INTERVIEW: SI PATON - BRITISH DOWNHILL SERIES DIRECTOR
Recently, I wrote a story about the revival efforts from USA Cycling regarding the Pro GRT series in America. To say it elicited a strong reaction would be a rather prodigious understatement. While many people have long questioned the intent and effectiveness of our current governing body's ability to effectively push mountain biking forward with some real momentum, the profusion of alternatives being suggested was also a bit of a mess. However, it's clear that this is a subject that scores of folks hold near and dear to their hearts, as evidenced through the impassioned response to the statements of the various people interviewed.
A few days after the release, while the storm clouds were still brewing (much of it was admittedly well off topic by that point), I received a note from someone with a strong sense of how things should be run. "Brice, great words! Maybe if you get a chance and think it is worthy, drop an interview on why the BDS is so successful here in the UK?" The note was from British Downhill Series Event Director Si Paton and I knew where he was going with this well before our first discussion: If the United States and USAC want to do things right, why not replicate the model of a series with a proven track record of success? Over the course of the weeks to follow, we would discuss that very question and plenty more. How did you get your start with the BDS? Can you describe some of the efforts you had to put in from the beginning?
In 2006 we were at Cwmcarn in Wales at a NPS (the old name for the nationals) and with all due respect to the organizer, it was his last year doing the event and I think he just took everyone’s money and just laid out the minimum amount of effort. I remember standing with Rob Warner for an hour in the pouring rain while we were waiting for the uplift. He said, “Si, you could do a better job than this.” I actually reckoned that I could. I asked him if he’d back me and he said he would. In fact, after a bit of baiting by Rob, everyone who was in line for the uplift gave the idea a big cheer and as they say, the rest is history.
I went and applied and I think that British Cycling were happy that someone was willing to take on the job. It was really hard that first year, phoning up companies and having them tell me that I owe them from last year for services provided like skips, crowd barriers, toilets etc.. I was like, “No, that wasn’t me,” but everywhere we went, people were waiting for money from the national series organizer.
The number of riders was well down too, especially in the elite category. We’ve moved that up quite a bit now. We went from 30 elites in 2006 to over 90 last year in terms of the elite riders. In Fort William this year, over 25% of the field will be elite riders. A lot of that has to do with the fact that you can ride and race in the UK and live practically anywhere in the country. You can be at a track, wherever it is in the UK, by Friday night. I live in the center of England in Birmingham, and I can be at Fort William in 8 hours. I’d take the afternoon off and head out by 1:00 and be there between 9 and 10 at night. If you’re committed, you can do it. People will ask me why there aren’t any BDS races in England and it’s because there are no hills in England. It’s the BDS; it’s the premiership. You’ve got to go and race on the best venues and the best tracks.
Early on, the BDS had no credibility. If Peaty, Warner, Longden turned up you were lucky. When we picked up the series, one of the things that I think was key for us was making sure that everyone had a British Cycling membership in order to race the BDS. You’ve got to be affiliated with British Cycling. You race and if you score well, you go onto the British Cycling website for ranking. You develop your own credibility.
We eventually started selling out our races in two days. Fantastic and great for the ego. But then, all of a sudden the phone rings. One of our sponsors is telling me that we’re sold out and that we didn’t save them any spaces. I would ask them if they told me that their team was entering. “Nope.” Did they ask me to save them a space? “Nope. Can we still enter?” Nope. You just start to see these problems. So, we then began to require 100 points to qualify for nationals. That meant, if you win a regional race, you get 40 points. If you’re 40th, you get one point. If you hovering around that top 5 spot, you’ve got to race at least 5 races to get in, which showed that we were really driving our regional races. That was the key. You’re making these regional organizers put on these good events. That was very much instrumental to creating a desirable product. We rebranded it to the British Downhill Series as well, to sort of get away from the tarnished reputation of the old name.
You know the old saying, “If you build a shelf, you’re going to want to put something on it”? Well, that’s sort of what we wanted to do with our age categories. At the end of the day, it’s not a mainstream sport with 100,000 people racing downhill. On the British Cycling calendar, there are maybe 1,000 riders with points. Those are the riders that we’re trying to attract, so let’s make sure there is a pigeonhole for them. Let’s make sure they can come and race something that they want to be a part of. I love hearing people say that they raced the BDS and they’re proud of it. Hell, sometimes you see in the local woods these guys with their number plates still on. They want other people to know that they race the BDS. Do you think it's possible to have too many "shelves" installed? In America, the "If you tried your best, you won," mantra is painfully evident in USAC's CAT system.
