I attended the recent BMX World Championships in Rock Hill as both president representing Australia at the UCI Conference and a team manager looking after the needs of our Challenge riders.
This left me with two very different views of the event and the sport in general.
Firstly, the Team Manager role …
Our riders put in a fantastic effort with some great results – all appeared from our perspective to enjoy the event and all put in a gutsy effort in trying circumstances. Some rode three motos, some rode two motos, some crashed and some achieved the highest rewards for their efforts. All participated in good spirit and were a pleasure to work with.
The efforts put in by the team management were a revelation to me – I was very, very impressed with the attention to detail and the organisation of the team (of which I played a very small role). I cannot thank those people (Cathy Rosa, Dale Percy, Joel Ulbricht, Julia Botfield, Julie Dries, Luke Madill, Paul Connors, Simon Anderson and Vernon Dries) enough for their efforts on behalf of the Australian riders.
Our riders were lucky enough to spend some time with Sam Willoughby, which was a great evening of bonding and support for the team and our Australian spirit in general – showing support for one of our all-time greats of the sport whom we all wish the best for.
Overall a warm, fuzzy feeling was felt by the majority for the entire event, with many people excited to go out and do it again (Baku, Azerbaijan) next year.
Then the UCI component of my duties …
It is evidently clear from observation, and the actions and words of the UCI, that they are not interested in “Challenge” riders. Their focus is purely on the Championship classes (junior and senior elite) and in their words, the Challenge side of the event has become “too big”.
The reality is that the event is big in the US because the host country has 32 riders per class, and the US have the capacity to go close to filling those places. In a different country that does not have a large membership (if any), the host nation will not fill those 32 places per class, resulting in a smaller event.
So why is the large size of the Challenge classes a problem? UCI makes no money from the entries. They have to run the event and don’t want a long-drawn-out event. That makes sense to many Australians who want their opens to run short and sweet and get home early. I believe the structure on offer (16 riders from visiting countries and 32 riders for host country per class) does not take into account cheaper air travel and the willingness of parent/riders of all ages to spend the coin necessary to get across the world to attend an event. Evidence of the willingness to spend money is the fact that a large number of Australian parents tacked a holiday on the back of the event to boot.
At the UCI Conference, all countries discussed (prompted by the UCI) on how the event could be made smaller. UCI prompted for increasing the minimum age, being careful to do this one year at a time so that riders who rode this year are suddenly not eligible to attend next year etc. Other suggestions by the group are to reduce the number of riders from each country who qualify (for example top 8 from each visiting country and top 16 from the host country).
The harsh reality is that if a rider is not within the top 3 or 4 in their country, their chances of doing well at the world titles are exponentially harder – world-level competition is very, very hard. Therefore, it makes sense in my mind that if the UCI want to make the event smaller, then the approach of reducing the number in each age class would see a smaller field of (generally) higher calibre.
When pressed the UCI could not indicate exactly how many riders they are looking for in the Challenge classes – just that the event is getting “too big”. Obviously upcoming host nations have paid big bucks for a “big” event – and the UCI are in a bind to turn around and openly cut numbers – in the same way that if BMXA promise a large event to a host organisation then publicly cut it back in size after negotiations have been finalised we would be seen as less than nice people …
Add to that the fact that the UCI publicly stated that the sport of BMX is “growing” … yet when pressed admitted that they have no knowledge of the membership numbers from their member organisations. I know for a fact that membership is not “growing” in many countries. It is flat or very small growth at best.
The UCI have already throttled the World Titles participation numbers at the Championship level. I’m sure the average BMXer in Australia is not aware of the fact that only a very small number of Championship riders actually get to compete at the worlds. A country has to spend a lot of money to get it’s world ranking up by offering local UCI events, or by spending a lot of money on sending riders to world cups to gain individual rider ranking points, from which a country gains it’s ranking – determining the number of riders eligible to compete for that country at the world titles.
So where is all this going?
