TalkingShop – Friends Life Women’s Tour Organiser Guy Elliott

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One of the sports biggest ‘doers’, Guy Elliott has come out of retirement and is at it again organising with Sweetspot the UCI ranked Women’s Tour

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TalkingShop – Friends Life Women’s Tour Organiser Guy Elliott

I have known Guy many years and over the years he’s organised International Junior road race events, circuit racing in his home region of Solihull and when at DHL, helped sponsor racing for young riders. He’s helped Team GB and is regularly spotted at bike races all over the country.

Now he is part of the Sweetspot Group and organising the first ever UCI Women’s Tour which is only weeks away now and will have a star studded field of riders not seen since the last Olympics in London. Here is an interview VeloUK did with Guy on Wednesday:

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1. When did the first seeds of the idea of holding a Women’s Tour come about and what prompted them?
Guy: SweetSpot had been running the (men’s) Tour of Britain for nearly ten years and within that time had also invested in women’s cycling with the Johnson Health Tech Series of races. These form part of the Tour Series. Plus there was the final stage of the Tour of Britain having a women’s race and plans at that time for the Westminster GP at the inaugural Prudential RideLondon weekend.

SweetSpot wanted to do more for women for two main reasons – they felt that women’s cycling did not get the recognition it deserved and they believed in it as a value proposition in that it was an area of cycling that no one had “grabbed”.

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Guy Elliott launching the race in 2013.

SweetSpot wanted to do more for women for two main reasons – they felt that women’s cycling did not get the recognition it deserved and they believed in it as a value proposition in that it was an area of cycling that no one had “grabbed”.

So the seeds of the idea had been around for some time. In early 2013, Hugh Roberts and I met and he told me his dream was to create a Women’s Tour. I was totally enthralled by this and told him about what I had done with the DHL Sprint Schools – we had a pretty good lunch (which I am pleased to say Hugh paid for!) and agreed I should join SweetSpot to help make it happen.

It helped that I knew Mick Bennett well as we are both life-long members of the Solihull Cycling Club which everyone knows is the best club in England! I used to have posters of him on my wall but now I have to look at him every day in the office – not easy.

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Hannah Barnes: Pic - PhotoSport International. uk usa asia.

2. Has the organising of the race from first thoughts to the implementation, including getting the sponsors, been easier or harder than expected at the very beginning?
Guy: Getting the race going has been both easier and tougher than expected. We always knew that we should replicate our model of the Tour of Britain where we do not depend on a single sponsor. We wanted a framework that had a title sponsor, mid-tier sponsors (who typically sponsor the race’s “jerseys” such as Points, Best Young Rider, Queen of the Mountains etc) and stakeholders from county councils.

With less than half of one per cent of UK sports sponsorship going to women’s sport we knew it would be tough. We also expected to find it hard to get county councils to engage during a time of austerity and many other challenges. So we went around the country literally knocking on doors.

We decided to make the Women’s Tour have a much wider agenda than being “just a bike race” – a celebration of women in sport and something that would encourage women to stay involved in physical activity where we are seeing catastrophic drop-out rates from young women in particular.

We recognised that they had very few female role models so we set out not only to run the race itself but to orchestrate a situation where our female athletes would be treated as superstars in their own right and therefore would be credible role models for young women looking for some inspiration to stay fit and healthy.

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Back in 2003 a certain young man called ‘Cavendish’ was winning a Junior International race organised by Guy Elliott.

We made a firm decision to create a stand-alone event and not double it up with the men’s Tour of Britain where women would only be the support act.

It was tough at the start but we had some great relationships with County Councils. The breakthrough came when Councillor Heather Smith of Northamptonshire stopped our very first meeting half way through and said “We just have to do this. Wait there!”.

And she came back in with many of her colleagues a few minutes later and I had to start all over again. After an hour or so of what was supposed to be an exploratory meeting Northamptonshire committed to hosting a full stage and linking it into their public health agenda. They were so enthusiastic I could not refuse when they backed me into a corner and insisted that Oundle should be the Grand Depart!

I was mildly concerned but when I visited the town I knew straight away that it was going to be absolutely fantastic. Paula Prince from Oundle Council seems determined to outdo every event in the country and create something very special – the Northamptonshire and Oundle teams have been totally inspirational.

From there we very quickly found ourselves in a situation where councils were instantly massively supportive. I won’t name them all – as you know them already – but I have to say in the early stages when we had nothing on the table other than a concept, a couple stood out – Paul Price at Tendring Council who was determined not to let the race happen without Clacton and Harwich being involved and Colin Grogan’s team at Suffolk County Council spring to mind.

But they have all been amazing and each stage has something special about it. I keep getting asked off the record which is my favourite stage or venue but the honest answer is that they are all a little bit special and we have tried to foster that by creating individual themes and concepts.

On Stage 1 we have spectacular scenery and beautiful villages in Northamptonshire and we celebrate Hannah Barnes’ continued progression in cycling – it’s going to be big step-up for her but we hope she does well in her home town.

On Stage 2, we go past Lucy Garner’s front door – literally – and then finish in Bedford which is the home of women’s racing and where Jon Miles has done so much over the years to make women’s racing so fantastic.

