classic and the Premier Calendar, but if you’re an elite British team, you can’t ride those top races. All you have access to is the National Road Series or National B events, unless you’ve got the money and the budget to go and do UCI events abroad.”

“I think the future we need to look at is a more tiered approach where there are potentially three different series. There could be a top one, something in the middle, and potentially much more of a development series that sits below it. I think that could then provide more certainty to teams that we think: ‘Right, we know what we’re competing in, we’re aiming for that series. If we can win in that, we can potentially have some exposure in the next series.’”

“It sort of gives a bit of direction to where the teams sit and what would be there for them, rather than just one series. At the moment, it’s one suits everybody, which is not what we’ve got in the UK. That’s almost the beauty of racing in the UK. We’ve got completely different circumstances. You’ve got someone who might work as a postman racing one week, and a rider who might be paid 40 grand racing the same race the next week. We’ve got to try and develop a calendar that suites everybody, which is very, very tricky, but my idea is that we separate things out a bit, rather than relying on one solution for everybody.

“The ideas and ambitions are big. They’re long-term They’re not going to happen this year. Everything is not going to happen in one go next year. It’s going to be a phased approach where we map out where we want to get to, but it’s going to take some time to get there. We can’t just click our fingers and change everything overnight.”

Timothy John

Erick’s vision for a tiered structure will have the greatest impact on teams and so is one we’ll examine in part two of this episode. That Erick has a vision however and is determined his appointment will bring necessary change is to be welcomed. HIs insistence that change will take time to implement is to be respected too, but that time will pass quickly. The commercial landscape changes rapidly indeed and once sponsors are lost, they can be hard to regain, as Phil Jones explains.

Phil Jones

“The worst thing that anyone can do is lose a sponsor, in the same way that, with my business hat on, we all know that the cost of acquiring a new customer is far more expensive than keeping a current one. When a sponsors walks away from a sport, to bring them back is quite hard. What you’re doing is challenging a decision. If that decision is a fairly recent division, then generally speaking it’s unlikely that someone is going to review that position in the short term. I think the trick now has got to be how the sport finds ways to ensure that the sponsors who currently exist in the sport stay in the sport and stand at the side of the sport while it’s going through this really difficult period. That’s going to mean that they’ve got to be  talking to their sponsors regularly and finding new ways to activate their sponsorship and add value.”

“Looking from outside in, you can see that BC are going to have a few challenges ahead themselves. They have recently lost, I believe, their major sponsor. They’ve got a job to go away and find a brand new, big ticket sponsors to help with funding, which will be part of their headache, that the commercial teams are going to have to land a big fish.”

Timothy John

‘Landing big fish’ might almost be Jonathan Durling’s job description, and two of the biggest he’s landed for SweetSpot Group are OVO Energy. It’s hard to imagine two more distinct businesses, yet cycle sponsorship generated return on investment for both. So how is it done?

Jonathan Durling

“OVO were a young company who needed to build brand awareness. We ticked that box very well, especially as there were some brand values that we shared, principally around sustainability. We work with Skoda, and as much as brand awareness is important, most people have heard of Skoda. What they do want to do is sell cars, funnily enough. But they want to also start to position the brand in a different way and to different audiences.”

“So if we’re going old school, and you’ve got the purchase funnel: awareness at the top, sales at the bottom and consideration in the middle, brands can sit at the top, sit at the bottom or sit in the middle, and it’s my job, and our job as a team, to convince them that we can address and answer their objectives, and sometimes it’s easier than others. With OVO, it wasn’t a difficult conversation. They wanted to increase awareness. Cycling and cyclists were an important audience for them, and that’s clearly something we can do very well.”

Timothy John

Jonathan’s marketing funnel is perhaps the only old-school piece left in cycle sport’s sponsorship jigsaw. Bike racing’s value to local authorities in particular has evolved in the 15 years since SweetSpot Group revived the Tour of Britain.

Jonathan Durling

“We’re now moving into cycling being regarded not only as a sport, but also as a means of transport. Active travel is high on the agenda, as is health and well-being.”

“What we can do as an event to help a local authority inspire and motivate their communities off the sofa and onto bikes 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. Now, it’s a fairly common conversation. An important objective for them is an active community and what can we do to help.” 

