UK scene branded ‘worst it has ever been’ as teams close
Fears are growing for the future of domestic racing due a lack of sponsorship, writes Paul Knott
The recent spate of domestic team closures is leading some in the scene to brand it the “worst it has ever been”. Last week, stalwarts of the British scene, Team Jlt-condor announced it would fold, a development that followed hot on the heels of the closure of the One Pro Cycling men’s team, in favour of starting a women’s squad. Cycling Weekly also understands that Holdsworth Pro Cycling, which was revived only this year, is unlikely to continue as a Continental-level team in 2019. Meanwhile, Team Wiggins, which is an under-23 squad, is also likely to be scaled down from its current 18-rider roster in 2019.
This sudden fall from seven to four Continental teams leaves many riders and staff with their livelihoods at stake and is in stark contrast to the success British riders have enjoyed at Worldtour level in 2018, where there have been three separate British Grand Tour winners.
Why has it got to this point? Cycling’s struggles with sponsors are nothing new — every year there’s usually one team that implodes due to a funding squeeze. But is 2018 just a bad year or does it signal a downward trend? Simon Cope, sports manager at Team Wiggins, expressed his alarm at the recent closures:
“At the top echelons of the sport in this country it’s the worst it’s ever been,” Cope said. “When Banana-falcon and those teams went, everyone thought it was disastrous then, but we had races. Whereas now we don’t have the races either; no one knows where the Nationals are next year at the moment.
“There’s talk of Premier Calendar races going as well; there’s not that many anyway and there’s no one there. As much as they are good racing circuits, they are no good for advertising.”
In an age and sport when attracting and holding sponsors for multiple years is desirable, the importance of marketable and attractive racing is crucial to the survival of many teams.
“Sweetspot run the Tour of Britain, Tour Series, Ridelondon, but you need a couple more Sweetspots to put on races to attract anybody,” said Cope. “You’ve got to sell the sport — you need high street finishes. If you were a businessman who wanted to invest you’d go to the Ryedale [GP] and you’d think, what am I doing this for?” What about those left?
The closure of Jlt-condor and One Pro is surprising given both teams have won multiple top-level races in recent years.
JLT rider James Gullen echoed the sentiments felt across the domestic cycling scene. “Normally when teams go under, there’s an underlying perception that they didn’t perform well or something like that,” he said. “So to be successful over the last two years and still not be able find a sponsor to put in the money to keep the team going, is pretty bad.”
It’s not as if the talent of British domestic riders is in dispute, with Canyon-eisberg’s Harry Tanfield making the move to Katusha-alpecin next year off the back of a breakaway win at the Tour de
“Premier Calendar races could go”
Yorkshire. Meanwhile Madison-genesis rider Connor Swift is likely to land a Worldtour contract off the back of his National road race win.
Some riders left with no team have been able to find rides for next year, but others will struggle to find a team, as Gullen explained: “It turns into a wage-cutting war. Everyone says I’ll ride for this amount and then you can even afford to do it anymore.
“Ideally someone will come in late on and realise there are all these riders left and start a team because they can get loads of riders at a really good price and put together a really strong team compared to previous years.”
It might initially seem that there could be a few big winners in this situation as the remaining Continental teams benefit from a windfall, picking up some of the riders abruptly left without a ride (see box). But in the longer term the racing and subsequently the attractiveness of teams to sponsors could suffer, as Colin Sturgess, Madison-genesis sports director, is all too aware.
“There is no point being the biggest fish in a very small pond,” Sturgess said. “I realise British Cycling can’t just concentrate on the top level of cycling and it’s not all about elite racing, but I feel there needs to be more focus on boosting the domestic scene and a maintaining a healthy, sustainable programme right at the grass roots.”
In an attempt to address the problem, British Cycling is looking to improve the sport at the elite level, with the possibility of a new race in the south of the country one of its primary aims.
A spokesperson for BC said: “As part of our regular close-season engagement with teams and organisers, we will be working with them to understand how best to support them and help ensure that the growing popularity of cycling translates into a more attractive and sustainable offer for commercial partners.”
The commercial imperative for such a move is clear — if racing becomes less competitive and the attraction to race overseas becomes more alluring, talent will leave to race abroad. Canyon-eisberg’s Tim Elverson sums up the benefits from both a financial and development point of view:
“When I race in Belgium and Holland I get start money, whereas it can cost thousands to race in the UK, in races that we have to do, which seems a bit mad when I can go to Holland and come away with a profit as opposed to a loss,” Eleverson said.
Aware of the challenges race promoters find themselves facing, Elverson knows
“It can cost thousands to race in the UK”
that race fees aren’t the be all and end all of teams surviving. However, a helping hand from British Cycling may have a knock-on effect with who they attract to races. “If these races were UCI .2 races, you’d get teams coming from Europe and the race scene would be a bit better,” he said. “If it was more international it might mean the sponsors think they’ve got more of an audience here to get involved.”
Elverson also believes a system similar to that in football, where clubs who sign an under-23 player on a ‘free transfer’, is required to pay compensation to the club who developed the rider. This is one of the primary roles domestic teams have, but they receive no monetary reward for it. “It would be a way of keeping the team running,” said Eleverson.
In the current climate, any helping hand right now could be crucial to the survival of elite cycling in this country.
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