It is so pleasing to be able to thank him for what he has done and Bedford will be spectacular down by The Embankment. On Stage 3 we pay tribute to the Dutch riders with a very tough stage in Suffolk and Essex along roads that will blow the race into echelons from the first kilometre with a seafront finish in Clacton.

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World Cup leader Lizzie Armistead and Emma Trott

Stage 4 celebrates Laura and Emma Trott, starting in their home town. It is a very tough stage – up and down all day – with a finish in Welwyn Garden City where both Laura and Emma started cycling. And of course stage 5 starts with a mass participation bike ride in Harwich running behind the race with a spectacular stage finish outside the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. I just can’t quite believe how lucky we have been.

But the toughest bit was obtaining sponsorship and it is fair to say that at times our heads went down a bit. But I said at the launch in early 2013, if any organisation can make something happen when others cannot, it is SweetSpot.

And I am pleased to say it all came right in the end and we now have some great sponsors in place. I think the most inspiring for me personally were ITV and Skoda who both said “Let’s do this – we need to make it happen” right from the very start. You have no idea how much that helped us when things looked tough. We drive Skoda Team cars at work and I can tell you honestly that the majority of the SweetSpot team, including me, have gone out and bought our own Skodas – so good to have a sponsor with a great product. Go for a test drive today if you love women’s cycling!

So yes, it has been a challenge on the sponsorship side but when it got tough, it just made it more important not to give up as our female athletes and young women in society deserve better from us and when we met Friends Life that really was the icing on the cake as they are a great brand with a set of shared values and there was instant chemistry between us. I hope we delight them.

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3. How were the routes for the race created in the regions where the sponsors wanted the race. IE. What is the process going from a blank piece of paper to a route from A to B?

Guy: I was given very much a free hand by Mick Bennett our Technical Director but we did agree on a couple of things from Day One. We wanted a race that was designed for TV and would have a nail-biting finish with no one knowing before the race who would win.

We also wanted to keep transfers between stages very short. We went and spoke to several very well respected teams and riders abroad and they said they wanted stages ideally around one central hotel location and did not think it was appropriate at this early stage to have a mountainous race that would see very large time gaps.

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They also wanted to be near the channel ports to get to and from the race. They are on very limited budgets and wanted to keep their logistics simple and cost effective. We also wanted people from London to be able to come and see the race.

So for all of those reasons, we decided to hold the race in the East Midlands and East Anglia. We went out of our way to say to everyone that this was not a Tour of Britain as we could not get around Britain in five days but that it was a five day elite international stage race stage race in the east of England.

To be honest I find it mildly frustrating when we occasionally hear complaints such as “Why aren’t they going around Britain?” We can’t do that in five days without long transfers, which the riders hate, and we see no need to at this stage.

I then went and drove around the areas that fitted in with our stage towns and roughly plotted some route options just to get a general idea of whether the race would work and then handed over to our route maestro – Andy Hawes.

He worked with our Start Manager, Mark Leyland, and Rob Kennison our Finish Manager. We have had incredible support from the Highways Departments in the various councils. It is so easy to moan about a pothole in a road but when you see behind the scenes what they do it is absolutely amazing.

Within all of this process are very complex requirements about risk assessments and traffic management orders etc – SweetSpot are fantastic at that.

 

4. What has been the reaction from the world stars to the creation of a race? And the British media as well?
Guy: We have been blown away by the reaction. When we launched last year, I was discreetly called by several people who warned me we would never make this work and a stand-alone event like this could not happen.

I was told that unless the men were there, there would be no media interest. Well, we have not had the race yet, so I hope we can prove them wrong. But, at the Grand Depart we are going to see: ITV 4 filming for their daily one hour coverage, BBC will be there for BBC Breakfast, BBC Local TV will film as will ITV Regional TV, several radio stations will be present, there’s a crew filming for a wider film on cycling, a film crew from the Netherlands filming Rabo Liv plus a crew or two filming Wiggle Honda.

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Marrianne Vos – a legend already in the sport of cycling with a lot more winning to be done.

BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5 want to interview us before and during the event and Eurosport plan to show it and we have enquiries world-wide. I am not surprised. This is an untapped market. Women’s racing is exciting if you can be bothered to take your blinkers off and value the athletes for what they are – superbly fit women competitors with one of the greatest sportswomen the world has ever seen – Marianne Vos.

All of the women’s peloton has got behind this. We had expected to get some decent riders but the scale of it has blown us away.

Forgive me if I get my numbers wrong as I am overwhelmed by it all but we have: four Olympic Champions, seven national champions from around the world, the first three from last year’s world road race championships, the Gold and Silver medallists from London 2012, ten of the top thirteen teams in the world….. the list goes on and on and on.

And we have no idea who is going to win! Vos – Olympic Champion. Johannson – world number one. Armitstead – absolutely on fire at the moment and World Cup Leader. Bronzini – totally up for the win and I have never seen Wiggle Honda so totally hyped up for a race.