Yeah, I saw that when I did a BMX winter national in Arizona back in 1997 with Nigel Page. I got 3rd in the novice category on my 20-inch and was stoked to have this big trophy come from it. Then I saw this massive truck with about a thousand trophies in the back of it and I was like, "Wow. Basically everyone gets a trophy." To me, that sounds great, but you're devaluing it. You know what I mean? It becomes diluted at that point. I've raced the Mega Avalanche a few times and remember asking somebody how they did. "Yeah, I finished 24th." Wow, that's pretty good fella. Then I'm like, "Which race were you in?" "I was in the fourth race..." Suddenly you realize that they weren't in the A-Final, or the B-Final, or the C-Final. You were in the D-Final
. You finished 24th? I see it on Facebook and I laugh. You didn't finish 24th, you were like 824th out of a 1,000 riders.
I can understand that if USAC changed it, people would be pissed because they're used to getting trophies and telling everyone how awesome they did. But to me, that's where a regional series comes into play. It's a model that works for British Cycling. If you're finishing in the top 50% of your regional race, that's an indication that you should be racing nationally in the BDS. One of the big concerns for riders in the States is the idea that USA Cycling has to answer to the national Olympic committee and because downhill isn't an Olympic discipline, there is ultimately a lack of any real financial backing coming from our governing bodies. Where does the BDS get its support from?
It's exactly the same. British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling in the UK, is classified as a charity organization. The majority of their funding comes from Sport England. Olympic disciplines get the majority of the cash. To me, we could sit here and tell everyone what a bum deal it is and that the roadies get all of the money. If you look at the actual licensed members, you can see that downhillers just aren't joining the club. The cross-country guys are all in their local cycling clubs. I've never joined a club in my 25 years of mountain biking. Why would I want to join a club, to go out and ride with a bunch of 50 year old blokes? I'd rather just phone you up and go, "Brice, meet us in 15 minutes on the trail." But that's mountain biking, isn't it? DH is rock and roll. If you stand around moaning about this stuff all day long, what's that going to do? Nothing. So get off your arse and do something about it. Yes, British Cycling does give us some funding and that goes to towards lifting the presentation of the series. It puts us on the UCI calendar and helps us pay for the commissaires.
But this is when cost conversations start to happen between myself and racers. It's 75 pounds to race this year. People start to tell me that's too expensive. You go and do an uplift for a weekend and it'll cost you anywhere from 30 to 35 pounds per day to ride up the mountain in a shuttle. So you come to a BDS race, and I give you 15,000 pounds more infrastructure. You get commissaires, number boards, marshals, sounds systems, finish arenas, course tape, medics, prizes, crowd barriers, toilets, music, mechanics, etc. I say to people, "Your entry fee should be 120 pounds." People will tell me that I'm taking home loads of money. I ask them what they do for a living. Electrician? Plumber? Those guys make 30,000 pounds per year, or roughly $50,000. I'll then ask them if they're the world's best plumber or electrician. "I'm pretty good." Well, are you the best? "No." Well, I run the best national series in the world and it's my full time job. You get paid more than me and I'm the best in the world at doing what I do. Sometimes they'll be like, "You make money out of this?" Well, what do you want from me? To do this for free? How do I pay my mortgage? How do I feed my kids?
You need to run it as a business. You need to be straight and fair with people. You need to look at everything you've got in terms of your infrastructure. If I could have a sponsor for my toilet rolls, I would. Just the toilet rolls alone are 50 pounds per event. Everything from number boards, to trophies, easy ups for the start line or even the hot seat. I try and get people to pay for it. You've got to dress the event. I saw some pictures and video from the Southern Hemisphere last year on Pinkbike. There were a couple of crowd barriers near the finish line and that was it; no real effort or presentation. I'll talk with some of the French athletes when they come here to race and they're like, "Can you come to France and run our national series?" They can see the effort we've put into this. The one big rule when it comes to your customer is this: You've got to make them feel important. At the end of the day, there's only one winner in that category. Even the guy in second place isn't very happy. They know that they were maybe one more pedal stroke from first. There's only one happy customer in each category. Even if someone finishes last, you've got to put them on the microphone, give them a can of Monster and make them feel important. That's what the BDS does, it gives you a chance to feel important.
