Interview: Richard Williamson (Velo 29)

Chat with organiser of the Klondike & Stockton Prems as well as sportives, winter series events, cycling raffles and much more – Richard Williamson of Velo29

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Interview: Richard Williamson (Velo 29)

Chat with organiser of the Klondike & Stockton Prems as well as sportives, winter series events, cycling raffles and much more – Richard Williamson of Velo29

2021 promises to be a busy year for Velo29’s Richard Williamson and his team if the pandemic doesn’t get in the way of the road season from April onwards. On British Cycling’s calendar for 2021, the first ‘Prem’ of the year will be Richard’s Klondike Grand Prix on April 18 which will see races for both the men and women.

The Klondike GP (men & women) event has a new sponsor for 2021 which is yet to be revealed and so whilst some exciting plans have been already made for the event, whether it actually happens will depend on the sponsor stumping up the budget for the event but it is an event that is expected to take place.

Stockton GP looks like being on for 2021 providing the pandemic is under control by then

Should that happen, the Klondike Grand Prix will look quite different in 2021. The start and finish will be moved to Saltburn with the finish likely to come after that very testing climb into the town with a 25% gradient. The move to Saltburn has been made to help reduce costs and simplify the course for the event Richard explained. One of the exciting plans though is to have a Nocturne on the Friday night which the organiser is hoping the teams riding Klondike will fully support.

The town centre crit at Saltburn will be one of two organised by Richard and his team with the other being the one at Stockton along with the Road Race there. Velo29 is also intending, lockdowns permitting, to organise a winter series at the Croft circuit.

“We are hoping to do them (winter series events) in January and February as that is the only time we can do it due to our season and because of the circuit’s availability” explained Richard. The racing will be as per the British Cycling regs with 30 riders per race for 30 minutes.

“The ladies will race for 30 minutes and the 4th cats for 30 minutes as well. That is not a dramatic change as they only used to do 45 minutes. We will split the E/1/2/3/4 into two groups and two heats so they do thirty minutes and cool down for a lap and then do another 30 minutes” explained Richard. Whilst the races will not have British Cycling ranking points, the organisers will be awarding points in the E/1/2/3/4 races (two of them) and then using the points tables to place the riders in the two groups for the following round of the event.

As an organiser of both the British Road Race championships and Circuit Race championships, I asked Richard is organising a crit easier than a road race. “Yes, but it can depend on the level of race” replied Richard. “When you do the Elite (National A) road races, you engage with the police and a traffic management company and the road gets closed for you. That makes it easier as it then becomes their responsibility”.

“If you are talking grass roots, a road race can be a pain in the ass because you have to find a village hall, talk to the residents of the village and then you find a farmer will stick a tractor on the road. You are relying on good will.”

“Also, if someone finds a course and it’s used ten times a year, the locals can get cheesed off and complain, so you can’t use it anymore so it’s not straightforward at that level”.

“A crit though, where you close the town’s roads is simple enough but what we find with crits is you have to have a good attendance because it’s highly visible if the public don’t attend. On a road race, it’s not that visible except at the finish. The people sponsoring the event care about how many people attend so if you put a crit on and it’s obvious it’s not well received, it is unlikely to happen again. That is what we found”.

Next year, says Richard, is looking better than 2020. “Next year won’t be as bad as this year and so with the benefit of hindsight, we have had a long time to think about what was so difficult and what we can change. We can go into next year knowing an event might get cancelled and if it does, this is what will happen…”

“We have a new refund policy (sportives) and if we cancel the event, everyone gets their money back. We can do that because we will reduce the cost of running the company so that isn’t such a problem for us and the admin. If a rider cancels their ride up to five days before, they’ll also get their money back but if it’s within five days, because we will have incurred costs, there is no refund.”

“In reality, we may get some local lockdowns that will prevent us doing an event but I don’t think from March next year the whole country will go in lockdown again. I hope.”

Richard added that cyclists can help the sport (racing) by supporting it by being at a finish and showing sponsors of the event how important that event is to the town it’s being held in. “There is a lack of support from local clubs” says Richard. “Not those racing the events but if we take Stockton as an example, there are some big clubs in the area that have between 500 and a 1000 members. They are some of the biggest clubs in the UK and very few of them engage in the event.”

