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

Cycling Weekly - - NEWS -

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.

The fund­ing crisis is put­ting the brakes on do­mes­tic rac­ing

It’s rough rid­ing for do­mes­tic teams in the cur­rent com­mer­cial cli­mate

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