In reality, I don’t know. I believe that the UCI are happy with the size and structure of the world titles for Championship classes and I don’t see a great deal of change happening here. It’s certainly going to remain expensive and difficult for countries to get as many Championship places as possible, and I think it’s going to get more expensive and difficult for Challenge riders to attend. The UCI believe an entry fee price rise is in order (apparently hasn’t changed for ages) – which even though they do not take any component of that fee, can cynically be seen as a way of reducing numbers by putting the event further out of the reach of individuals.
Certainly, it will become more expensive for Australian riders. This year BMXA found itself faced with the requirement of international licences for Challenge riders – and we heavily discounted our side of the costs for a rider to reduce the burden of this cost at short notice. This requirement is driven by UCI rules through national federations (in our case Cycling Australia) and while we will try and work with CA to reduce the impact of this to our members, I don’t see much changing in the short term.
BMXA can’t continue to discount our income from the event. For the cynics that think we are ripping off riders who attend the worlds – ask those who were on the receiving end of 10+ team managers all financed by BMXA. We have considerable costs involved in our country participating at the worlds and I don’t think it’s fair that the few who travel (few in relation to our overall membership) should be subsidised by the masses.
The UCI’s policies have a major impact on the sport. By restricting the number of riders who can participate in the world championships in the Championship classes they place a very sharp point on the pyramid that is our sport. All sports are pyramids – with the elite classes being the pointy end at the top with a large base (the grass roots). The problem I see is that the very narrow view at the top presents a limited view to our riders who are aiming high. At 17 years of age, riders need to make a choice (and will very soon in Australia) as to whether they are Challenge or Championship riders. If they choose the Challenge route they don’t ride elite classes at UCI events (so become 17-24 riders rather than elite). Those who choose the elite path know that their chances of representing their country at the world titles are vastly reduced. That said, the future of numbers at world titles for Challenge riders is not exactly clear either.
Domestically we run Superclass (for riders aged 17+) and this has no UCI implications – you can ride this class and still ride elite at UCI events, but note that if you “enter” a UCI event in the elite class you are considered an “elite” rider in the eyes of UCI and you can’t enter the worlds in the Challenge class. Riders need to be aware of where they are going, and what the ramifications of entering various events in various classes means – and we’ll do our best to ensure riders are informed of what all this means as we move forward.
The UCI’s policies create another issue. The last and final piece of the puzzle is the building of monster tracks. Club administrators are building bigger and bigger tracks, with 5m and 8m start hills with the aim of preparing riders for international competition. The problem of course with this is that 5m hills and big tracks tend to kill clubs. There are a few exceptions, but generally a big track does not encourage new young members – it scares them off before they become entrenched in the sport. I’m on record as saying I don’t want big tracks all over the place – just one in each state for the very small number of riders who attend international events to train on.
There is much, much more to take into consideration in the structure of the sport in general, and specifically in Australia. Yes, we need to participate in UCI events to give our riders somewhere to go at the elite level – to ignore this is at the peril of seeing the “top” of the sport stop at 17 years of age – and that would be a death to our sport. We need to provide a pathway to the elite level for those riders who wish to pursue their dreams of becoming a world champion (by the way the only “world champions” in the eyes of the UCI are elite and junior elite – everyone else who wins at the worlds is a “world number 1”).
At the end of the day we need to ensure that our domestic competition fulfils the requirements of the vast majority of our members. Providing high-quality, consistent and fun racing that fulfils the needs of the majority, while providing a pathway for fewer numbers who wish to pursue international competition and the 1% who make it to elite international competition.
There are many conundrums that keep me awake at night pondering the direction and shape we need to take this sport – but that of course comes with the territory of being on the board of BMXA and is a challenge we don’t shy away from. In the end, we need club/region/state and national administrators to ensure that the vast majority of our grass root riders are catered for so we can grow the sport and increase the competition at domestic level for all riders to reduce the impact of the UCI’s policies on the very top end of the sport.
Food for thought.