“Stockton council, put the event on to show case the area and to give the local people something to be proud of. The locals should be proud of it. But, with the exception of riders I can count on one hand from one of the big clubs I’m thinking of, and the same on the other hand from the other big club, very few come to the Stockton event and that I think is really rubbish.”

“Why don’t they come to the finish line and bolster the numbers? The finishes at Stockton are good but not rammed so why are they not wearing local club jerseys and as a rider, supporting their local events. This is probably true of the entire nation so I’d ask those who love their cycling, go to the road side to watch it and more important, go to the finish line to watch it because that will show the person who is paying for the event that you really care about our sport. Quite simply, if you really care about racing, go to the finish line of a bike race.”

…. continued after the advert.

Racing however is not something Richard’s business does to make money. Sportives however do help keep the business afloat “We have become an expensive business by growing and that’s by design but in doing so, we have invested a lot in assets like this year we invested in the video streaming equipment and have a massive LCD screen to put up at the finish line which hasn’t been out of storage so the pandemic was as bad a news as we’d ever had”.

Richard explained that around 75% of those who ride sportives wanted to get back to them in 2020 while the other 25% understandably had good reasons to be cautious. “We knew we had a lot of work to do to make it a safer environment.”

“Before the pandemic, it was ‘how do we give the participants the experience of riding with thousands of other people’ and that was a big part of it. Then, with the pandemic, it was how do we get them to enjoy a sportive but in a group of six or less.”

“By May time this year, we started to work on that challenge as we knew we would have to do it sometime so by late August, we were in a good position to be able to make the events safe. And people loved it. We had great feedback on the processes we had put in place and people were even saying they wanted us to continue to do this post pandemic which is good”.

So how did a sportive look being run under Covid conditions? “We were not allowed to have more than 600 people” says Richard. “That was something from British Cycling and whilst we don’t organise our sportives with British Cycling, we very much believed it was right to follow the governing body’s guidelines.”

“That is important and as they had done the work with clinical data management, to not follow them would be like us saying we know better and that isn’t the case so we were dead strict on that. We had to limit all the events to 600 when typically we would have had much more than that as people were chomping at the bit to take part. We were having to turn people away which we traditionally don’t do so that was a big change.”

“We developed a new booking system too so people could book a start time and that was a huge bit of work and investment as well. The booking system opened six days before the event and they would have to complete a covid questionnaire with all the questions you’d expect and when they had completed that, they would be taken to a time slot booking”

“If they were doing the long route, they then had an opportunity to book the earlier time slots and they could only book a maximum of six people per minute which was in line with the BC guidelines. One person could book friends on because they would be travelling with someone in their bubble and that could be family so they could do all of that which really worked.”

“We structured the start line so people in those booking slots were separated and we were really strict on that so if seven came up when there should be six, there was hell on and we got to the bottom of it and the one person not meant to be there was made to wait. We really hammered the ‘follow the rules message’ and people liked that and were respectful of it.”

There were changes to the feed stations too. “Feed stations went from ‘buffets’ to ‘grab and go’ so we had to prepare for an event like the Tour of the Peaks (600 riders), where they could stop three times, so there was 1800 food bags needed. When people arrived at the food station, it was ‘there’s your bag, is there anything wrong, do you need any help’ and a rush because more people were coming in quickly”.

“Our changes really worked and we did six road events and five closed circuit ‘freedom to ride’ events and all of it was super well received”.

The Dream Bike Raffles
One of the big things this year for Velo29 has been the Dreambike raffle. Asked how that came about, Richard replied “In July 2019, I sold a car and was chatting to the person I sold it to and he said ‘I’m going to raffle it’. He did one or two cars a week. So I checked it out and realised we could do that with bikes and no one else was doing it”.

“So we did a soft launch at the bike shop, one bike a month and it was doing okay. But then in lock down, late March, we managed to get hold of some Kickr trainers. No one else had them and it was what the customers wanted and it just went mental. We could have done one an hour, every hour of the day!”

