Feature Interview: Richard Williamson (Velo29)

We chat to one of the sport’s most prolific organisers of bike events (sportives/races) Richard Williamson (Velo29) to see how he is finding the challenge of organising events in 2020  (organiser of the Klondike & Stockton Prems)

Feature Interview: Richard Williamson (Velo29)

We chat to one of the sport’s most prolific organisers of bike events (sportives/races), Richard Williamson (Velo29) to see how he is finding the challenge of organising events in 2020.

World superstar Tom Pidcock is one of the winners of the Klondike GP, organised by Richard and his team

The sport is going through tough times with big cycle racing teams folding, events being lost and now British Cycling tells teams and organisers, there will be no British racing televised on Eurosport in 2020. In an email sent to teams and organisers, British Cycling have said, “for the 2020 road and circuit series, we will be working with Cyclevox to deliver news highlights packages for each round of the series, a method which has secured strong viewership from local news coverage over the past few seasons, and one which we believe will continue to take the series to as wide an audience as

“As part of the package, an edit will be produced for news channels that will be edited and sent the day of the event. Another edit will have up to a 48-hour turnaround time, that will focus on teams who have registered for the series, for teams to be able to use to promote their participation in the event.”

“This will mean we will not supply a programme to Eurosport.”

It is something that both organisers and teams have not been happy with. I know of one previous team owner who I am told is unable to find any sponsorship to return to the sport and as you will read below, for organisers, the changes to TV coverage by British Cycling are not going down well with said organisers.

Last week, I spoke to most of the organisers of the ‘Prems’ in 2020 and it would appear the calendar of events that is listed on VeloUK but as yet, not on the British Cycling website, will go ahead but not all are safe. One organiser I spoke to said meetings with British Cycling have been a shambles and they are still waiting on important documents from the governing body. There are a lot of unhappy organisers of major events  in the sport and  team owners for the squads that will compete in them and a lot of that stems from the goings on at meetings with British Cycling and the decisions made by them like the one axing Eurosport coverage.

So, with so much doom and gloom in cycle sport here, VeloUK rang Richard Williamson of Velo29 to see how 2020 was looking for them. Richard and his team organise the East Cleveland Klondike Grand Prix and the Stockton Grand Prix (both road races). They have also organised both the British circuit and road race championships a few years ago. The Skipton Grand Prix is another event they have organised as was the circuit race at Newcastle in 2019. Quite a portfolio and that is without the sportives, winter series and now beach races too!

With so much angst in people I had talked to during the week, high flyers in the sport, upper most in my memory, I asked Richard, how were things with Velo29? Good, it turns out. “We are 50% up on this time last year for sportive entrants so in a market that is not attracting many new people, we are managing to either get business off other events or people who are doing other events, are doing ours now too. So on the sportive front, it’s really good news and we have done events over the winter, like a free event and short sprint sportives to try and bring in new people. From that perspective, 2020 is working well”.

“When it comes to the racing, like Croft (North Yorkshire) where we have held races for ten years, although there are new circuits like one at Leeds and so on and winter series events are growing in number which has eaten into our numbers, thanks to us making more of a fuss of the winter series than anyone else  (like live streaming), we are getting the numbers back up to where they used to be. So the stuff we do ourselves, it’s good news. The stuff we do with British Cycling, it’s a bit more difficult at this time of the year.”

To progress, as the challenge in organising events becomes more difficult, requires more creative organising which Velo29 have shown they are well up for. One of the things they have done which is getting plenty of social media time when it was broadcast, is live streaming of winter series races. Was this part of a bigger, master plan I asked Richard?

“We want to be able to stream our big events and ultimately, sell our streaming service to other people (they also do it for football teams). In terms of cycling, I’d like to take the big events that people like to watch, like the National Series, to a much wider audience than anyone else is doing. In doing so, attract sponsors and advertising and enable the service to put money into events that are struggling and progressing the series and making it more sustainable”.
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So, when I asked for his reaction to the email from British Cycling on there being no Eurosport coverage in 2020, Richard’s reply was the same as I’d had from other organisers and team owners. “That was a big kick in the teeth really. When I talk to a Stockton council or a big local village that sponsor the Klondike or a big council like Newcastle, the conversation always goes “…and it’s on TV” and the box is ticked and the money is sound and you’re ok”.