Longho Borghini – where do I stop? I would love to see Lizzie win. I have so much respect for her stepping outside the BC track programme and living abroad but they are all not only superb athletes but such a great bunch of people. You ask anyone who has met Vos what they think and they rave about her.

So I will just be happy to see them race after they have all got behind the event from the very first moment. Of course, with my wife Gerda being Dutch, I may come under a bit of pressure on Stage 3 when the Dutch girls will be putting the hammer down in Essex!

 

5. When choosing teams for such a high profile race, what was the criteria you were looking for from teams to give them a valued spot in this event.
Guy: This has been incredibly tough for us. We first thought the race would be graded 2:2 and we would have four or five British domestic teams but when we were awarded 2:1 status from Year One – which is unheard of – that moved the goalposts significantly. It is nice to have the chance to explain!

We are running with 96 riders in year One and as organisers of a 2:1 event, we not only have to invite the top ten trade teams in the world but also the top 5 nations. The UCI also make it very clear that the organiser is expected to ensure that the race field sees not only these top teams but ideally a mix of other countries and teams being involved.

We also knew that we wanted to give rides to as many British women as possible whilst still working within the spirit of the rules – especially those who has been racing abroad for several years with little recognition; it would have been inconceivable to have left them out of the first race on their home turf and that was incredibly important to me especially as several of their teams did not qualify for an automatic invitation.

What surprised us – pleasantly – was that everyone wanted to ride the race – we had many requests from the USA, Australia, Central Europe, South America, even the Caribbean. Many, many national teams applied. It was an impossible situation and in the end you can see which teams we accepted from around the world.

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A very emotional young Lucy Garner winners a World title …

We are proud that we have given a ride to every British professional based abroad: Lizzie Armitstead, Emma Trott, Hannah Barnes, Sharon Laws, Lucy Martin, Lucy Garner, Emma Pooley plus of course Laura Trott, Danielle King and Joanna Rowsell.

We decided to go with one British domestic team – though we would have liked more – and there was nothing to call between the top four teams who all think they are the best! We were acutely conscious they all wanted to ride and mildly alarmed that some smaller teams were also telling the media they had a guaranteed acceptance which was never the case.

In the end our team voted and we went with Matrix Fitness, not only because they were a good group of athletes but also taking into account they had pursued the same moral agenda as us – for some years and in various guises they have been trying to change the face of women’s cycling for the better and we had great respect for that.

We worked very closely with British Cycling and were delighted when Shane Sutton told us they would run a young GB team that would give places to several of the riders in the “other” British domestic teams.

In a UCI 2:1 international race, we turned away well over twenty international level teams with highly experienced riders yet still found places for over 20 British riders out of a field of 96 whilst maintaining the integrity of a UCI 2:1 event. I know I won’t be popular with the teams that did not make the cut but I can tell you that both Mick and I feel proud of striking the right balance in a fair and objective way.

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Striking poster for the race by PelotonDesigns

6. Now that you have got to the point of the first race being ready to roll out and have a feel for the support out there, what does the near future hold for the race in the next few years?
Guy: This year will be about learning what is different about women’s racing. We find it frustrating to be limited to just 100 kilometres per day on average over the five days – I wish the UCI would change that rule as the women can race further and it makes it difficult for race organisers to be creative.

We have no immediate plans to take it out of the East Midlands – but we might do if it seems to work for us. In short, we are open-minded but we do not want everyone to expect to see a dramatic move next year.

Several of the councils who voted to work with us on Year One want us back and we owe it to them to repay their loyalty and they are keen to develop the race as well. So I think you will see some changes but not a dramatic shift away from the East Midlands.

It is surprisingly hard to get more than five days on the crowded women’s calendar and if we are to take the race to as many towns as possible that makes running a time trial difficult – difficult but not impossible. So we are pretty open minded but I would think we might include a couple of hillier stages as we progress.

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Three men at the head of Sweetspot helping make the sport of cycling racing better in Britain – Sweetspot – L-R Guy Elliott, Hugh Roberts & Mick Bennett

7. Finally, for you personally, what has been the high point of the organising of the race?
Guy: Well, I keep getting thanked in public and the first thing I would say is that any thanks should go to the entire SweetSpot team. SweetSpot only runs with a small but highly effective team who were all behind the race from Day One. And of course we have to make the race happen.

It would be disastrous for us to celebrate at this stage – we have to enjoy the good news but only relax on 11th May but that only gives us 48 hours before the first Tour Series race in Stoke!

Can I ask that if any spectators see and recognise us they find us a chair and make us a coffee?! The culture of SweetSpot is not to celebrate high spots until the last rider goes safely home and everything is back at base under the guidance of Simon Morris our Logistics Expert.

But for me personally, my greatest pleasure so far is in knowing that I have played a small part in bringing the proper recognition that riders such as Lizzie, Laura, Joanna and Dani – and many others – deserve. They deserve much better from us – if I have played a small part in that then I shall feel quite happy as I ride my bike on the Solihull Cycling Club Saturday on the way to the cake stop!

Give me a push if you see me on the road as it’s not getting any easier!

Thanks to Guy for the interview … the race will be amazing!

FURTHER INFORMATION: www.womenstour.co.uk

 


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