Ach, “so what” you might say, right? The SDA is, in reality a national series that masquerades as a regional series. It gets pretty good media coverage across the biggest mtb websites, has a fantastic vibe and is as affordable as it can possibly be. Yet, faced with an ever changing landscape, it is struggling to get enough entries to survive. The past, when Peaty and top riders could be seen at these races is a distant memory – the future is unknown.
It isn’t just the SDA series either. The BDS, ran with a laser precision by Simon Paton, has also had to cancel a round.
It begs the question – is racing moving out of peoples radar? We are big believers in the cyclic nature of trends – (There is nothing new – it’s all been done before) everything has lulls, dips, peaks and troughs before coming back round – but is it something else that is causing this?
We’ve tried to look at the many strands that could be making racing struggle – and open up the debate to try and find a solution.
It is incredibly difficult to answer this question; it is even harder to find a solution.
Firstly, let us look at the societal changes that have occurred within the mtb scene, and in the more general sense. We recently read a brilliant piece by another former SDA racer, Brendan Fairclough. In it, he went on to talk about how racing was formerly the only way to make a name for yourself in the media and the only real clearly defined pathway to becoming a professional bike rider.
That is now fundamentally not the case.
In a way, racing separated the “legit” riders from those who couldn’t quite crack it – on the flip side the door is now opened for riders who are incredibly skilful riders, but perhaps not great racers; it has also allowed those that are great at self promotion and marketing to make a name for themselves.
Deciphering between the two latter points can be tricky.
As Si Paton, BDS race director says “It’s an issue we have struggled with – perhaps we have marketed the series as too “pro” . We have a sense that social media has meant that some riders now stay at home as they don’t want to look like they aren’t as their image portrays – I.e in reality they aren’t as good as their instagram feed and afraid that if they can’t ride the track fast or win, then its a fail on there part rather than getting there head down and giving it a craic, no matter where they place. We have a range of standards on track, and like I’ve always said, if you’re top half in a regional, then come and try the BDS”
We don’t want to make too much of this point but if you’re a good young rider, the life that some riders appear to leads seems far more attainable than that of Aaron Gwin; Conversely if you aren’t a great rider but fancy living a pro life then social media can take you from someone who no one would have known about to someone that brands might look at helping out. Racing it seems, now plays second to lifestyle. And who would blame riders for not wanting the pressure of racing, but being able to ride their bike exactly how they want to?
In essence, it is a hell of a lot easier, and arguably more fun for a lot of people, to stage manage your life through social media than to face the hard realities that racing brings – 40k followers based around selfies and staged images looks a heck of a lot better than 34th in the results sheet.
The irony of all this is – in a kick back against marketing and over-glammed racing, all we’re seeing is it take a different form that the marketeers have already got a hold of and found easier to manipulate than racing. Do not underestimate the influence of image – we know some photographers who make up £500 a weekend by selling images to privateer racers for their Instagram feeds.
David Munro, a hugely liked figure on the Scottish scene and a man not known to mince his words adds
” What happened to all the riders turning up on second hand bikes with tears in their shorts and Five Tens held together with Gaffa Tape having a weekend of banter with their mates? like most things today that is wrong with society we have become slaves to Consumerism; must have the latest gear, the latest accessory on your bike to make you go faster, which ultimately leads to the realisation that really your problem is that speed + lack of talent = pain. I’ve heard from many that they fell out of ‘love’ with Downhill, trade teams hogging car parks with massive artics so that normal folk can’t park, queues at uplifts, poor rider etiquette (even from some of the pro’s) whilst on track blocking lines, plus of course the cost.”
There is a two fold issue here – a change in the way we see, and wish to present ourselves (This really is the age of the narcissist and a “look at me” culture) and the ability of race organisers to adapt and find solutions to these changes.
We can’t just look with rose tinted spectacles at changes in society (something we have been guilty of) – we need to adapt and find ways to make racing appeal to everyone again no matter if they’re image conscious or not.
While some riders quite clearly bank on followers, likes and image to get them a paid contract in the long run, brands quite clearly haven’t forgotten that racing is one of the best investments they can make in terms of marketing in the wider, less pigeoned hole view.
