So, where to now? Past, Present & Future of XC Racing in the UK

Andy caught up with Ric Jamieson, Former Foundation Coach with GBCT who now runs Pine Sport to get his take on the Past, Present & Future of XC Racing.

Having just parted with British Cycling after 9.5yrs, 8 and a bit of which were with Great Britain Cycling Team, I thought it was a good time to put pen to paper on my thoughts on the current, past & future of XC Racing in the UK from an Under 16’s (& perhaps broader) point of view.

Let’s get one thing straight from the off, this is not going to be any form of attack on previous employment, nor will it be in defense in the hope that my job may be reinstated – it is, my thoughts and thoughts that have been with me for a good number of years.

The current XC scene in the UK is relatively stable, well, from a national point of view in terms of numbers, some rounds have more, some have less but it’s not as decimated as we think, on the contrary, U16 female number have almost doubled since 2010 and now average at a staggering 18 riders per round! Note, these are U16 or Youth category females only and does not include Juvenile or U14’s. Now look at Youth National Circuit Series events, these average at around 46, track events now have to have qualifying rounds for single races whereas 7yrs ago, they would put U14 & U16’s together to try and get a full track limit!

So what’s the problem, why are we not getting heaps of U16 riders racing or wanting to race XC in the UK? At this point, you’ll have come up with the answer that it’s all down to BC not giving one about anything other than road or track, it gets no exposure and so kids don’t know about it! Well, the ones i know at BC who are involved with XC and kids racing do care, in fact, they care a lot from the bottom to the top.

So, perhaps it’s the courses then? There are good number of officials and the like who all state that our National courses do nothing to prepare our riders to racing in Europe and beyond and so they need to be far more technical, something that I couldn’t disagree with. The trouble is, how many of the 500 riders across the weekend are going to race in Europe and or will be racing World Cups & Olympics? Event organisers have to design a course that is both testing & challenging for everyone – want a go? Believe me, this is not easy and then you have the land issues in holding a race at – have a go at that too!

So at this stage, if it’s not BC’s fault or National organisers fault, can we turn to Regional Race organisers? The guys & girls who kick start it all for 99% of the riders? Of course not, they are in exactly the same situation as National Organisers and to add more pain, they don’t even get a small budget to help run it from BC!

So at this point, perhaps we need to look deeper if you’re still reading and give one!

During my time with GBCT and more so in the past 3 years, my role has been Inter Regional Youth Championship organiser across 4 disciplines and that includes XC. I know how hard it is to get land for 3 days and getting volunteers to help set up, de-rig, marshal, etc etc. It’s tough and if it hadn’t been my job, would i have wanted to have spent the hours & hours doing it? Well, perhaps.

You see, the Inter Regionals and especially the XC event are like no other. As coaches, we looked at what is involved within a race to be successful and then created events to give riders the opportunity to express these, this way, we have seen some that may not yet be as physically developed as others but technically they are a head – it’s all about the learning. Nelson Mandela said and I quote, “I never lose, I either win or learn”, well Nelson, I’d also add that you learn from winning or you should and you also need to learn to win.

The event was loosely based on the European Youth Championships which is held in Austria each month but has evolved to be its own with this year having 4 lane skills comp which is timed and penalty times added for faults, rider set of in heats of 4 but aren’t actually racing each other, it feels like it so extra stress, just like in a XC race through technical section with multiple lines. They then did a hill climb, end time counted then added to the skills time to place them in either the A/B finals or C/D finals in the afternoon’s dirt crits. This way, everyone gets equal events. I won’t ramble on about how 3 flat out laps around an 800m course at Hadleigh gave the most exciting racing ever witnessed but you get the picture!

Following day was the team relay followed by XCO races – separate races for females & boys.

2 Days, 114 riders totally committed to do as well as they can for their respective regions, 4 18hr days (2 set up prior) for 4 of us and huge smiles all round.

So, what have we learnt or surmised from this? Well, to start the XCO grids were the biggest for each in 2017 and if you see the pictures from Huw Williams, you’ll see the starts of the XCO looked pretty much the same as the Olympics with proper gantry all branded up with British Cycling & HSBC, all supplied by both – for most, it will as it has been in previous years for most, the biggest event they do, representing the region is one away from representing their country.

Let’s now look back at why we are not getting the numbers racing nationally………

If we first look at Regional events as this is the starting point and please all Regional organisers, this is in no way a knock – thank you to each & every one of you who create these starting opportunities, without them, it would collapse! The races are on courses to suit the masses, guys my age or perhaps a bit younger who are getting back into racing (or not really given up) and like the longer, flowy courses that aren’t hugely technical as after all, we all have to work the following day but like to be challenged, the faster you ride, the harder all courses are. Then enjoy the banter with fellow racers who they’ve known for years – perfect, that’s why I occasionally stick a board on at Regional events. The downside is that new riders, especially those U16 & U14, get to do perhaps 2 laps were they don’t really see anyone (been there, it sucks) because they are yet to be competitive and parents, grandparents etc. don’t get to see and cheer them on either – as a youngster who has aspirations of being the next Annie Last or Nino, how much fun is that? But, they are still having the opportunity of some fat tyre fun and entry level racing.

