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|BC MUST FIGHT HARDER FOR ROAD RACING|
Nick Bourne is an ambitious man. Anyone who planned to run a three-day Premier Calendar stage race over a busy late May Bank Holiday weekend in one of Britain?s most popular tourist areas has to be ambitious.
There are those who doubted his Tour of Wessex stage race had a prayer of happening, and others who thought perhaps British Cycling should have withheld Premier Calendar status until he?d at least run an edition of the race without a hitch.
But Bourne had established his three-day cyclo-sportive quickly and his vision of combining elite sport with a mass-participation event was one shared by British Cycling. If it worked, they reasoned, it could be the model to roll out across the country, boosting races and cyclo-sportives alike.
After all, it?s nothing that running hasn?t done for years. What is the London Marathon if it isn?t a race at the front and a mass-participation event behind? Others are doing the same in cycling, and the sheer scale of the event would give the local community something to get behind and support.
However, even though the race (of approximately 120 riders) and the cyclo-sportive (approximately 800 riders) were to use the same roads, both had very different requirements. The cyclo-sportive is not a race and the riders agree at the outset that they take part entirely at their own risk, on fully open roads, and observe the rules of the road.
The race, on the other hand, requires escorting and marshalling to ensure the riders are safe and police are needed to force car drivers to do as their told. And that costs money.
Towards the end of last year, Bourne announced that his stage race would have to be cut to two days. The police said that the logistics of running the third stage on a busy Bank Holiday Monday would be too demanding.
Then, earlier this week, Bourne announced that after being confronted with a potentially huge policing bill, he?d had to cut the race to a much less ambitious one-day race of 93 miles, taking place on three left-hand-turn-only circuits all based on Somerton.
The sportive remains as a three-day affair stretching north, south and west, deep into the countryside. But, like the Archer Grand Prix, which has also been cancelled, prohibitive policing costs have impacted on the race.
While you could say Bourne had attempted too much, you could also argue that had he not set out with such ambitious plans he would not have had anywhere to retreat to as the objections rolled in, and could have been left with no event at all.
It may be purely coincidental, but very shortly after cyclingweekly.co.uk broke the news that the Tour of Wessex would be a one-day event, the British Cycling website posted an update on its battle to secure the future of cycle events on the highway.
The grim fact it that at a time when cycling?s stock is at its highest, the future of cycle events on the highway looks insecure.
Key to the future is getting the Government to introduce the Community Safety Accreditation Scheme as a nationwide policy. This would mean that properly trained and authorised volunteers would be able to stop and direct traffic during bike events, meaning race organisers would not have to pay for large numbers of expensive police officers to ensure their events go ahead.
The Community Safety Accreditation Scheme is already working in some areas of the country, but until it is accepted nationwide it remains a tentative agreement that could be withdrawn at any time.
British Cycling says it is working hard behind the scenes to lobby Government to update the law regarding cycle racing on the highway and to adopt a uniform tariff of policing charges so that individual forces are not able to pluck figures out of the air and effectively price bike races off the roads.
But gentle lobbying of a handful of MPs is a slow process that may get nowhere.
And time is running short.
If a clear policy regarding bike races on the roads is not established now, before the London Olympics in 2012, while there is political capital to be made from being associated with a successful sport, then it will never happen and road racing will slowly die.
And that is why British Cycling has to be louder and more demonstrative in its fight.
That doesn?t mean rocking the boat for the sake of it, or upsetting people who already share the vision and are working happily together, it means launching an effective public relations campaign that gets the people and the mainstream media on side.
Bike races must not be seen as an irritating obstruction, but as events to be celebrated.
Slowly the culture can be changed. Instead of frustrated drivers sitting honking their horns trying to pass a bunch of racing cyclists, they may be tempted to get out of their cars and watch them pass. I saw people do this during the Tour of Britain, following all the Olympic success.
For too long, bike races have taken place on our roads with the impression that they?re merely hoping to get it done without creating too much of a fuss. There are some notable exceptions, of course.
But surely the future is to create bike races as an opportunity to engage with the local community, not enrage it.
Instead of hoping to be done and dusted before the locals wake up and want to get the pub for Sunday lunchtime, shouldn?t organisers be co-operating with other local events and making the bike race part of a series of attractions, tying in with fetes, French markets, festivals and what have you?
Isn?t the idea of tagging a mass participation ride, perhaps to raise funds for charity, on the back of the race a great way to broaden the appeal of the event and make it inclusive rather than exclusive.
That way the authorities don?t get it into their heads that the cyclists simply want to take over the roads for the sake of a hundred or so elite riders, but that it is an inclusive event for all the community to be a part of.
Aren?t these policies British Cycling should be attempting to drive through, encouraging, with financial support, organisers who broaden their remit?
Britain is not blessed with the space France has, nor does cycle racing have the same cultural status here, but there is an opportunity no to change that.
I don?t wish to pour cold water on the steady work being done by British Cycling, but just reading the summary of progress made so far is disheartening.
For a start an Early Day Motion presented in October to update the Cycle Racing on the Highways regulations, amend the Police Reform Act and encourage greater agreement between British Cycling and the Association of Chief Police Officers was signed by just 55 MPs. That?s less than 10 per cent.
And the statement reads: ?Alan Campbell MP was supportive of British Cycling’s objectives on cycle racing on the highways and highlighted again that it is an issue that needs cross-departmental support within government.?
Anyone who?s watched an episode of Yes, Minister knows that this basically means: ?Nothing is going to change.?
No one is trying to say that the task in front of British Cycling is straightforward, or that the efforts so far are meaningless, but more has to be done by those at the very top.
