Is the Premier Calendar on borrowed time?

If the success of a cycling series is determined by the number of races it comprises, the Premier Calendar’s star is fading rapidly. In 2000, it was made up of 19 rounds. By 2002, that tally had decreased to nine, and in 2013 it looks set to be six races for the second year running.

When Cycling Weekly looked into the state of the series 10 years ago, the issues behind the loss of races were strikingly familiar: financial, logistical and policing problems. Nearly a decade on, CW asks, what has changed and what future does the Premier Calendar have?

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Balancing the risk
The appetite for road racing in Great Britain has never been higher. The fanbase is growing, as shown by record viewing figures and crowds lining the streets of races like the Tour of Britain. At the same time the depth and quality of domestic teams is improving and sponsor interest continues to grow.

A collective will for a successful national road race series still exists among riders and teams, while British Cycling has continued to support the Premier Calendar to the tune of between £80,000 to £100,000 per annum in recent years. Why then is the series apparently failing?

“I don’t think too many people want to put their necks on the line,” explains Peter Harrison, the organiser of the Beaumont Trophy in Northumberland. In a time of economic uncertainty the expense of hosting an event can be a risk too far. “Yes, there’s the time factor of hosting an event, but ultimately people don’t want the risk of underwriting something.”

The Beaumont forms part of the Virgin Money Cyclone weekend in the North-East, which includes two additional non-competitive events and two extra races. Harrison predicts the running cost for this year’s event will be over £200,000. Going by figures from other organisers, putting on the average Premier Calendar round costs around a quarter of that sum.

Unfair cop
Policing costs are the biggest financial outlay, despite BC working with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to suggest a 50 per cent rebate for cycling-specific events in their guideline ‘Paying The Bill’ document. For the Lincoln GP, organiser Ian Emmerson estimates he saves £10,000 by using paid marshals in place of static police officers. Even if this cost can be met, the police still maintain control over the date, route and size of an event.

Emmerson adds: “You’ve got to satisfy the police that the event is safe, properly organised, and that you’ve got the correct procedures in place. Before we moved the race into the city centre, it was a lot easier to organise. Once we moved it in we’ve got to have negotiations with the police, with the Highways Agency, with the councils, getting road closures and diversions and signage. It’s just endless.”

Not everyone has managed to get the authorities on side as well as Emmerson has. BC’s own event, the Wilton GP in Salisbury, was first run in 2011 as a “direct intervention” to address the north-south imbalance of events. It was scheduled to be the final round of this year’s series but was cancelled when resources earmarked for the race were redeployed to work on the Olympic Games.

Mike Hodgson, who has organised the Tour of the Reservoir for 52 years, is limited by Durham Constabulary to a field of just 120 riders. With lower income from race entries, he says: “I try harder and harder to cut costs, and I’ve cut all costs as much as I can. If everything goes according to plan, which it never does, then it might just wash its face and break even.”

One effect is a calendar focused in rural areas, away from town centres, where the resources needed to safely close roads are lessened. The trade-off is that the races’ exposure shrinks in tandem with the organising costs. Finding sponsors willing to back races with poor crowds becomes difficult, as does encouraging teams and their sponsors to target the series.

“Premier Calendar must change or die” – analysis piece in this week’s Cycling Weekly magazine (December 6 2012 issue)

Star quality
“The Star Trophy did seem to have a better profile than the Premier Calendar does today, but I may be wrong,” admits BC’s cycle sport and membership director Jonny Clay, a former runner-up in the series.

In part, this is down to the television coverage. In 2011 Sky Sports broadcast the series, but in 2012 British Cycling opted to use YouTube to show highlights of the year’s races. It was a bold move, and arguably ahead of its time. At the time of writing, the uploaded content had recorded a total of 59,000 views. In comparison, ITV4’s hour-long highlights programmes of the Tour Series were watched by an average of nearly 300,000 in 2012. Clearly television remains the king as far as cycling fans go.

BC has discussed the possibility of getting the Premier Calendar shown on ITV but the broadcaster does not appear to be interested in showing the series. Clay explains: “Unlike five weeks of criterium racing, we don’t think a national series of one-day and two-day races is as ‘sellable’ if it’s dispersed throughout the year.”

Anyone watching the Tour Series will notice each round has the same ‘look and feel’ to it; consistent branding and the same finish line set-up gives each event a cohesive look. BC feels strongly that the Premier Calendar needs the same, and a large part of its financial backing for the series was aimed at giving the races a standardised look. This was not too popular with some organisers, in particular when it comes to relinquishing branding rights.

“I’ve negotiated over the years about the branding rights. I couldn’t give them half of my branding rights. I’d have nothing left to sell to the sponsors,”
notes Emmerson.

