Interview Sonja Harper (Otley Crits Organiser)

Quite probably, the biggest cycling party since 2019, is expected to be held in Otley on June 30 with races for the best of the best in mens & womens bike racing at The LOGCO Otley Cycle Races

RST Cycle Clothing & Trigon Bikes

Interview Sonja Harper (Otley Crits Organiser)

Having been to the Otley Town Centre races for over a decade, a very apt description of them from the organiser, Sonja Harper is of a big party centred around some bike races. The racing is full gas and the crowd every year except for 2020 when the race was cancelled, is always huge. Five deep or more on the finish straights, many a beer or wine in the hand of spectators and a good time being had by all.

Thumbs up from Tom Stewart and the one and only ‘Badger’, Bernard Hinault

More often than not, it’s dark by the time the last race crosses the line so it’s a full night of entertainment and this year, who knows what to expect after so much lockdown. One thing is for sure, with so little racing at this level, the demand to be part of this classic event is huge and so the races are going to be the best we’ve seen for two years.

The night will see the following races:
Elite Men: The Property Development Group Men’s GP (incorporates Park Lane Homes, Blacks Law, ID Planning)
Women: The Spatz Women’s GP
Support Men: Chevin Cycles Classic Race
Youth Boys: MAS Design Super Prestige Boys Race
Youth Girls: Milner Richards/B & TS Builders Merchants Super Prestige Girls Race

The entry already is quite stunning with some proper star names in the sport on the entry list including the British circuit race champion Joey Walker, former winner Matt Bostock, Ben Turner who wore Pink in the Baby Giro, Thomas Gloag who’s currently at the time of writing 4th overall in the Baby Giro, James Shaw who today (June 10) was a stunning 6th behind Pogacar in a mountain stage of the Tour of Slovenia.

Local Joe Pidcock is entered as is his FDJ teammate Lewis Askey. Tour Series round winner Freddie Scheske and runner up to Joey Walker in the crit champs in 2019, Isaac Mundy. There’s more such as Rob Scott and Jacob Scott and plenty other well known names from the domestic sport to be revealed soon.

The Women’s race too has attracted plenty of the top riders such as crit champion Rebecca Durrell, Megan Barker, Emily Meakin, Alice Towers, April Tacey, Samantha Stuart, Ffion James, Frankie Hall, Monica Greenwood, Lucy Gadd, Beth Morrow (winner at Loughborough recently), Dame Sarah Storey, Leah Dixon, and some talented juniors such as Zoe Backstedt and Flora Perkins. And there are many more which will be revealed when we do a final preview with the startlist.

A big favourite with her local crowd, Lizzie Deignan

The history of the event goes back a long way to the mid 1980s and the team that puts the event on each year has many many years of organising and racing the event. Giles Pidcock for example has ridden and won races as has his son Tom Pidcock and many of the team headed up by Sonja have also organised the event such as Giles.

Graham Collins is another who has organised the event along with Michael and Sarah Gill. Another of the key people on the organising team is Steve Johnson. With such experience, the event has the luxury of having many many very experienced cycling people at its helm with Sonja organising her second Otley event.

“We are proud of ourselves because we are taking a bit of a risk as things may get cancelled and that risk is mine” explained Sonja. “We do have an Otley race account and some slack in there in case we have to call it off. There would still be losses but there is enough in the budget to cover them. So whilst we are taking a risk, we are all just relieved that as well as our safety advisors, the council and virtually all of our sponsors are really keen to go ahead”.

And therin lies what makes Otley so special. Anyone who has been there will know what a huge event it is on the night and after what we have all been through in this pandemic, who wouldn’t want to see such a huge night out centred on some awesome bike racing.

The process of getting Otley back on the racing calendar started with the councils and other local authorities like those in charge of the road closures, and the very important Fire Station (on the finish line) which hosts the hospitality part of the event.

Oh look, its Tom, Tom Pidcock winning a 2/3/4 race at Otley when still a youth rider!

“Once approval came from the council and others, it was time to talk to the sponsors and that began with the main ones” explained Sonja. “We are unique in that we don’t rely on the council for all the funding and instead we have a host of different sponsors. We did lose one of our main sponsors because of the risks associated with Covid and the event, so there was a lot of ringing around to find a replacement and that is where Tom Barras of Spatz stepped in to sponsor the Womens race.”

