BRITISH OPEN: Where is everybody?

With only 32 entries in this year’s British Individual Senior Open Championship, it’s a worrying continuation of a negative trend, that has reached a new low this year.

There are still some big names in the draw and the final will still be a hard fought encounter with a decent sized crowd, however there are so many names that are missing from the draw – the question is why?

Various threads on social media were speculating last night on the answer to that question, which still largely remains unclear. What is clear, is that something is not right. 32 riders fighting for the most prestigious jersey our British Championships have to offer, is poor, especially when other cycling disciplines are getting into three figures for their national championships and have competitors from all over the country.

Individual riders have individual reasons. Some simply can’t afford a three day jaunt in the north, with the cost of living being so expensive these days. Or rather, they see it as money that would not be spent wisely, if they didn’t believe they could make an impact in the event, especially when young families are taken into account. Others are perhaps on holiday, but if they really cared enough about entering, they wouldn’t book a holiday for the Bank Holiday weekend. It’s the same weekend every year – the exception being riders with families, as the Bank Holiday Monday is a perfect way to maximise your holiday entitlement from work. Some simply don’t believe they will do well and then another thing to consider, is that riders simply missed the deadline (which seemed to have been extended by two days to the 27th July). Other riders have voiced their dislike for the qualifying format, it’s leaves no room for error, when perhaps the old system may be more favoured, with the top 16 riders going through after three or four qualifying rounds, with their final score totalled up from all the qualifiers, similar to the Dash Trophies event at Wednesfield. Finally, the increased cost of entry might be a protest by some riders, but it seems less likely.

Above all else, the desire to achieve your goals, whether it be being British Champion, making the final, or placing better in the semis than previous years, can trump any of those reasons listed in the previous paragraph. If you want it enough, you will be there. What is surprising, is how few riders seem to feel that way about entering Britain’s blue ribbon event. There are many missing riders from the 2013 Australia Tour, all of whom shelled out in the region of £2,000+ to be there, but won’t be racing bank holiday weekend. The reasons for these people not entering do not seem overly apparent.

So where are we going wrong and where have the riders gone in the last 20 years? Very few clubs across the country successfully fill the mid to late 20s age gap with riders. Most clubs are either veteran heavy or junior heavy. It’s a common tale, riders racing as juniors and young seniors and giving it up for whatever reason, then come back to the sport 10, 15 or even 20 years later. How do you keep everybody interested? Martin Gamble made some especially valid points on Facebook last night, stating, “The wider the base, the taller the pyramid”, he claims that clubs are perhaps guilty of travelling too great distances for their matches, when first we should be getting our own houses in order. Martin continued, “Stats assembled before the previous Development Plan was published, suggest that the format of a successful club should be approx. 10% Elite League (if applicable), approx. 20% regional and 70% local competition and activity. Get that right, and the numbers at the top end will grow.” We think that’s pretty spot on. Many clubs do have a successful training night, but how many club’s recruitment drive goes further than young people? As important as a youth recruitment drive is, maybe clubs should be looking towards local colleges and universities also, with a view to bringing in a greater mix of riders?

Some clubs do have the aforementioned local competition in place, like mini inter club leagues. These are a decent step forward, if they’re done in the right way. Providing racing without the petrol costs, is certainly a no brainer. The more activity at your local track, the more people will get interested. Parts of the South East region are especially productive when it comes to the more local racing, utilising midweek fixtures regularly, as are other clubs and regions, but not all. Whether you’re part of a club that is running successfully or a club that is just about ticking over, we all need to take Cycle Speedway forward together. We all need to work hard at grass roots level and do it today, before it’s too late and more clubs end up like the majority have already – we need to help ourselves.

Cycle Speedway is a unique sport, people enjoy watching it, but how many people have even heard of it? Just this Sunday at the Village, the Elite League match between Horspath and Sheffield, stole spectators from the cricket match adjacent, as the cricket fans became “hooked” on the thrills and spills of Cycle Speedway having never heard of or seen it before, vocally expressing their excitement near the pits. The racing is good, but what about the image? Cycling is booming in the UK, but not so much Cycle Speedway. The bikes look “cooler”, the team shirts look “cooler” and the product is an entertaining one that should appeal to many. So, here’s one thing to consider; does the sport perhaps invest too much of it’s time aiming to be like, and appeal to, it’s bigger motorcycling brother (a sport also in decline and a relatively minor sport these days), when it should be aiming it’s appeal to be more like the velodrome? Are people more likely to want to do/watch “Cycle Speedway” or would they prefer to try their hand at “Dirt Track Sprinting” or “Short Track Sprinting”? History is an important thing, as is the connection with motor speedway, but without a future, we will have nothing. Maybe as a sport, we’ve relied on motor speedway too much for recruitment and spectator bases. Perhaps now is the time to branch out to a greater target audience? It doesn’t necessarily mean doing away with our heritage completely, just adjusting how it’s put across to the general public. It’s a radical idea that perhaps won’t sit well with the old school, but something has to change, and soon.