“What’s been interesting is not just what we can do, but it’s about what cycling can do and the world of cycling, so we start to include conversations with people like  Bikability; with British Cycling, who we work with very closely. There’s a great need and feel for collaboration among everyone involved in cycling and how we can all help local authorities engage with their communities. It’s a really interesting time to be involved.”

Timothy John

If we seem to have veered a long way from bike racing, it’s worth reminding ourselves that events on the scale of the Tour of Britain, and even the races in the National Road Series demand substantial investment. Bike racing’s ability then to serve a range of agendas, from economic regeneration to public health, is highly significant. The new frontier of cycle sponsorship lies in community engagement. Nothing brings people together like a bike race. Phil Jones recalls the Tour of Britain’s denouement last year in Manchester, Brother UK’s home town.

Phil Jones

“I think they showed what could be done. That was the reason why the race went through every borough of Greater Manchester. That was part of the payoff: that everybody got the race in their particular borough, which I thought was great. But of course, it was well-supported. There were hundreds of thousands on the street. People who would not normally be watching; on the street, out in their hundreds of thousands.”

“I watched the race depart in Altrincham. In fact, I rode on my bike just a few days ago under the mile zero bridge. It always reminds me when I ride under it of what a great day that was for Altrincham to see the town centre packed with thousands of people, the coffee shops full, the bunting…It just did a brilliant job to put Altrincham on the map. It actually came very close to Brother UK as well, which was lovely.”

“Then it finished off course on Deansgate in Greater Manchester. Having been at the race in the morning, I shot to see the finish as well. There literally were hundreds of thousands in the city on that particular day. It was a beautiful day; the buzz. It was a day to remember. I still remember it very, very vividly.”

Timothy John

Days like the Tour of Britain’s visit to Manchester last year are those where every piece of the bike racing jigsaw fall into place: commercial and sporting: Mathieu Vane Der Poel sprinkled WorldTour stardust on a central Manchester with a dazzling sprint victory, while the race’s major backers - corporates like Brother UK and councils in the shape of the combined Greater Manchester Authority could reflect with pride on having brought the race to Manchester. People came out in their hundreds of thousands and went home happy. This last element - community engagement - might be the most powerful of all, as Jonathan Durling explains.

Jonathan Durling

“The final stage of the Tour of Britain last year was an extraordinary success, because we took the race through all 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester, which got all 10 boroughs working tightener, which they’d never done before on that scale. We had a debrief afterwards and found that people had been writing into their councils and saying: ‘Thank-you for bringing the race.’ Local authorities never get emails like that. They never get a thank-you. It’s always a complaint. They did some digging into this and all 10 boroughs had the same message, which was: the community bonded. There’s no other event can do this. The only other was when the Olympic flame made its way around the country. You get people coming out of their front door, standing on the side of the road for maybe 20 minutes waiting for the race to come through or waiting the flame to come, and talking to their neighbours.

“If our event can improve community engagement and community relationships, it’s a positive. The local authority can see the benefit of that further down the line. There is a financial argument that if we can get 10 per cent of the population on bikes and more active  further down the line there will be a saving to the NHS and other cost centres. It’s up to me to make the argument.”

“It is stark and there are times when you just know that now is not the time. One of the reasons we postponed the Tour of Britain when we did is in the bigger scheme of things, when people are fighting for their lives in hospitals, it is only a bike race.”

Timothy John

Covid19 prevented the National Road Series from starting this year, and, at the very least, its spectre is likely to hang over the sport in 2021. The only upside of the pandemic has been the enforced opportunity to reset. We have heard already how Erick Rowsell intends to restructure the National Road Series, but are the greatest challenges beyond even his control? For Larry Hickmott, domestic road racing’s biggest challenge lies in ensuring a succession for the sport’s influential but ageing nucleus of race organisers.

Larry Hickmott

“Everything is interlinked, but for me, the race organisers are the most important [piece in the jigsaw]. This year, we lost Mike Hodgson who for years and years and years put a lot of his own money into the Tour of the Reservoir, made the Tour of the Reservoir a race for both men and women. He was a really passionate guy about the sport. What happens to his event now, which has been part of the National Series for so long, is a worry. We don’t know whether or not there will be an organiser will come into step into his shoes and keep the event going.”