“So it grew from there. We started to get a few bikes and I was wondering if it was going to work and that went mental too. There was a time when we were doing two bikes a day. It was unbelievable. It kept the company afloat and I think a lot of people did it because they wanted to support us and that is something we are massively grateful for. It’s slowed down now but we are still doing it with a bike a week. So it’s a nice extra part of the business”.

Live TV Coverage of Events
Last winter, I noticed a message on twitter mentioning live coverage of the Velo29 winter series events and then at the 2020 Hill Climb championships, all these vans turned up with lots of equipment to televise the event where spectators were not allowed to watch it. This was Velo29’s live digital feed of events.

This is yet another string to the bow of Velo29. Richard explained how it came about saying, “we took the initiative after spending time in America where loads of events just below the top level are put out on digital platforms and it does unbelievably well.”

“It hasn’t really caught on in this country. If it’s on TV, people’s perception is that its quality and worth watching but if it’s on digital they tend to think it must be a load of rubbish but that isn’t the case.”

“So we wanted to have a go at that and because we love cycling, and it’s the second hardest sport to produce live after triathlon, we did the work to get it done. It is tremendously difficult as the technology is not mature enough so you can’t charge tens of thousand of pounds to do it because it’s prone for things to go wrong. You are working from a mobile phone signal so it is something you do for the love it”.

“So we did our winter series at Croft (North East circuit) and this was 4th cats racing around a circuit in the winter and it was getting 10,000 views a week without us promoting it. It was unreal. We wanted to do our elite races but British Cycling had a contract in place with Cyclevox and that contract prevented anyone else doing anything.”

“This year, all that has changed with Covid and reduced funding of British Cycling so all that is changing for next year where the door is very much open so we and other organisers are looking at how they can digitally televise their events. They however don’t have the experience we do and if they think they can get someone for 2k to do it, that won’t happen.”

“So we can fill that gap being able to do it for a modest cost and whilst it doesn’t look like the Tour de France with the modern looking, beautifully polished production on ITV4, ours is decent.”

Having an event on digital platforms is helping organisers show their events on platforms that people can view where ever they are in the world whether it be on their phone, their computer/tablet or for those with smart TV’s, something like Youtube.

It also helps organisers spread the news on the sport we all love whether that be by showing it live at the finish line of an event, or in a pub etc. The quality at those venues says Richard, doesn’t get criticised when the picture is lost for a few seconds or there’s no interviews”

“I think the one thing British Cycling failed to do was to get the highlights programme out that day of the event and that is important. It is not just aimed at us guys who will watch anything with a bike in it but aimed at the families of those people racing or British Cycling members who don’t have a racing licence or even those who aren’t British Cycling members. That’s how we can draw them into the sport.”

“It’s not impossible to do. On ITV highlights, it’s 50 per cent riding a bike, 50 per cent of someone telling you how to ride up a hill or somebody who used to ride the Tour. When I watch it with my dad, that’s what he is interested in and the last kilometres so that is what we are working on for next year. To pump it out on the big screen at the finish and get a highlights programme out for Klondike and I’m chatting to other organisers too”.

Three Day Sportive

Finally, going back to sportives, Richard and his team are organising a new type of event, a three day one in Yorkshire. “This is brand new and we’re super excited about it” says Richard. “The launch of the event came out coincidently when the news came out that the Tour de Yorkshire was not taking place. That wasn’t by design.”

“Our event is about giving sportive riders the experience of life as a racing cyclist. It is a sportive and not a race but people who have ridden a sportive are not going down ramps and riding a prologue time trial, or, probably never ridden to a mountain top finish with barriers and been timed up the climb, or, ridden for three consecutive days and gone in different directions. They are the challenges we are trying give them to experience and the reception has been unbelievable.”

To help all this happen, Velo29 have a new sponsor as well, Busby and Discount Sports Network (DSN) who are the new title sponsor which is, says Richard, brilliant news for his organisation. “I didn’t think we’d find a new sponsor in the current climate. It is a safety App so when you are riding along and get a puncture you can’t fix, you can send out flare and people in the area within two miles will get that flare and someone from there can help them out. Or, if someone got lost in a sportive, it comes into play for that too.”

Very exciting times for Velo29 and we wish Richard and his team lots of luck for 2021 …

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