We recently read a fantastic piece by the Guardian on how New Zealand sustained it’s ability to stay at the sharp end of world rugby. While the All Blacks are undoubtedly an incredibly professional and slick outfit, the NZRU haven’t neglected to continue to invest grass roots levels – after all , why would they starve the hand that feeds them?
Would Danny Hart be World Champion if he hadn’t races to attend? Possibly, but it would have been even harder for him to get where he is now.
At the elite level of the sport there has been a concerted effort to push DH towards F1 like status. This has benefits – the sport is marketed as a more elite concern, athletes can leverage better salaries, and it drives the sell towards spectators who watch in awe at things that they perceive is a different sport to what they do.
DH racing at World cup is incredible, it’s captivating, exciting and it hasn’t been this good to watch for a decade.
There are areas to look at though. As DH becomes more of a sport that is elitist, it drives away potential newcomers who wish to participate and have aspirations to win if there is no clear entry point to competition. Furthermore, if we draw parallels to F1, how many weekend warriors compete in F1? They don’t – but they do watch it.
For the elite end of the sport to thrive, there has to be a plan in place for the grass roots. Furthermore, very, very few riders will ever make it as a professional racer despite being able to win a regional, or podium at a national and this is something that David Munro points out;
“We now see riders on the latest brand that they/mum/dad can afford; what is the point of a half decent rider buying the latest £5k carbon 29er and then moan about the cost of racing? His or her parents should be telling them to get a trade qualification because he/she will never make any money out of DH.
There is a historical trail of good (and I mean good) junior riders who excel and regional level, do ok at National Level, and then miserably fail at International level.
Why? because talent on a bike alone will not get you there. You could put this down to the increase of junior places riders at World Cups which is great for the ‘life experience’ but surely now and due to the cost of the sport perhaps time that a dedicated ‘Junior World Cup’ is the way forward; I appreciate that travel would still be required but you could temper the locations accordingly.”
David continues ” Look at todays modern DH successes; ask Adam Brayton / Greg Williamson what they have to do to even hope to be competitive at the World Cups; we the public only see a small fraction of their timetable. Look at what changed Danny Hart from a bloody awesome rider to a World Champ; it is that competitive.
No wonder why we now see Ex-Downhillers filling the EWS; they had a shot and for whatever reason; funds, ability, behaviour or just pure frustration and they missed. That is not a criticism because I’ve seen most of these riders race over the last 15 years and most of them are talented people but due to the indifference that DH is perceived by the UCI / BC there is just not enough food at the table for everyone. ”
While some riders can earn huge amounts of money for racing downhill, they are few and far between.
Yet, it seems that young riders still wish to race DH as proven by the success of the mini Borders DH series in Scotland, which is held for riders under the BC competition age . These races are full and riders can transition into the SDA races from here.
The kids are still DH crazy, and this is the main positive for regional DH. William Brodie, Inner Soul racing.
Longer term, there are issues that need addressed by those managing World cup teams, the UCI, BC and brands . Some collaboration seems appealing, but in the real world collaborations can be tricky as everyone has their own aims.
Of course, that is a simplistic take on a complex web but some long term thinking that looks at every strand, not just quick commercial returns, wouldn’t go amiss.
There are various elements of support to look at – Governing bodies and brands are the two we are going to examine.
BC took over the title sponsorship of the BDS this year through a deal negotiated with HSBC that covers every cycling discipline. We envisage this to be a multi million pound deal, but cannot confirm that. Part of the deal that was brokered, was for HSBC to get title sponsorship of any national series that is BC managed – Hence the BDS becoming the “HSBC BDS” .
At first glance, that appears fantastic that BC would use their muscle and clout to bring in such a sponsor, but we couldn’t find or get any details on the commercial value (revenue) of this to the BDS or to mtb as a whole. It is murky.