“The organisers have so much experience at how to get these events on the road, which is no mean feat. If the organisers are there and know how to organise these events and know how to deal with BC and all that sort of stuff, then the riders will come along and race them.”

“I think it’s a huge challenge and I think there is a big danger out there. I look at the organisers and, no offence to them, but, like me, they’re all getting on a bit. There are the younger organisers like Richard Williamson and Marc Etches to name but two that come to mind, but I think in order for the sport at that level to continue it’s almost as if the older organisers need to be mentors to younger people wanting to keep the sport alive: having someone to go to be able to learn the ropes, basically.”

Timothy John

Peter Harrison might be taken as Exhibit A. He joined Gosforth Road Club in 1961 and has organised the Beaumont Trophy since the 1970s. He has grown the Cyclone Festival of Cycling around it, and added the Curlew Cup  - both huge achievements. But, realistically, how long can Peter and his wife continue to run an event that attracts up to 4,000 amateur riders and professional fields that have included Sir Bradley Wiggins and Lizzie Deignan?

Peter Harrison

“It has been getting tougher, I must admit, given that I’m still running a business and I’ve got other things in my life, as well as being Chairman of the Gosforth Road Club. It does take up a bit of time, and I’m not getting any younger.”

“Between me and my wife - she deals with all the logistics, with regards to the payments coming in by cross-referencing it to the entries, by sorting out the entries, all of this, it depends on the time of year, but it’s probably between 15 and 30 hours a week.”

Timothy John

For the avoidance of doubt, that’s between 15 and 30 hours a week, every week of the year; a commitment spawned not only by a bike race but by an entire cycling festival. And in case there was any possibility of a quiet weekend, Peter also organises Gosforth Road Club’s Sloane Trophy, a Regional A race that in this extraordinary year was massively oversubscribed. He is not afraid to call on others to step up lend a hand.

Peter Harrison

“We’ve got to have new, young organisers coming through, prepared to put on races, because they appetite is there for riders to race, if we can get those organisers in. As an example, I put on the Sloane Trophy, a Regional A 2/3/4. I opened entries for that, I think it was on my birthday on January 15 and the race was supposed to be scheduled in April. I had a full field within the first two weeks; not only a full field. I had 70 – seven zero – more riders apply. So, in other words, I had 160 riders apply for 90 places.

So it’s not struggling in that respect. Where we are struggling is, and I can go back to regional level on this, is that it’s in the hands of the riders, I have to say. It’s got nothing at all to do with BC. I believe that we’ve got 92 registered clubs in the North East region, and there are only about five or six clubs that are putting on races. There is no easy way of saying to a club: ‘You’ve got to put on a race or your riders don’t get a ride in any other races. That’s the old carrot and stick. That’s not going to work. It’ll come to the realisation over this year, or maybe some riders are already coming to the realisation, that if they don’t start to help, the races are going to disappear, even more so than they are at the moment.

You used to be able to race from March through until about October, every weekend, possibly even a mid-week race, and you used to be able to ride the track league as well on one of the nights. So, there was all those races, and they’ve reduced right down now; I mean really scaled back. This why riders are scrabbling for places because there are so few of them to ride. In that respect, it is in the hands of the riders.

Timothy John

We’re starting to build up an accurate picture of life for a National Road Series organiser. Not only must they raise tens of thousands of pounds in sponsorship and secure the agreement of police and councils for road closures, they must do so single-handed. Little wonder then that events come and go from the National Road Series calendar. Has the job simply grown too big for even the most dedicated volunteer? Here’s Larry again.

Larry Hickmott

There is a great deal of uncertainty I think, more than there ever has been. Every year, we seem to go into this national series wondering whether or not ‘x’ event will be held. There are the long-standing events which are fairly secure, such as Peter Harrison’s such as Bob Howden’s; early-season races by Richard Williamson. But there are others that come on and then they disappear and you’re never certain or not whether they’re going to be held. 

Timothy John

The uncertainty Larry describes was exacerbated this year by a significant delay in publishing the National Road Series calendar. Last year’s calendar was published on the British Cycling website on December 19, 2018, four months before the first race. This year’s calendar, by contract, wasn’t published on the website until March 6, 2020 – just six weeks from an opening event that was eventually postponed for lockdown.

