Simon Burney is the manager of the off-road division at the UCI and has been one of the guiding hands behind World Cup racing for years. Despite the hard felt impacts of COVID 19, Simon and his team have been able to reschedule the World Cup season and will hopefully be helping to deliver a rapid-fire volley of races from September to November this year to still give us our World Cup fix under trying circumstances. We spoke to Simon about the difficulties of pulling together this season from scratch and what we can expect from the double header weekends.
When did you first realise the calendar might not go ahead as planned?
Well, I think as soon as the virus hit. It was quite evident in early March that a few events were going to struggle and things were happening quite quickly. We put a freeze on the calendar in the second week of March and at that time the organizers of the World Cups were in different situations, some were saying, “yeah we can do it”, some of the early ones were struggling.
I think Losinj was the first one that said, “we can't do it” purely because their government pulled the financial backing of the event to put it into more urgent areas. That was the one that started it and then it was just a case of going event by event to see who could reschedule and who was going to struggle. We were trying not to make decisions too quickly because things were changing really fast for March and April and a lot of teams and riders were expecting decisions quite soon, which were very difficult to make because everyone was waiting to see what developed, what governments were going to do as far as major events were concerned and just take it step by step.
We felt more comfortable in early May to try and get a calendar announced of the events that at that time we were hopeful could go ahead, so we published the schedule that we knew at that time. I think it is important that everything we do is based on the information at that period. Obviously, we had the news yesterday that even since that calendar was announced that Val di Sole heard that their governments had put restrictions on events that meant they couldn't go forward as well
. It's a constantly evolving calendar and situation for everybody and I think all we're doing is trying to give as much information as we can at the time.
Was there ever a chance the season could be cancelled altogether?
Well, I think that it's important to note that the UCI aren't the events, the events are each individual organiser's own event. We've got a contractual agreement with the organisers to put on those on as World Cup races but it's the organiser’s event and it's for them to make a decision about cancellation or postponement, it's not for us to tell them how and if they can do their event. We've got to bear in mind that a lot of these people are professional event organisers, that's their day to day work, if we turn around and say we're going to cancel the World Cup then we're in breach of contract so we're very mindful of waiting for organisers to keep us informed of their situation and for them to make the decisions. We're just reacting to the information they're giving us.
To answer your question, it was never a thought to cancel the whole World Cup. I'm very mindful that teams and riders just want to race and whether that's two races in October or ten races from August to November, I think people just want to get back and do what they enjoy doing and I think what most of them are paid to do as well.
So I think it's important to do what we can and if the World Cup season turns out to be a 3 race season, that's the way it is but I think it would literally have to be every single organiser saying, “sorry we can't do it” for us to say there's no World Cup.
We tried to keep up with what the teams were feeding back and Greg Minnaar is the male downhill rider's rep and I spoke to Greg a bit and he reminded me that for a lot of the downhill teams and riders, a big part of their income is bonus money for events - the more events they can perform at and perform in, they get more money. That was quite important for me to start the process of doubling the events up, if we can make one event two events then it gives them an opportunity to make their money and keep their sponsors happy.
Had the idea of double events been considered before or did it purely come about as a result of the circumstances?
It was purely for this, I'd never really considered it before. My colleague Caroline, who's more responsible for the World Cup at the UCI, she's a ski racer and it happens a lot more in ski racing and in BMX so there's a history of it and it was her that mentioned the idea when we'd spoken to Greg. We ran it past a few people and couldn't see a reason why not to go for it. It makes it a different schedule, I think it makes it quite interesting from an athlete point of view to do a number of events over what now is going to be a short number of weeks. I think the whole process of training going into them, recovering from them, doing 2 World Cups, whether downhill or cross country is just a different way of looking at things so I think it actually makes it quite interesting. I think it's going to be a different year completely and I think that adds another dimension to it and hopefully we don't get too many more that can't go ahead. We'll have quite a compressed, intense season and it'll be interesting to see who can perform through it.
Will the tracks be different between races?
For downhill it'll be quali on a Thursday, finals on a Friday for the first one, quali Saturday, final Sunday for the second one, so between the end of finals on Friday and the beginning of training on Saturday, there's not many hours to make changes. Television also need a lot of time to re-cable and to move cameras so we need to keep the same camera positions but for downhill, you can make quite a big difference just by moving the tape a couple of metres and making some fresh lines. So, it will just be a few hours of every available hand making the changes just to freshen it up and make it a bit different from the one before.
With cross country, again, the camera thing is still very relevant, it's very hard to make a difference with a few metres so we'll maybe be putting a loop in or taking a loop out to make it a bit different for the Nove Mesto cross country option.
Do you think those course changes will be shown on the live feed?
It'll be a mix of both I think. For TV, it would be nice for the audience to see a couple of different options if they're going to watch two races in three days, it won't be a different part of the hill but it'll be pretty similar. You can do quite a lot with just a few metres and still keep television and if it's an area that's out of shot a little bit more change can be planned.
Is the double header idea something that could be carried on in future if it’s a success?
