There is no doubt that British cycling is alive and well at the highest echelons of performance – Britons won the Tour, the world champs and pretty much the entire velodrome; there’s also no doubt that British cycling is alive and kicking at the grass roots level too – membership has doubled since 2007. It makes sense to assume that all is well in between, too, right? Unfortunately not; BC is the governing body for beginner’s racing, Regional racing (2nd and 3rd cats), all levels of women’s road racing, National level racing (Elites and 1st cats) and the semi professional/professional teams below Sky. All of these parts of the sport are in trouble – but particularly at the higher end.
What’s wrong with the in-between then?
The problem with all that lies between the two extremes of the Sky rides and the Sky team is that not only is there a large and almost unbridgeable gap between the likes of Sky and the next best British teams but that the races for those teams are getting scarcer and scarcer in this country. In recent years more and more road races have had to retreat to closed circuits, Premier Calendar events have been cancelled and the racing calendar has fizzled out earlier and earlier in the season. The 2012 Premier Calendar has the fewest events (only 6) in the entire history of the series. Elite and 1st cat riders have been wrapping up their racing in August or early September. Riders for some of the UK Continental registered teams have been spotted preparing for the Tour of Britain on a diet mostly made up of 1 hour criteriums at Hog Hill!
The problem is with race organisation
The bottom line is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to organise and run road races in the UK. Cycle teams, clubs, racers have developed, grown and moved onwards and upwards but the races themselves have gone backwards or at best remained static. This is due to a number of contributory reasons, some more important than others:
Why road races are in trouble whilst everything else is booming
- Legislation: Every year that passes the law governing road races gets another year out of date, it was written in 1960 and no longer works. If you have a quick scan you will see that most of the road races we currently ride will violate one law or another: http://lvrc.org/documents/road_traffic_act_1960.pdf Everyone knows the rules are poor, including the rules themselves (read the last paragraph).
- The Police: The 1960 act gives a huge amount of power to the local police, who are able to place any constrictions they feel necessary on an organiser. They often don’t want the extra work or don’t understand what is required so the larger races never come to fruition. The Police’s job is to serve the public, not to quash the aspirations of an organiser with impractical and unnecessary rules. Ever wondered why the Tour of Britain has those big transfers and a strange patchwork of stages in certain counties? One reason the Tour of Britain goes where it does is because those are the areas with friendly police constables (another being not all regional.development committees are interested).
- Marshalling: did you know that all of those marshalls at your local road race don’t have any legal powers to stop traffic? They are literally just standing there in a hi-viz vest, waving a flag in the street and hoping for the best. It’s worked OK so far but it’s hardly ideal, as a sport we are one RTA away from big legal problems and both literal and figurative nails in coffins. The volunteers at the Tour of Britain have no power to stop traffic either.
- Lack of organisers: There is a perception that a road race is immensely difficult and time consuming to put together. For your average National B or lower this is a misconception, there is plenty of help available from BC and other organisers if you look, often you can do it all on your own until the day of the race.
- Frustrated big race organisers: Once a race is up and running it’s much easier to maintain, this is why it’s so sad to see big events like Premier Calendars disappear, they are very difficult to get going again once lost. Organisation of these events is far more difficult than it should be because of the Police powers and 1960 act, these people have enough of an uphill battle gaining sponsorship and finding volunteers. For an idea of what a big race organiser is up against, read this interview with Peter Harrison, who organises a Premier Calendar and a Women’s series event.
- Lack of volunteers: this is a perennial problem in all sports. The make-up of the teams to which road racers belong is changing; we used to be mainly club riders, now there are many more sponsored teams and riders (a symptom of growth). This is no bad thing by itself but there is perhaps a reduction in people willing to organise or help out at a race as a result. A culture of volunteering needs to re-emerge in road racing, especially amongst those in the sponsored teams. Elite road racers in particular need to pick up here, they benefit from the sport more than others, marshalling is something that everyone should do but elite riders in particular don’t seem to bother with. You can ride out to a race and do it on your rest week, it’s no biggy.
- Opening hours: Shops for a number of years have been open on Sundays, this means increased traffic (and more danger), earlier starts and shorter races.
What can I do to help?
- Write to your MP: The British public is in a unique mood at the moment, we seem to be unusually tolerant of cycling and cyclists thanks to success in the velodrome and Bradley Wiggins’s tour win, not forgetting Mark Cavendish and Lizzie Armitstead. Now is the time to bring a final push for big reforms to the 1960 act. Write to your MP, also write to Julian Huppert, joint chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and tell him that it needs changing. You can also contact Julian on Twitter.
- Encourage British Cycling to act: A couple of years ago BC launched ‘Keep Racing on the Roads’ to tackle the first three things on my list. Here is the Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Keep-R…10888005595054. They appeared to be making progress for a while, sadly they haven’t posted since June last year. What has happened? I don’t know, I don’t care. BC needs to take up the mantle once again with its stated aims. BC is letting us down, like their page, write on their page, email firstname.lastname@example.org, make sure they know you are concerned that nothing is happening. Above all tell them to act now to save the Premier Calendar, it’s in crisis.
- Marshal, Organise, Volunteer: Get stuck in, it is your duty to volunteer, yes, even if you get a free bike from your shop team, yes, even if you have more than 200pts on your license, yes, even if your cycle kit has more than 5 sponsors on it, the more you take from your sport the more you must give back.
- Spread the word: Spread this message as far as possible. BC must know that we are relying on them, everyone is relying on them, they need our support, let them know they have it and that you’re doing your bit.
The standards that the world class performance programme have set and achieved for themselves need to be aspired to by the rest of the road racing community at large, that means by BC, by organisers and by the racers themselves as a long term goal. If we can have a Tour de France winner and a British registered Protour team why can’t we have a racing calendar to match? It’s a long term goal but for now we just need to stop it from disappearing altogether. Wouldn’t it be sad if we measure the success of Britain’s European pros in the context of an all but forgotten and empty domestic scene?
The UK racing scene is bursting at the seams for want of races, particularly at the top end. More and more sponsored teams are relying on getting exposure in the Premier Calendar, which every year shrinks a little bit more. It will only be a matter of time before it simply no longer makes sense to run a team with a UK sponsor wanting UK exposure, Sigma Sport aren’t going to sell any bikes racing in Belgium.
We should aspire to having the Tour of Britain and Rutland Melton on the World Tour, we should have a phalanx of UCI .1 and .2 events, UCI women’s events, 15-20 premier calendars a year and a similarly increased amount of National B and regional races. France has this, Belgium has this, Italy and Spain have this, our world champion and Tour winner don’t, doesn’t that seem strange? One of the continual criticisms of the current government is that their policies are fantastic, but only for the very few, the 1%, who benefit greatly whilst the majority suffer. It would be a pity if this were to be mirrored by road racing in the UK.
Thanks for reading, if you agree, please act – at the very least please share this message.