PREMIER CALENDAR: WHAT NEXT FOR THE BRITISH RACE SERIES?
There is certainly no shortage of racing for elite riders in this country next year — several team managers have even expressed concern there may be too much with the huge increase in criteriums.
But the overall feeling is very positive from riders and managers alike. The results of Cycling Weekly’s Premier Calendar survey produced the same answers from nearly all of them: their favourite race was the Lincoln GP and they want to see more town-centre finishes. The riders love playing to a crowd.
Remember this year’s Lincoln GP? Russell Downing powering up Michaelgate in the sunshine leaving brother Dean and fellow breakaway companion Simon Richardson to scrap for second place? The huge crowd lining the barriers at the city-centre finish, roaring on the combatants in another epic edition of this classic British road race?
Now cast your mind back to the Chas Messenger two-day, another Premier Calendar race held the previous week in Buckinghamshire. The sun shone, the same riders put on the show, and the barriers were in position to hold back the thronging crowd.
The only problem being there was no crowd to throng. You could pick a barrier and make it your own. Or shuffle up and stand close to somebody to try and replicate the feeling of being in a public gathering. The atmosphere so apparent in Lincoln was distinctly lacking at the Chas Messenger, an event of equal standing — it may not have the history of Lincoln, but gets the same support from British Cycling. Where is the support from the general public?
That is not to pick on the Chas Messenger: there were several others in what turned out to be a 10-race series with the same problem. And at least the Chas Messenger took place. The cancellation of the Tour of Wessex and the Archer GP left the two-day as the only Premier Calendar event in the south.
It is a decent series and forms the backbone of domestic racing in this country, yet offers no prize money, no leader’s jersey, and (half the time) has nobody watching.
I love an atmosphere
What is it about the Lincoln that makes it such a special race? Since the Star Trophy, started in 1959, was rebranded as the Premier Calendar in 1993, only the Lincoln Grand Prix has enjoyed an interrupted run. Riders and team managers alike have only good things to say about it: “Big crowds and great atmosphere,” said Tom Southam; “fantastic atmosphere and good spectator turn out,” said Simon Richardson; “I loved the atmosphere of that race,” commented Rob Hayles; “great local crowds,” according to Russell Downing.
What Lincoln has is a vicious cobbled climb leading up to a picture-postcard city centre where the assembled masses can enjoy the numerous pubs, bars and cafes while watching the riders suffer. What better way to spend a Sunday? Not every event is blessed with such attributes, but organiser Ian Emmerson understands the importance of PR with the local community and, as Rob Hayles puts it, “takes the race to the people” — which is key.
Rapha-Condor manager John Herety agrees that “the finish lines need to be in populated areas”. It does make life more complicated for organisers — relations with townsfolk and police need to be nurtured — but the payoff is a memorable day for both riders and spectators.
Russell Downing wins the Lincoln Grand Prix 2008
Putting on a show
Contrast two non-Premier events Cycling Weekly reported at this year: the East Midlands CiCLE Classic in Rutland and the National Championship road race in North Yorkshire.
Colin Clews’s CiCLE Classic starts in one town, criss-crosses the lanes and tracks — taking in the village of Owston on numerous occasions, with its pubs, barbecues and festival atmosphere — and finishes in another town. That is an awful lot of work for Clews and his helpers, but it makes for a fantastic race that large numbers of spectators turn out for — both cycling aficionados and the plain curious.
Cut to the picturesque surroundings of Duncombe Park in North Yorkshire for the National Championships weekend in June. It is a fantastic venue to base the races in, but who sees them apart from friends, family, helpers and the odd journalist? The town of Helmsley at the entrance to the estate was teeming with visitors all weekend, but they had no way of knowing that Britain’s top riders — world champions and Olympic medallists by the dozen — were racing just up the road.
The more involved the local community are, the more likely they are to see road racing as a sporting spectacle rather than a darned inconvenience.
Peter Harrison’s excellent Northern Rock Festival of Cycling in the North-East is a great example. Criteriums on the Friday, the Cyclone Challenge sportive on Saturday and the Beaumont Trophy Premier Calendar on Sunday means there is something for everyone and it ticks all the right boxes for sponsors, local councils and the population of Newcastle and Gateshead.
As Harrison says: “The aim for the Cyclone challenge, which is already a UCI sportive, is to become the biggest event of its type, and be the equivalent of the Great North Run in cycling terms.”
Racers can get twitchy when the ‘sportive’ word starts being bandied about, but the fact is the events complement each other perfectly and the Beaumont would be a far less appealing prospect for sponsors without it.
Show me the money
What does Russell Downing, the domestic scene’s top rider, get for winning the series? Nothing but the kudos of being the winner.
British Cycling now has a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Sky and some of that money needs to be directed towards the Premier Calendar to show some support for road racing.
“It’s been said before but an awful lot of cash has gone into track cycling,” commented East Yorkshire Classic organiser, Andy Cawley. “Isn’t it time some of the so-called Lottery money was directed at road cycling too?”
The focus on track and its “quantifiable” results, as Dave Brailsford puts in, has been a hugely successful strategy, and will no doubt continue to be so, but Lottery funding is closely linked to winning medals — something we have got rather good at.
Now with Sky’s millions perking up BC’s bank account it is time to support road racing in this country and divert some cash towards the Premier organisers. With the new British pro team getting close to reality, there has never been a better time for this.
WHY THE PREMIER CALENDAR NEEDS A LEADER'S JERSEY
The riders seem to agree that a prize list for the overall classification would be a welcome reward for a season’s toil, but how about a leader’s jersey?
In the past, the sponsored teams have been reluctant, feeling that the names of their sponsors are obscured.
But surely a jersey means greater recognition and exposure. It’s a symbol of success and if designed cleverly there could still be ample opportunity for the sponsors to be displayed.
In Italian football, the reigning champions have the honour of wearing a red, white and green shield on their jersey to indicate the previous campaign’s success
How about a similar idea for the Premier Calendar? Couldn’t Russell Downing start next season with some kind of recognition for this year’s success, in the form of a champion’s badge or shield, printed on his jersey? After all, it’s no different from the custom of former national champions wearing the red, white and blue rings round their sleeves.
As an overall, season-long series, a leader’s jersey is long overdue. Over to you, British Cycling.
PREMIER CALENDAR TIMELINE
The Star Trophy, which has been running since 1959, is rebranded as the Premier Calendar. Mark Walsham is the first champion.
John Tanner wins the first of his record five Premier Calendar overall titles.
Jon Clay wins the last Tour of the Lancs, the four-day stage race once won by Boardman.
Kiwi Gordon McCauley is the first, and so far only, overseas winner of the Calendar.
The last Grand Prix of Essex is won by Russell Downing.
Ten races make up the calendar with an even split between events in the north and south. John Tanner equals the record of four race wins in a season.
An homage to Paris-Roubaix, the Rutland-Melton Classic is added.
Just seven races make up the calendar. Recent years have seen the GP Essex, Welwyn-Hatfield, Five Valleys and Tour of the Peak go to the wall. The Archer GP is the lone event in the south.
Russell Downing wins seven of the 10 races — a new record.
Thirteen events are listed on the provisional calendar. On the teams front, Rapha, Halfords, Pinarello and Plowman Craven are all looking strong.
Premier Calendar 2008 survey: What the riders thought
British Race Calendar 2009
Premier Calendar 2008 survey: Race organisers have their say