It’s the same at National Level only this time, parents etc. are having to drive 1000’s of miles a season to take their offspring to races – it’s a big ask to do this for 2 or 3 laps.

So, what is the answer? Well, in my head it goes something a little like this……………..

WE NEED ENTRY LEVEL RACING! Dirt crits, Short Course XC, whatever you want to call it but we need them. A weekly event, mid-week that you can turn up on anything that has bar ends, is pedal powered and could be deemed an MTB and race, have fun with friends and learn what XC racing is all about. Minimal time to set up / take down teas, hot chocolates at 50p and a wedge of homemade cake for recovery – perfect! It works for our fixed wheeled friends at track leagues so why can’t it off road?

At Regional & National races the U16’s could race in the afternoon, it’s a known fact that they need more sleep! If they then only raced say 2/3rds of the Adults course but did more laps, this would give
organisers time to start removing some of the course while racing still happened and the racers the opportunity or actually racing, tactics then start to come in – they would feel more in a race, more people would be able to see them and more people would want to race. This worked really well a few years ago in the SW Series when Jay & Maddie of Fully Sussed ran them.

Now, if you add in a skills event on the Saturday at National rounds and Sunday AM for Regional rounds then they are getting more for their money while becoming better bike riders too and just like the Inter Regionals, riders that don’t necessarily have an ‘engine’ yet get to show how good they are at skills. Ask any GBCT Coach or International racer how important skills are, they’ll tell you they are paramount to success!

This is all great I hear you say but who’s going to run it? Perhaps, just perhaps, if it could be ‘sold’ right to parents and alike then they may just help or better still, take it on, sharing the workload amongst themselves to give their offspring more opportunities to develop but in a competitive environment but most importantly, they’d see them have more fun!

And finally, why should you care?

Well, if the numbers don’t grow, neither will the quality but again, why should you care? If the numbers drop off or even stay stable then fewer organisers will put themselves out to run any level events and you’ll end up either stopping, driving loads of miles for fewer smiles or convert to solely doing another discipline that’s why! Bigger number also drives better quality (in the main) and so it will make you race harder which in turn is more rewarding and the result even more gloatable with friends.

It’s our sport, we race, we love and we need to support it and make it grow!

Thanks to Huw Williams for the photos

Ric Jamieson,
Former Foundation Coach with GBCT, now runs Pine Sport
Twitter: @Pine_Sport
Facebook: @PineSportCoaching

3 thoughts on “So, where to now? Past, Present & Future of XC Racing in the UK”

  1. The idea of mid-week dirt crit type events sounds great.
    I spoke to some guys from our club who organise some XC races and suggested something similar to a Parkrun type event but for MTB’s. The issue is trying to get people to commit to organising the event week in and week out as well as marshalling etc. To make it viable you need a decent number of riders turning up every week but it just doesn’t seem to happen.
    Some of the longer standing mid-week events like Beastway work well but trying to get something new off the ground just seems to be met with negativity from many people.

  2. On the isle of man we started dirt crit MTB and it boosted the numbers of new riders ,but we lost the old school who wouldn’t travel down the road for a one hour race around a postage stamp. On the IOM we have no problem with usable land and Defa help us. As you all know we turn out a large number of young talent….but they all want to be Cav,not Nino. Even the younger riders who were good mtbers have now gone to the road. Why ? They see the tours ,and the money and glamour on TV. Where’s the MTB racing on TV. With gopro and gimballed handhelds plus drones filming MTB races is not as hard as it used to be. Once you have a media product then you can get a big sponsor. Riders become household names, and youngsters look up to them. They become the new Nino. In the seventies ,motorcycle trials was my sport, and boy was it niche. Then the BBC ran Kickstart and Junior Kick start and they were getting 18 million viewers. The riders became house hold names. The sale of new bikes went through the roof. Indoor trials events blossomed and now there is a world championship. See where I’m heading with this. It just needs someone with vision to push it forward. If you can’t get sponsorship for your event use a broker.or read a fantastic book by Brian summary ,called Sponsorship in Motorsport. But it works for any sport.

  3. I also forgot to mention that Canada and the USA have high school MTB racing instead of football etc. Then they have a huge interschool championship that takes days ,such is the popularity of the idea. We have a similar series on a Tuesday night in the summer where we get 500 riders registered and always 350 racing on the night. But that’s road of course. It’s where our talent comes from. In the winter we have a similar series for children’s mountain bike racing the my wife and I started ,upto 16. It’s now been taken over by a new group of parents.

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