I treat customer service very highly. I'm accessible via email, on the phone and Facebook. I know other organizers who, when you call them, they'll email you and tell you they're at work and ask you to phone them after 6. You phone me up and ask for a refund, 9 times out of 10 you'll get it in 24 hours. You get good customer service. You get the information you need. I really go out of my way for it. Do you think it's possible to bring mountain biking into the mainstream without compromising the things riders value most in our sport? Should we follow in the footsteps created by other niche communities like skiing, snowboarding and surfing to bring more dollars into mountain biking?
I think that needs to happen. There will be people out there who will tell you that this doesn't need to happen. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely hate going to the local trail centers. We turned up to the trail center at a race last year, with a good downhill track. We were about to start taping off the course when a load of guys on these beautiful and expensive bikes were dropped off at the top. We told them that what we were about to do, so that they should go first ahead of us. The first guy went off of a drop that was maybe a foot high, and promptly did the biggest nose wheelie I'd ever seen and smashed his face on the ground. I was like, "Wow, is that what it's like here?" My buddy was like, "Yeah but don't laugh, because they pay for this place." That's just it; these are the guys you have
to encourage because they're the guys spending the money and keeping the uplifts going and the cafes open. One day they may be good and can hit a jump, but until we'll just have to carry on.
Mountain biking will have to be even more mainstream with blue chip sponsors. That's the way that it should be. The Tour de France started in Yorkshire, England last year. The tourism bureau of Yorkshire paid the Tour 17 million pounds, or roughly 28 million dollars. I'm lucky to get a free pint in the pub. How important is it to your success to cultivate a favorable relationship with your governing body?
There's an interesting story there. In the UK, enduro was supported by British Cycling for 4 years, which meant that they sent commissaires and insured their events. There was another organizer, like myself, running the show there. I remember there being some discussion about points and being a part of a ranking system within that series. They were talking about the possibility of regional and national champions as well. That's no longer supported by British Cycling. BC basically told those guys that they're not going to continue to support them when they're not taping the courses from top to bottom, they're not enforcing two practice runs pre-race; the enduro series really was a massive risk for them. If there were any issues or injuries, their insurance company would have looked at it as a DH course, BC would have tried to explain the enduro concept, they would have gone back and forth and it would have been a gong show in court.The guys in enduro now have to insure themselves and the riders have to have their own liability insurance. I can only imagine it’s a massive headache for all involved, then add to the fact you don’t have the backing of the national federation, some credibility is lost. The moral of this story is that you have to bend over backwards to work with national federations if you want to play ball in their back garden.
Everyone beats up the UCI, USAC and British Cycling. But the reality is, that their hands are tied in a legal sense with insurance companies. Don't blame the federation, blame the riders who put the federation in that position. When things go wrong on course, they're the ones taking the brunt of the ensuing litigation, not the organizer. Yes, if you're a negligent organizer, they're going to tell you off and sack you. But once that commissaire signs off on the course, it's all set and let's go racing that weekend. As an organizer, I will not lose my house, I will not go to court and I will not lose my liberty. If they say jump, I ask how high. I still need to ensure that certain safety protocols are met, but I'm happy to oblige. We can all stand here and knock them, but the federation gives you standing with the rest of the world. Well, people will say that British Cycling is all about the road scene. Well, who cares? Sure, I'd love for them to hand me a million pounds; we'd all be sitting in jacuzzis and getting lap dances at the end of each race run. But the likes of Sam Hill, Troy Brosnan, etc. still turn up to race with us in the middle of a muddy field, regardless of the attention the roadies are getting. We've created a desirable series that their sponsors want them to race. I say we just get on with it and make it better. You read the previous story about the Pro GRT and I'm sure you have some opinions on the matter.
Well, I know I have a system in place that works well. One of the things I will say about trying to race a national series in the States is that if you're planning on trying to race the whole thing, you're screwed unless your mum and dad are rich. I drive anywhere in the UK within 8 hours. I can leave at lunch time and be at any of the venues by that evening. I don't have to fly anywhere. Maybe 2 or 3 of us split the fuel costs in a van and it's no problem. That's the main problem I see when trying to run a national series in America. The size of the country makes it super tough. You guys have a World Cup stop in Windham this year. Is it also on the Pro GRT calendar? No? Well, I think it's a sensible question to ask why the hell not? If I was running the Pro GRT, I would phone Windham up and ask if I could be there a month before the World Cup race. You're not going to necessarily going to get all of the pro riders there, but you'll certainly get some of them. Troy Brosnan flew some 20 hours from Australia to Britain to race Fort William stop of the BDS. He finished 5th there and a month later won his first ever World Cup race at the same mountain. If I was a World Cup racer and I knew that I could race 90% of that track a month before the big race, I'd go there and not have to worry about busting out 7 or 8 practice runs on the Saturday before the World Cup stop. I could take it easy and be up to speed within two runs. To me, I just have to wonder why the Pro GRT doesn't have Windham on the calendar. I've looked at the UCI calendar and made my decisions accordingly for the past 4 years. It's just so obvious and sensible.