We spoke to Si Paton who outlined some of the troubles that he faces in order to make the series happen ” Part of the job is getting sponsorship, which actually subsidises the entry and allows me to earn a living. We’ve had brands who love the series but won’t support it in terms of cash. When we had to cancel Moelfre I had a few brands call and say “We’ve invested in a race team, but now we have no race, what are we supposed to do? The answer to me is clear – invest in your national series. ”
So what about BC? At the moment DH is doing well in their eyes – We have two World Champions and aside from Finn Iles we have a good grip on the junior proceedings. Of course, BC are performance driven and a lot of energy goes into the elite levels – but – remember that NZ rugby comparison? To stay at the top, we need to develop pathways – not let them erode.
It was Si Paton who recently organised and funded the BDS training day where riders got coaching, fitness and media training, and not BC.
BC have certainly improved from the point where they would take 1 junior male to the world championships but they could still be doing more to help ensure that DH is sustainable over the next decade.
We tried to chat to the BC performance manager, but got directed to the communications team . They didn’t reply. Eventually, Rick Clarkson (A good bloke if ever there was) was the man to come forward with a reply “DH is obviously going through a window of change but it’s great to see that grass roots and push up events thriving”
There is a lot going on at BC and as we understand it’s not one staff members lack of focus, rather that there simply aren’t enough bodies at BC to drive effort towards DH.
As for the brands? Well, if they value British racers getting international exposure then keeping regional series such as the SDA and the BDS going should surely fit with their long term brand strategies.
The Atherton academy is a fine example of a long term thinking process, but even then, without a premium race series in the UK even that stands at risk – imagine having to send your youth academy riders to Europe to race – that’s logistics, expenses, insurance, car hire and more.
In short, things cost money – the uplift wagon company that cost 7k per round certainly aren’t interested in the “doing it for the love” mantra and while organisers tend to be a passionate bunch, it is only right they earn a living for their time and energy.
The SDA, meanwhile are a volunteer organisation and their events try to cater for the “grass roots” level – the first two rounds, held at well known venues, sold out. Yet by round 4, the team were having to re evaluate – and without big sponsorship to cushion any financial blow – the event had to be cancelled “We are a volunteer organisation and we would run a race for 100 people if we could. But, we also have to look at the long term sustainability of the series and we can only take so many hits. None of us take any money from the series – everything goes back into the races”
The SDA and BDS are themselves supporters of the scene – but they in turn need support to bind the bricks and mortar into a house.
It’s something we can’t ignore. Somethings are expensive but offer no value, others are cheaper but are high value. Sometimes we struggle to define value as mountain bikers.
Let’s do a quick comparison. An uplift weekend at Rev’s (An amazing place) is £66, which is £29 cheaper than a BDS round.
Lets play with that £29 – There is a timing system to bring in, a PA, a filmer, a photographer, toilets on site, skips, insurance, marshals, fuel and lastly there must be a cost, and value, assigned to the organisers time.
As David Munro points out, even we missed some elements “Don’t forget the medics circa £3k for a weekend; uplift days don’t normally have dedicated medical cover on site (or do they) ?
On Forestry Commission Land we are directed by them and have to use coaches for uplift for pax; getting a company to put their coach on a fire road is hard enough with mucky riders so they charge what they want; we have noticed a considerable increase in costs over the years and purely because of the lack of competition. Private Land or development with the Ski Centres (Chairlift) in Scotland is something the SDA are striving for the future”
Well, our £29 suddenly seems to leave us a little tight.
In short, to provide the level of racing that people want, £95 is cheap.
In terms of comparing this to an uplift weekend, well, that is unfair as they are completely different things.
To a racer and coach like Ben Cathro, racing plays an integral part in his life. However, are other riders now more willing to watch rather than participate in DH? Do they get more “value” from simply going out riding and having one heck of time?
DH is a sport and we should accept that. As someone put it to me, when Michael Phelps is at the Olympics, he doesn’t whinge about lack of pool time compared to his local lane session. He’s there’s to compete. He’s a racer. Others revel in the banter, others turn up with limited kit, Steve Barker used to turn up on a homemade bike and crack World Cup top 20’s. Racing, quite simply, is racing.
It’s a constant theme on any BDS post on Facebook – others appreciate that the cost is fair, while others have been priced out. Yet, when the entries were £75, people weren’t happy either.