Otherwise what is to stop every police force that takes exception to the idea of a bike race taking place in its area, quoting from the saggy, non-specific statute book and quoting pie-in-the-sky figures in order to shut down the event?
And, more worryingly for those who ride cyclo-sportive events, what happens when someone decides to apply the current laws to them, because I can?t see the wafer-thin distinction between a race and a sportive standing up to severe examination. There?s more at stake than simple the future of the Tour of Wessex, the Archer Grand Prix or any other race held on the highway.
Dave Brailsford wants Britain to produce a Tour de France champion and for that we need a calendar of racing on the roads. While the goal of building a closed-road circuit like Hog Hill in every region is a fantastic one, road racing needs to be not just defended but expanded. That is going to get more difficult, not easier, particularly in busy areas of the country.
After the Olympics, Brailsford said that the Prime Minister had been in touch to congratulate him and to offer his support to cycling. Anything I can do, just ask, was the gist.
Well, political pressure needs to be applied at the very top with a cohesive and coherent campaign. Bradley Wiggins, Nicole Cooke and Mark Cavendish need to be called upon to explain the importance of road racing to their development.
British Cycling has all the tools to get the law clarified and secure the future of racing on Britain?s roads, but it needs to speak up.
|JULY IN QATAR? DON’T BET ON IT|
Every year someone suggests that one day the Tour de France could start in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar. And every year it?s absolute bobbins.
This time it was ASO?s Christian Prudhomme and all-round legend Eddy Merckx moving their jaws and expelling hot air.
While the idea of a visit to foreign soil is nothing new, it?s important to examine the motivation for these statements a little before actually believing them.
The Tour of Qatar is a marketing exercise to promote the country. The bike race is part of a jigsaw of other major and minor sporting events that the country?s Government has put on as it seeks to catch up with nearby Dubai.
The Qatari Government approached ASO a few years ago and asked them to put on a prestigious bike race, which they have done successfully since 2002. Every year Merckx makes the trip and, no doubt, he enjoys the six-star accommodation and the sunshine as much as everyone else.
So it stands to reason that Prudhomme and Merckx will be keen to say the right things in front of their hosts.
In the past few years I?ve heard all the possible options ? a floodlit prologue held at night, or a specially-constructed indoor circuit for a criterium race.
But let us not take them too seriously. There is no chance of the Tour de France starting in Qatar, or anywhere like it. For a start temperatures can reach the high 40s Celsius in July.
|WHO’S THE GREATEST?|
The publication of Cycling Weekly?s all-time ranking of British pro riders created a bit of a stir.
Many were glad to see that Robert Millar?s achievements were organised, but I must stress, the points system was devised before we started scouring the record books, so there can be no suggest that things were skewed to produce a certain result.
Having said that, I do believe the list is a pretty fair reflection of each rider?s achievements. Of course we all know that Tom Simpson won several of the biggest one-day races, but Millar is the only genuine grand tour contender Britain has produced. So far.
If Mark Cavendish continues winning Tour de France stages at his 2008 rate, he will quickly leap up from tenth place and will be challenging Millar.
Then the debate will rage again, and the arguments over which is the hardest or most significant achievement, sprinting or climbing, with spark up.
So perhaps it?s best to set your own criteria and accept that some people will always believe one rider is better than all the rest.
|THE CULT OF CELEBRITY|
The Second Coming continues this weekend, with the start of the Tour of California.
A look at his face looming out from the race?s official website and the headline ?Lance Armstrong Rides Again? leaves you in no doubt as to the significance of the event.
Perhaps they should have added: And This Time It?s Really Really Important.
Then we?d know to sit up and pay attention.
The cult of celebrity is what grates, but it?s nothing new.
Golf is suffering a slump because of Tiger Woods?s prolonged absence. There aren?t enough eye balls watching the tournaments and sponsors are starting to get twitchy.
In football, David Beckham?s every move is big news. Forget the fact he?s a much slower, much less influential shadow of his former self playing for a sub-standard Milan side that isn?t even playing the Champions League. It?s all about squinting through the telescope at Planet Becks and searching for signs of life.
So it is with Armstrong. It doesn?t actually matter what he does, just as long as he?s doing something.
At the risk of setting all his fans frothing at the mouth and getting myself labelled a ?hater?, I would like to see Armstrong struggle on the bike next week.
The Tour of California is a more difficult race than the Tour Down Under, and it?s not so much that Armstrong himself needs a wake-up call, but some of his followers do.
A couple of days off the back may remind people that he?s only a human being.
|A DATE WITH THE MADISON|
If you?ve got tickets for the next Revolution meeting at Manchester velodrome on February 21, make sure you get there a couple of hours early to catch the British National Madison Championship.
The 50km race starts at 5pm and anyone with a ticket for the Revolution meeting, which starts at 7pm, can watch.
Rob Hayles and Peter Kennaugh will be the favourites, but there?s a fair amount of talent on the start line. Ed Clancy and Steven Burke is a great partnership, as is Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe. Then there?s Erick Rowsell & Mark Christian and Alex Dowsett & Andy Fenn, the junior Paris-Roubaix winner.
After the disappointment of the Madison at the Beijing Olympics, I wonder if the 2012 Madison Olympic champions will be among them?
|STILL WE WAIT…|
Still we wait for news of the UCI?s Biological Passport.
This week the UCI awarded wild cards to 13 Pro Continental teams. Agritubel, Acqua e Sapone and Danilo Di Luca and Alessandro Petacchi?s LPR Brakes were not among them, meaning they will find it very difficult to gain entry to the big races.
The reason given is that they are not part of the Biological Passport programme.
But what, precisely, is the status of the Biological Passport system. Are we simply to assume, indefinitely, that no news means all is well?
Because that?s just what they told us in the 1990s.