“As a former rider, Tom was very keen that Otley had to go ahead as there is a worry if you let the race get cancelled, it will not come back the following year which is why I think we have to keep it going if we can as it’s such a great event.”

A great event for sure. The demand every year to race Otley is huge. Just one look at the international riders that have raced there shows the respect and love riders have for the event. Riders such as Mark Cavendish, local girl Lizzie Deignan, Jeremy Hunt, Dan McLay, Russell Downing, Ben Swift and Chris Lawless (a double winner) on top of the many other domestic based star riders. The events reputation precedes it and that shows in the support its gets on many fronts.

“There has been a lot of smaller sponsors, people we know in the cycling community asking if they can help by buying a bit of advertising space or saying ‘I’ll buy some hospitality passes and give you a few extra quid’ so it’s really been quite heart-warming how the cycling community in Yorkshire has stepped up”.

An example of that support is the task of getting marshals for the race. “Giles is in charge of recruiting marshals and that’s a big job but instead of him running round asking and begging people to help, people come to him or me and ask do we need any help at Otley. There is a great cycling community here that is so supportive. Because we’re out on our bikes on Saturday, stopping at local cafes along the way, we have a good relationship with lots of people.”

Back in 2011, ten years ago and yet again, another great crowd!

Some sponsors are not just supporting the event but also an integral part of it like Chevin Cycles which is on the course and has been a major sponsor for ever. Many of them however are not part of the cycling world, sponsors such as LOGCO (Leeds Oil & Grease Co. Ltd), The Property Development Group, Milner Richards/B & TS Builders Merchants and MAS Design.

The connection with the sport of cycling with such companies is tenuous but an essential one. The director at LOGCO is a keen sportsman (triathlete) for example whilst with other companies, the connection to cycling comes from people who know people at the company and who make the approach to bring them into the sport.

One of the attractions of being involved in supporting the event, is the hospitality part of it which helps draw in sponsors keen to bring clients to Otley for a lovely night out with some great food and free bar. Whether we see the huge crowds, five or six deep or more along the home straight will depend on the people in the town and also the final exit from lockdown on June 21st.

“We probably won’t know until the 21st of June explains Sonja, “but because it’s a public space, and whilst we may not be able to encourage people to come, it’s a public space so we can’t stop people from coming to see the racing”

2011 and Scott Thwaites winning the men’s race

Whatever happens with the spectators, what should be ‘normal’ is the race programme of Youth racing, support races and then the Elite Men’s and Women’s events. If the demand to see the race is as much as the demand to race the events, then the atmosphere in Otley will be quite something.

“I had approval for 100 riders in the Women’s race” explained Sonja, adding “but it was quickly apparent that was going be full so I asked BC for approval for 120. I am still going to be full with a load of reserves but that’s the same for all the races except for the girls Youth race”.

Which means, all being well, and should the event have the same or similar crowds they do normally, the LOGCO Otley town centre races will be as they have been, or better, that previous years. But this year’s race has certainly been different to organise than other years.

For Sonja, 2021 will be the second year she has organised the event and admits she doesn’t feel nervous or a weight on her shoulders being the organiser because she has such a great team behind her and also has the experience of having done it before.

But being a year where Covid is still making life difficult, the pandemic has made the organisation of the event a lot harder than normal but because everyone in the team are so determined to see it happen, the extra work is just seen as another challenge they have managed to over come.

“I hope everyone is allowed to be there and we know being outdoors is safe” says Sonja. “Most of the population have been vaccinated so I am hopeful we’ll have a big event with lots of spectators having a great big party with a bike race in the middle of it. As a team, we will try very hard to make that sure that happens”.

Much of the event will be the same as what those of us who know the event are used to but that doesn’t mean there won’t be knew innovations like a DJ on the hill to draw people up there but of course, for us fans of the sport, it’s the racing we want to see, the opportunity for the star names in our sport to battle their way to that finish line and celebrate a great victory. For sure, with the names that are riding, it’s going to be a smashfest … bring it on!



Cycle Division’s Shop

Send your results as well as club, team & event news here

Other Results on VeloUK (including reports containing results)

Other News on VeloUK