If I was managing the Pro GRT, I would look at last year's World Cup results and I'd email all of the top teams and their managers and tell them about the event before the World Cup race. I've been doing that for my Fort William race for a few years. Yeah, it's probably 2 full days of work just doing that alone, but it's worth it. They call and they want to come and be a part of it. You're not going to necessarily make every Pro GRT event a world class race, but you certainly have the opportunity to do so with a place like Windham. Someone just has to be putting that kind of effort into this. People in America should all be stoked about this series. Here in England, we're stuck in a pub on a Friday night watching football. It's hard to get people off of their back sides. In America, it's sunny and warm...isn't it? (laughs) It's hot, sunny and dusty all of the time, right? But it should be so attractive to everyone. How can it not be successful and for so many years? America invented mountain biking. You've got all of those massive companies; Jeep, Chevrolet, Subway and all of these companies that were involved in it back in the day. Where did they all go? Is it a tough line to walk when you have to provide some degree of empathy and customer service but also remind people that they're riding bikes and that a little perspective goes a long way?
That is the most difficult part of the job, trying to please everyone. With 330 riders, team managers, press, spectators etc.. you will always have your winners and your losers. One great thing when you have the backing of British Cycling and the UCI with their respective officials onsite, is that when there is a rule infringement, they deal with the matter. For example, you will occasionally have riders catching another rider demanding a re-run because they were held up during their race run. I just pass them directly over to the commissaires to deal with the matter. I do not have to get involved with such incidents. Regarding all of the other aspects, on a whole 99% of people are happy even if it is that 1% that are the most vocal. I like to remind myself of this little line, 'Forever I did good and for that I heard never; for once I did bad and for that I heard ever'. Working full time on the series allows me to answer and deal with most enquiries within 24 hours, that I think is vital and everyone knows that if you phone me, I'll answer it. The customer has
to come first, just not always on the results sheet. Why choose to be a race promoter? I understand how it got started for you, but ultimately, why have you stuck with it? How does it speak to the inherent value you see in the sport for yourself and the rest of the world?
Last time I raced the series I scored third overall in the Masters category and picked up a bronze medal at the National Champs. Seeing and hearing the riders come down the hill with a huge smile on their faces into the finish arena of course pleases me but on the other hand, I am quite envious; almost jealous in fact. I never got to experience the updated national series as a rider. The reality is that my racing days are over and I was never going to be the best racer in the world. In my eyes I am putting something back into the sport that I am so dedicated to and love so much. At the end of the day the job needed doing and doing right, nobody stepped up to the plate. It’s also a job, a business and helps to pay the bills. People have to understand that I do make money from the series. This allows me to work on the series, if you checkout the BDS Facebook page you will see I am always off to trade shows, meeting sponsors, digging tracks and promoting the events. If the business was not profitable I would not be able to do any of that. Is it the best job in the world? After being a pro mountain biker, I’d say yes! Though it does take a special breed of person to be a race organizer and sometimes people can be very unkind to you. Of course you get a lot of flack and some of it is justified, you just need a Teflon coated jacket and a big set of shoulders. Luckily I have Dave Franciosy as my consultant and mentor along with a dedicated and passionate team that work with me to produce the BDS; Colin Olden, Tony Standish, Anne Brewin, Krien Dawson, Mark Ryan, Dion Clements, Alex Gann and Oli and Farah from GBB Media. I must also mention that without the 100% support of British Cycling there would be no BDS, the team there of Richard Clarkson (aka Bobby who was Steve Peat's mechanic), Lisa Graham and Jonathan Day must be thanked for the current state of play.The 2015 British Downhill Schedule: Round 1
April 4/5th (Easter)
Nevis Range, Fort Bill UCI cat1
Llangollen UCI cat2
Rhyd Y Felin (Bala)