Peter Harrison says the delay was caused by a stand-off over branding rights at National Road Series events between British Cycling and the National Organisers Group. With sponsorship already hard to find, and events worthy of a national series having to raise tens of thousands of pounds, it’s easy to see how an issue seemingly irrelevant to the spectator can have a profound effect on whether or not events take place.

Peter Harrison

We hadn’t got a structured calendar as such, and Erick was just coming into the job. We were asked to sign a contract, which we’d never had to in the past. There were various things in it - I won’t go into the nitty gritty - that we weren’t happy with and weren’t prepared to sign. So that was the delay in why the calendar came out.

We had to turn round to BC and say, ‘We are the organisers. You don’t own our races. We own our races. Yes, we’re running them under British Cycling regulations, but at the end of the day, it’s we as organisers who own the series. It’s not BC who own the series.’

It took a bit of understanding on BC’s part to get their heads around this. HSBC demanded 50 per cent of the branding on all National Series races, which they did have: on the podium, the finish barriers etc;; obviously not on social media, but we had to use their terms on social media whenever talking about our events.

So therefore trying to sell our event to potential sponsors, we had to turn around and say: ‘Thanks for coming in as headline sponsor, really appreciate it. Oh, by the way, you’ve only got 50 per cent of the branding, if you’re the sole sponsor. If we’ve got a number of smaller sponsors, it’s going to reduce down to maybe 70 or 80 per cent of the 50 per cent.’

Timothy John

While Erick points out that the dispute began before his appointment, he understands that British Cycling’s insistence on branding rights for the series title sponsor were no greater than before.

Erick Rowsell

I can’t talk too much about before I joined because I don’t know all the ins and outs, but I think if you look back at previous years when British Cycling have had other sponsors on board… The National Road Series has had other sponsors. Previously, it was Motorpoint. When Sky sponsored British Cycling, they took part of the rights as well.

It’s not a brand new thing that’s come in. I think it’s just been policed a bit more strictly in recent years, with HSBC being such a big sponsor and putting in so much funding.

Timothy John

Next year, HSBC will cease to be a sponsor of British Cycling, big or otherwise. As this podcast went to press, the federation announced that the partnership would continue into 2021, having annoyed in February that it would end this year - four years ahead of time.

It’s unclear how British Cycling will replace the bank when it leaves after next year’s rescheduled Olympic and Paralympic Games - a statement on the federation’s website talks of a “changed relationship” and “a coalition of businesses” and promises further details on its partnership plans for 2021 “in due course”. With CEO Julie Harrington departing next January, the federation is facing significant change.

Whatever the outcome of changes to its leadership and key commercial partnership, Peter Harrison warns that national race organisers will not accept the terms of sponsorship agreements for National Series Races offered by the federation to its previous title sponsors regarding the percentage of branding rights and the types of business organisers can attract.

Peter Harrison

From next year, we don’t know what negotiations BC are having with potential sponsors, if any at all. I must say, particularly with Julia Harrington leaving, whether they’re going to get a new commercial sponsor, but one of the things we are saying as national organisers is: ‘One of the things we are not going to be hamstrung about who we can have in as sponsors as our races. If you want us to go ahead as a national series, and we’re able to pull in sponsors, we’re not going to have BC dictating to us: ‘No, you cannot have this branding or that branding, or this sponsor or that sponsor because of our partnership with some commercial company.’ That is a big challenge.

Timothy John

Whatever challenges might lie ahead, Erick is confident his appointment can help to overcome them. It’s worth noting that everyone we spoke to for this episode, on the record or off, spoke highly of his approach. Erick’s knowledge of the sport and innate understanding of the value of the race organisers’ contribution, holds the key to closer working relationships, he believes.

Erick Rowsell

I think the key thing from my role is the communication. The organisers now feel there’s someone they can talk to, there’s someone they can pick up the phone to, any time of day, to discuss issues, what’s going wrong, what problems they might have, or what’s going well and what they’re happy with, and know that there’s one point of contact.

