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
Former Foundation Coach with GBCT, now runs Pine Sport