“Most people have access to Eurosport these days and the programmes are on before or after something they might watch and so it’s getting out. They now say there is a short highlights programme going out on a digital channel a few days after the race and the race sponsors I talk to are pulling a face so from that perspective, it’s a real problem”.

“I felt we were on a good track with the way it was. The coverage had improved over the years, it was going out more quickly, they were live streaming the crit series, and they were getting round the towns before the event and showing some history of the area and that sort of thing. I think it was a better programme. It wasn’t ITV Tour de France but it was better than it was at the start a few years ago”.

Mark Cavendish and Adam Blythe fight it out for the British Road Race title in Stockton in an event organised by Richard and his team

“If I was in British Cycling’s position, I would have found the money to stay on that track. I question the one stop shop with Cyclevox too. By speaking to other people, maybe they could get it on terrestrial television. I would have made that top priority for the National Series this year and found a way to do it and not have wriggled out of it. They have to get the top (of the sport) right to make the bottom work”.

Moving onto his events, and the first of the big road races or ‘Prems’ as riders still call them (National Series Road Races), was Klondike going ahead on April 19 I asked? “Absolutely, yes” was the reply. “They (the sponsors/spectators) absolutely love it. It is an area that loves cycling. There is a history that goes back to the Kellogs Tour that my generation remembers. So they love cycling but it’s an area where not many sporting events take place.”

“Guisborough (start/finish) is quite an affluent town, one that is not low class so it doesn’t benefit from investment because of that and it is not super wealthy so it doesn’t benefit from that either. It’s in the middle so everyone thinks it’s okay and leaves it alone and as a result nothing happens.”

“Then, out in East Cleveland, it’s like the poor relation in Yorkshire so the Tour de Yorkshire doesn’t go through so to have an elite bike race pass by their doors, they absolutely love that. It warms my heart when we do it as I cannot believe how much they love it”.
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No women’s event in 2020 at Klondike
“Yes and no” Richard replied. “British Cycling put some money in last year to make it happen. That money was not available this year and the race sponsors didn’t think they were going to find the funding to make it happen in 2020.”

There’s that word again; funding. Teams fail because finding sponsors can be impossible and races fail too because there just isn’t the money out there. Are national series races becoming harder to get on the road I asked? “If I was coming into this brand new today, I would say yes, it is harder to do them today with the hoops you have to jump through. Without TV, organisers will find it hard to find the investment. You seem to need forever more motorcycles and police which is a huge cost and the cost of the officials has gone up.”

As Chris Opie wins the Stockton GP, Richard is busy getting images of it

“It used to be in the early days, ‘I’ll drive for a few hours, rock up and do my bit and I’m happy with my sandwiches and go home’ but now, everyone now is asking for accommodation, a nice meal and to be well looked after and that is a big cost that never used to be there before. So all that added together makes it a very expensive thing to do”.

“We are fortunate that with Stockton, they want to make it happen and with Klondike, because there isn’t a lot going on in the area, though we had to trim the budget this year, they do have the money to make it happen for the next three.”

By way of showing how much it can cost to put on a race, Richard says the Skipton crits he organised cost, with some corners cut, as much as £16,000 whilst the one at Newcastle last year cost as much as £35,000. A lot of money which is why keeping them on the calendar is a tough ask for the organisers. For 2020, Richard confirms that the much loved event by riders, the Stockton Grand Prix will return on July 12. The Newcastle circuit race though, which was quite spectacular, is still touch and go.

Before those races though are many many other events for Richard and his team. When we spoke before it was even February, he’d already organised and run six events in 2020. In February, he has three more rounds of the Velo29 Winter series at the Croft Motor racing circuit in North Yorkshire (see their Facebook page for the latest news – https://www.facebook.com/Velo29/ )

As major events go, he has the York – Leeds – York sportive for Richard and Velo29, one that has become a season opener for sportives. Then, at the end of March, they have the Cheshire Cat which is Velo29’s biggest sportive before the Manchester-Sheffield sportive. Then, it’s time for the Klondike Grand Prix in April. See their website for all the events in 2020 – https://velo29events.com/sportives/

Thanks to Richard and see you in April for the East Cleveland Klondike GP. 


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