I certainly won’t have the answer to everything. if it’s a discussion about rights or what’s going on around the race then I can have that discussion with them, but then ultimately I can go and ask someone else and say: ‘We’ve got this issue that’s cropped up, what can we do about it?’

I think also I bring another side to it, rather than a quite straight-faced, take it or leave it. I also understand the history of the sport and the need to keep these races. I can maybe come at it with maybe a softer approach and say, ‘Well, what can we do to help out in this area? Is there any way we can have a bit of leeway here, because this race has 20 years history behind it that we need to maintain.’ I think that’s where the bike racing background and history can come into play, moreso than if this job was given to someone who just understands the commercials or something like that. I think that’s the element: the communication and the knowledge and understanding of the race as well.

Timothy John

It’s heartening to hear about Erick’s approach and the response its generated from organisers like Peter Harrison; one of many who believes Erick is doing a good job. Can more be done, however, to lift some of the huge burden currently on the shoulders of race organisers? Not only must they raise tens of thousands of pounds in sponsorship and secure the agreement of police and councils for road closures, they must do so single-handed. Little wonder then that events come and go from the National Road Series calendar. Has the job simply grown too big for even the most dedicated volunteer? Here’s Larry again

Larry Hickmott

I certainly couldn’t just step into the shoes of someone like Peter Harrison or Bob Howden’s or Marc Etches’. You mention the cost of putting on the Beaumont: even the cost of putting on a crit like Newcastle was forty odd grand. It’s an awful lot of money so you do need someone who has a really good business acumen and good networking skills to bring in the money to be able do that.

So essentially, I guess it does need to be almost like a professional organisation i.e. it almost needs a business manager and 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. Let’s face it, you’ve got your local councils, British Cycling, the police…so many different bodies that you need to be able to deal with.

I’ve always thought that companies like SweetSpot, we do need more of them to be able to put on events: to put on a Premier Calendar series, for example, but 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.

The influence that Brother UK has had on teams for example and helping the sport is absolutely huge and they also did put in money and a great deal of help to an event on the Isle of Man called the British National Road Race Championships.

But we don’t have any of those blue chip companies sponsoring events, to keep those National Series events on the road. At the moment, the National Road Series events in both men and women is still a mish-mash of privateers putting on events that may or may not be held due to finance.

If, for example, there was an organisation that came in to organise all six or 10 events for both men and women, and they had a big, blue chip company sponsoring it, I think it would look and feel a lot more professional; a lot more like the Tour of Britain or the Tour de Yorkshire as they do on the road.

Timothy John

Anyone who knows Larry knows that he bows to no one in his admiration for British cycle sport’s volunteer race organisers. But if he can see that a professional organisers are needed to create events that look and feel professional, why can’t others? The Tour Series for example rolls on year-after-year, with televised coverage and the best domestic teams committed to competing in every round. Is it time for the National Road Series to adopt the same organisational model? Erick Rowsell believes not and argues that comparing The Tour Series and the National Road Series isn’t exactly comparing apples with apples.

Erick Rowsell

The National Road Series has hugely different challenges to The Tour Series. The two, in my opinion, are almost incomparable. The Tour Series is commercially run. It’s run by a commercial company with commercial sponsors and backing. The Road Series is almost the polar opposite. It’s volunteer based. Much smaller companies sponsoring the individual events and relies heavily on local authorities, down to the smallest details of whether it’s harvest period or not, if one of these races will take place. We could try to dictate exactly what we want but ultimately it’s volunteer-run and you can’t always get what’s perfect in that situation, in that model.

You wouldn’t want to lose that. You wouldn’t want to lose those volunteer-based races and what they provide to the sport. You wouldn’t want to create something higher up to then create a bigger gap below it. The key is working it in a way where we keep what we’ve currently got, because a lot of what we’ve got is good. The bike races are good. They’re highly contested. Riders like riding them. They often get full entries. So they are good bike races. I think we just need to work out a way to develop them and combine that into something that could be more commercial going forwards that would suit everybody.