So, it comes down to perceived value. One comment we read on BDS Facebook was that one competitor was “prepared to pay £80 to come mid pack but not £95” . In short, the cost rise had changed the value she put on her result. There’s no hiding that DH has become a very expensive sport, but the race entries are just one part of that.
Ultimately I think the cost is not a problem for the majority of people racing in the modern era – most come with the van, EZ up, jet wash and 5k + plus bike that they purchased to aid their racing – but it’s a perceived value.
Is it that the culture of mtb is just too product and image centric with little value assigned to anything else?
Further more, with the rise of influential riders who live through social media, has racing lost it’s “cool” edge? Perhaps this segment and the social segment are linked.
Whatever it is, somewhere along the line some adapting to the situation has occur. We can’t force riders to race DH and we need to make it appeal to them.
Looking back 20 years, Orange ran a campaign based around the 6 inch travel Patriot bike that Tim Ponting won the national series on. It was dubbed “the perfect UK DH bike” .
Now, racing the same tracks, it is rare to see a modern day trail bike (more capable than a DH bike of ten years ago) on the start line.
Yet, a trail bike can win DH races at Innerleithen, Hopton, Ae and practically any where bar Fort William.
Si Paton has launched a trail bike category – the interest generated has been huge but it begs the question – why weren’t these people racing anyway? Because they didn’t think they could?
Paton is actually fairly confident that Enduro is not taking racers away from his events ” No, we had 3 rounds booked out, Pearce are going good and the SDA are ok, but having some bobbles. It’s not racers moving to Enduro but DH bikes are extremely expensive, the economy is still tight and parts are expensive too”
There is no quick answer to the tide change in racing entries but we do think the most obvious solution is for the national series to be better managed by the governing body who can absorb financial shortfalls better than a private organiser. Given the Paton has been a hugely successful race organiser for over a decade, it would make sense for BC to employ him as the race director on a fair salary. BC get use of his commercial nous and experience and with mountain biking ever growing in participation, they can gain too.
BC can then use their clout to bring in more sponsorship – lord knows how big their database is to ensure sponsors are seen by a focussed audience – and the series is secure as they can pump more resources into local PR, TV slots, utilise their marketing departments and more.
Ultimately though, Paton has done nearly everything he could do to make this series work as a sporting event.
For regional race series the answer is less clear . Mini DH thrives in Scotland, Enduro is going pretty well in Scotland but DH is struggling, and reverting back to a niche scene – cool – but not sustainable.
Making racing a series a desirable, “not to be missed” product again is going to take some serious graft. These races are awesome already – answers on a postcard please….
As an example the US suffered greatly when the Norba (Us national series) series died off – now, with a strong PRO GRT series, the US is starting to thrive in DH once more – names like Gwin, Jackson, Rude, Harrison and others are leading the charge.
So how do we ensure that we retain the racers who want to race at a high level, those who turn up in ripped jeans and ride the wheels of their bikes and make sure that they know the race is there for them?
Carl Davison, from NDH, thinks a single day format could be the way to go – saving costs for all involved ” We have some one day races and they go really well. At bigger venues – say Glencoe – riders could practice Saturday if the wanted but it wouldn’t be official, or they could turn up Sunday and easy get 3 practice runs in and still get a race in at a much cheaper cost”
We just aren’t sure what the answer is yet – in a sport where amateur many riders treat technology as equal to skill in their value analysis their money will always be directed there first. Riders like Ben Cathro are still supporting the scene with his Vlogging but, in Scotland especially, the draw of current top world cup riders at these races can’t be under estimated and it would be great to see more of them there – even though their schedules are already stacked. If the races market to the fan base they already have, then they aren’t attracting new racers – they need to broaden their appeal somehow.
From our point of view, more dedicated input from BC, stronger regional PR pre event and perhaps highlighting that racing isn’t just for the elites, cliques or hardcore but for everyone, could go a long way to helping.
We’d genuinely like to open up a conversation into this – as solutions are out there – but with mountain biking now such a myriad of cultures it’s going to take a collaborative effort to choose a way forward.