Clay himself admits he can understand the objections in this area. “Take the Track World Cup. We get a document from the UCI about what we have to do to put on an event. We always find elements that we feel are unreasonable, so that gives us an understanding that at national level some organisers will not like our approach,” he admitted.

“It’s been difficult to explain how it raises standards, but it’s important to remember how organisers feel, because they’re putting in personal time and money.”

The time is now
Objections aside, the push to drive up standards is reflective of BC’s approach to the series: more ‘carrot’ and less ‘stick.’ “If it was the right thing to do, we could put on 10 events in a series [ourselves] and it would be delivered professionally,” Clay claims. “However we’re a national organisation; we’re here to look after our members and our organisers.”

Organisers equally recognise BC’s position and the need for the Premier Calendar to be made up of high-quality events.

“I think the PC should be well worth watching, well worth being on TV, and well worth the media coverage,” Emmerson says.

Unfortunately at the end of a year that sees the demise of two of the six events in the 2012 Premier Calendar (the Tour DoonHame and Dengie Marshes Tour) many believe the Premier Calendar’s time is running out. BC’s steady yet nebulous aim to drive up standards might not work soon enough.

“BC need to consider how they’re going to encourage more events and they may need to do more, probably give some more support to organisers to increase the profile and the appeal of the event,” Emmerson adds.

“It needs to be marketed properly – to be able to bring in the sponsors and fans, and make it worthwhile for everyone,” says Harrison. “With cycling’s profile at the minute, the time is right to really get out there and sell it.”

“Hodgson adds: “They’ve got to get hold of it by the scruff of the neck… come to the organisers and ask, ‘what can we do for you, what do you require?’

“In the back of their mind they must realise their road racing series is going down the pan.

The turbulent nature of the Premier Calendar is best illustrated by the number of events it comprises. 2003 was the last time the number of events stayed the same as the previous year, and the decline from 2007 to 2012 – a 50 per cent reduction in races – shows an alarming downward trend. 

Adding value

From sportives to new race formats, a number of Premier Calendar organisers have had to diversify and innovate to make their events more sustainable. What is there in the toolbox to help keep races on the calendar?

Run a sportive
Non-competitive events alongside elite racing can extend an event’s footprint, attracting more people to the area and augmenting the economic impact. This is particularly important when it comes to getting police and local authorities behind the event.

“I was the first to adopt this ‘festival’ format, the first to offer a sportive with three different lengths, and then add a women’s race,” says Peter Harrison of the Beaumont Trophy. “At first some locals were fairly reticent about having it in their area. But now they see the benefit. On event day (and on race day) you can go along the route and see people setting up stalls. Everybody benefits from it.”

Add races
Adding races to the event programme can mean making the most of road closures and event infrastructure (barriers, start/finish gantries etc) while increasing the event profile, but it isn’t always a viable option.

The Beaumont Trophy ran alongside the Curlew Cup, a Women’s National Series event, in 2012, an arrangement that will return next year. But limits on road closures in the city centre mean doing the same for the Lincoln GP isn’t currently possible.

“It’s give and take with us and the police,” explains organiser Ian Emmerson. “We had to drop to 11 laps for a while, and now we’ve got it working fairly well at 13 laps. We can’t really fit anything else in, not at the moment anyway.”

Apply for UCI ranking
As regulations stand, WorldTour riders will be unable to ride Premier Calendar events in 2013. The same applies to riders on the newly formed NetApp-Endura team. Given the interest in this year’s Tour of Britain, getting a Sky jersey on the start line could be one of the best ways of increasing an event’s profile.

One solution is to apply for UCI ranking, as did former Premier Calendar race the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic, although the move adds significant costs and regulations. A 1.2 rank is needed for Endura, a 1.1 for Sky. CW understands one of the 2013 Premier Calendar races is seeking UCI ranking for 2014, but it’s not for everyone.

“We ran UCI 1.2 for about five years, but in the end the regulations, the hoops you had to jump through, and the extra costings, just weren’t feasible,” Emmerson says. “It didn’t add up for me and we’re happy with the formula we’ve got now.”

Go to the city centre?
Even if you remove the costs of race infrastructure, taking a race into a town centre adds significant expense and paperwork. Having a large potential audience living nearby can help to build interest as the Tour Series helps to prove. But a crowd isn’t guaranteed, even if a town-centre finish is a viable option.

“I really like the finish at Ampleforth College,” says Bob Howden, who organises the Ryedale Grand Prix. “Ampleforth can be a hub for the circuit where people can drive or cycle to and spend the day.

“We’ve got a good partnership with the local community and we recognise that we might be a burden in a town centre. We’re sensitive to how people perceive the event and it would be difficult to drop it in elsewhere.”

The original version of this article appeared in the November 29 2012 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.
“Premier Calendar must change or die” – analysis piece in this week’s Cycling Weekly magazine (December 6 2012 issue)

Related links

2013 Premier Calendardown to six events