I wouldn’t agree that we want to go completely away form a volunteer-based model. It’s just working out how we develop what we’ve currently got. to provide…At the end of the day, this all boils down to what riders and what teams need, and what we want to provide for them. We’re not doing it for our own ego, or for an organiser’s ego, or for someone to say, ‘I’ve put on a national race.’ If it’s not working for the bike rider and the team, what is the point in doing it? That’s what ultimately it comes down to. So we’ve got to work with what works for our riders and for our teams and for our members, and if it doesn’t quite work for them, then we need to shake it up and change it a bit. That’s my opinion.

Timothy John

Perhaps both Erick and Larry are right. It would be impossible to create events with the character and heritage of races like the Beaumont Trophy and CiCLE Classic without the passion of volunteers like Peter Harrison and Colin Clews. And yet it cannot be right that these same volunteers must dip into their own pockets to keep the show on the road. With the blue chip backers that Larry rightly calls for likely to be in shorter supply than ever for reasons already discussed, is it time for the federation to seek additional funding? Phil Jones believes so. No one, he argues, is getting rich by putting on domestic bike races.

Phil Jones

Perhaps both Erick and Larry are right. It would be impossible to create events with the character and heritage of races like the Beaumont Trophy and CiCLE Classic without the passion of volunteers like Peter Harrison and Colin Clews. And yet it cannot be right that these same volunteers must dip into their own pockets to keep the show on the road. With the blue chip backers that Larry rightly calls for likely to be in shorter supply than ever for reasons already discussed, is it time for the federation to seek additional funding? Phil Jones believes so. No one, he argues, is getting rich by putting on domestic bike races.

Phil

Something needs to be done because of course it’s vital that things like the talent pipelines for athletes continue to roll. Of course, there’s the Olympics on the horizon, and they’ve got to start thinking about the next Olympic cycle. They’re constantly looking for new talent to bring into the medal factory and onto the elite programme etc.

That needs to keep going. So I guess the job there is for the federation to represent itself to government, to convince government to give that a short-term injection of some kind in order that they can at least bridge over the most difficult time which is probably going to be the time in the coming 12 months.

If you look at this through clear eyes, what you’d say is: ‘Is there a commercial model sitting behind this where race organisers are all making a fortune and therefore it should be left to the market to see whether they survive or not?’ And my answer to that is, I don’t see any multi-millionaire race organisers rolling around the country on the races that they make from the races.

From what I can see, most people are walking away with break-even or a very small margin, and they are normally people who are highly committed to the sport, and the cost of putting the race on, in terms of the other things that they are doing, there’s normally a huge amount of free resource being put into putting the race on, alongside the costs that are covered by attraction of a sponsor.

Timothy John

The complexities of bike racing do not begin and end with tactics on the road. Indeed, it might be argued that chasing down a breakaway is easier than chasing down a sponsor, and that riding a race is less demanding than organising one. It is the speed and excitement, the suffering and heroism that makes road racing such a compelling show, of course, but it doesn’t hurt occasionally to peak behind the curtain to understand the workings of its commercial and organisational machinery.

The National Road Series should be the ladder by which talented young riders climb to the professional ranks. To add rungs and extend it, to strengthen it and secure it will take a combined effort from riders, teams, sponsors, organisers, and, most of all, the federation.

Of all the guests featured in this episode, Elite Road Racing Manager Erick Rowsell arguably has the toughest task. Let’s leave the final word, until part two at least, to Erick. A former professional rider, he is used to digging deep. To win the hearts and minds of a community grown tired of folding races and disappearing teams, he will have to do so again  Unsurprisingly, for a rider with Monument Classics on his palmares, Erick is up for the fight.

Timothy John

We’ll end this episode in our normal manner with a social shoutout. If you want to follow any of our expert witnesses on social media you can do so with these addresses:

Erick Rowsell is on Twitter and Instagram at @erickrowsell

You can follow Jonathan Durling on Twitter at @jdurling1970 and on Instagram at @marla_velo

Larry Hickmott Tweets from @AussieLarry and @velouk. On Instagram, you can follow him @veloukwebsite

Peter Harrison is on Twitter and Instagram at @cyclonefestival

Phil Jones posts about cycling from @roadphil on Twitter and Instagram. For Phil’s Tweets on business and leadership, follow @philjones40

And we sincerely hope you’ll follow Brother Cycling. We’re @brothercycling on the three main platforms.

Thanks for listening and stay safe.

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