At some point over the last 20 years, British cycling became cool.
“It’s a completely different picture than it was even 10 years ago,” James Pope, founder of Face, tells Access.
Face organises cycling events Revolution, London Nocturne and Parkour Ride, all of which combine big name cycling stars with a riotous festival atmosphere. Events like these have had a significant part to play in the evolution of cycling from a sport struggling to make headlines to one that fills arenas.
“We started Revolution when we were in our early 20s, in 2003,” Pope explains. “We were invited to Manchester Velodrome, which was having track cycling events like the National Championships and a few hundred people would turn up. There were no spectators, there was no atmosphere. So their objective was to get people into the venue; they wanted bums on seats.
“We came along with the concept for Revolution, which was all about condensing races. Track racing is quite technical, so we tried to simplify it and squeezed it all into a three-hour programme. ere were no gaps between the races and they were all fast and short. at got 2,500 people in the venue, and we haven’t looked back since.”
It’s hard to argue with the numbers: membership of British Cycling surpassed 125,000 people in August 2016, more than 25,000 people compete regularly and the industry contributes almost £3bn to the UK economy.
It was these factors, among others, which prompted the revival of Six Day London in the UK. The race first began way back in 1878, when English cycling champion David Stanton bet he could ride 1,000 miles in six days, and the idea spawned Six Day events around the world.
During its tumultuous 137 years, which included two world wars and several economic recessions, Six Day London saw a dip in popularity in the 1980s and was relaunched in 2015.
“The vision was simple,” says Adrian Bassett, director of marketing and communications for Six Day London owner Madison Sports Group. “Take the spirit and excitement of Six Day racing and bring it into the 21st century.”
In practice, this meant reinventing the race with a combination of live entertainment, DJs and an array of well-known racers. However, while the music has been updated, its presence at Six Day events has a surprisingly long history.
“Six Day has always had an element of ‘show’ about it,” Bassett tells Access. “Even back in the 1920s in the States they used to have live jazz bands playing. is is the spirit we wanted to replicate.”
The London Ol-impact
For both Revolution and Six Day London, it’s easy to see the effect of the London 2012 Olympic Games, both on the race track and in the crowds pouring into cycling venues.
“The rise and rise of cycling in the UK has gone hand in hand with success on the track and road for British riders,” explains Bassett. “London 2012 was obviously a step change in that interest, partly because people were following the success of the athletes, but you also can’t underestimate the attraction of the venue.
“The Velodrome was packed to the rafters during the Games, and was one of the most oversubscribed sports. Lots of people didn’t get to go there and they are now making up for it with other events.”
“London definitely helped to keep the momentum going,” adds Pope. “But before that, the British cyclists had done well in Athens and Beijing, so it wasn’t as if 2012 transformed cycling; it just reinforced how good we were. It’s helped massively, because people see the cycling in the media and it helps to raise awareness for our events.”
The success of British cycling has meant that the cyclists themselves have become celebrities and household names in their own right, idolised by kids (and probably by their parents too).
Having seen Revolution evolve since it began in 2003, Pope has also noticed a significant change in the fortunes of the cyclists:
“When we started, athletes weren’t earning very much money and it was tough trying to find them sponsorship, the interest just wasn’t there,” he says. “Nowadays it’s a completely different story, and a lot of the athletes at the top can earn a decent living from riding their bikes.”
“There’s no doubt having the likes of Cavendish, Wiggins and some of the other big name Brits helps us sell the event,” adds Bassett. “It’s also really important that we create new heroes and that Six Day becomes known as a breeding ground for great sportsmen and women.”
Another important factor in track cycling, as opposed to road cycling, is that fans have a chance to see their heroes up close and personal (rather than as a blur flashing past in seconds).
“In a race like the Tour de France they whiz past and that’s your experience done,” says Pope. “Here they sign autographs and it’s a totally different experience. In a lot of other sports it’s incredibly difficult for the fans to get near the megastars, but in the velodrome they’re warming up metres away from where you’re standing.
“I realised a few years ago that the track was in danger of losing these heroes; they were just disappearing to ride on the roads. We’ve tried to bring them back onto the track.”
Combining cycling events with live entertainment, musical acts and DJs might seem like an obvious move with hindsight, but even now it’s far from being the norm in the industry.
“The entertainment is definitely what makes us stand out as an event,” says Bassett. “The crowd love it and the riders love it; that’s not a bad place to be. It drives ticket sales and it’s also a new proposition for commercial partners.”
“The key thing for us is to get the balance right between the music and entertainment and the sport,” adds Pope. “We make sure it’s not too showy, like American football or other American sports. We want it to be cool and contemporary, while making sure that the focus is still on the racing and the sport.”
As with any successful event, both Revolution and Six Day London are looking to the future.
“We’ve created a new Champions League, which is a competition that sits above the Revolution series,” says Pope. “We’re also going to try and create other leagues to mirror the UK, as qualification into the Champions League. The first one we’re going to launch is in Asia next year.
“We’re trying to create a global competition for track cycling. It’s not going to be easy, internationally, but there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of interest in us doing that.”
In addition to owning the newest edition of Six Day London, Madison Sport Group also runs popular Six Day events in Amsterdam and Berlin (which held its 106th race this year). The immediate focus for the organiser is to grow on the 2015 edition of Six Day London, and ensure continuing success for the event in the future.
“Last year’s event was a great success, so we’re not making enormous changes just for the sake of it,” Bassett tells Access. “What we are doing is making lots of small changes to improve elements of it. It’s got a great history but, we hope, an even greater future.”
While fans of thermodynamics would argue that perpetual motion is impossible, British cycling is caught, somewhat ironically, in a cycle of success that shows no signs of slowing down.
The victories of British cyclists at global sporting events have prompted a wave of popular support, sponsorship and funding which are helping to propel the sport into what may be its golden age.
If, as with Revolution and Six Day London, you then add first-class music and entertainment to the mix, it seems that further successes must be almost inevitable.