Yeah absolutely, it's going to be interesting to see how it works and to get the feedback from the teams and the television and the riders and see if it's something we can do. We can't do it at a double event because we can't move between disciplines - cross country and downhill - quickly and easily, especially for television, but for a single event if it works and people are into it I think it gives a little bit more opportunity to race and sponsors to get their exposure and television audience to see a couple of events from the same place at the same time without adding significantly to anyone's cost. The cameras are already there, it's just a few more days of accommodation and the same thing for teams. So it's definitely doable if that's what the majority want to do. If that's something that comes out of this year then it's one good thing out of a crappy year!
What measures will the UCI be putting in to keep the riders, teams, organisers and spectators safe?
So that's all being planned right now. There will be measures put in place from the UCI point of view but every country will have their own measures as well so we'll just have to work with the local authorities and organizers to implement theirs and still have effective competition across the UCI side and also from a Red Bull point of view with television.
There are things we've never thought about like they can't have that many people in the OB [Outside Broadcast] truck and their normal way of working is going to have to change quite dramatically. Even things like the timing guys, there are normally 5 people sitting next to each other in a portacabin. There's so much to think about to still have competition that's relevant, fair and organised and still be safe for everybody and not to transmit any infection if it's out there.
Is there the option to hold races behind closed doors?
Well again, it's not us that are considering that, it's the organisers of the event. From some of the organisers from what we understand, if that happens they can still go ahead. We've got a couple of organisers that if that is the situation from the government at that time, they're going to really struggle to still hold the events because spectator income is a massive part of their event budget so with no spectators at all, it's going to make it very different for them. If they can get 3000 - 5000 as a limit, which some countries are talking about right now, then we're pretty confident they can make it work.
Will races still go ahead if some racers are unable to attend due to border restrictions? And how will that affect points for the overall?
I think coming into June now, there are still 3 months and I think a lot can change in that time. I think we're seeing borders open more and more and it feels like there are more plans for people to be able to travel. I think we need to look at that one closer to the time when we understand a little better what travel restrictions are in place. Just as an example, I think if it was a situation where Europeans could travel but North Americans couldn't, I don't think that one or two nations not being able to travel wouldn't mean the event wouldn't go ahead. I don't think it would be fair to not have a race just because a couple of countries can't be there.
At the same time, we need to be mindful of how that impacts next season as well. UCI points are important for qualification for events, for team rankings, who becomes an elite team and all this sort of stuff, so there's a lot to think about. We just need to make sure it's fair this year but also going into next year that we take into consideration what's happened this year and nobody's seriously disadvantaged and starting off next year on the back foot because of something that they couldn't really help this year.
Some venues stepped in to pick up races that weren’t originally scheduled, how did that come about?
We suggested it to them and they were very happy to fill in. Originally Lenzerheide had bid for a double, it was only the fact that we couldn't fit everything in that they ended up with a cross country single. Then when we were trying to figure out ways to add in races it was an obvious one and we were grateful for them to do that.
Then with the cancellation of Albstadt cross country World Championships, I think a lot of people thought that we might go to Nove Mesto, but we really tried to not take a World Cup away if we could, that was the priority. Again Leogang, they did both a few years ago as two separate events over separate weekends and that wouldn't have worked for this year because of television so they needed to figure out if they could host cross country at the same venue as the downhill which is quite tight. They've come back with options for the course and all the other things that need to go with it so that was the best option at the time.
Could the season go any later or is it an on/off situation from now on?
Well, I think, again we're all aware that most of the venues we've got apart from Portugal are all ski areas so they're all really concerned about going out of October. Once you get to November in those places the weather could start making a difference. If you get to have a situation where you've pushed an event back into November and then we're all there and then weather meant it didn't happen would be a real kick in the teeth so that's how we ended up with this very compressed season and obviously we've put Portugal as the last event because they're not going to get any snow.
When we got the news from Val di Sole yesterday, the instruction from their Government was nothing before mid-October and we talked with them about going later but the only option for them would be November 8th weekend and again they were so scared of weather. The other effect was the government pulled funding but if it was purely down to a calendar issue then they would have been really pushed to do that. At ski areas, even things like hotels are out of season at that time so there are a lot of things to consider. The last thing they want to do is cancel, nobody wants to cancel, so they're looking at every opportunity to try and reschedule if they can, none of it's been taken lightly any of these decisions.
How has the reaction been to the new calendar from your perspective?
I think when the calendars have been announced there were a lot of riders that were super happy to have something to aim for and to plan for. Riders like targets to train for and they like to see something to plan for and that whole March/April time was really difficult to be an athlete so I think they were so happy they can see a calendar.
Generally, we tend to hear things if people aren't happy about it, not the other way round. Social media is the best way to gauge reactions to things and I think there were a lot of positive vibes about the calendar being out and we know what time of year we're training for and I think that's important. If one or two events slip away like Val di Sole, it doesn't change the riders' goals of being in shape for September/October.
Has the 2021 calendar been affected at all, specifically by the rescheduling of the Olympics?
Yeah, a little bit. We issue a pre-calendar for the World Cup so it lets organisers know when a World Cup might be planned for and we actually had 2 World Cups planned in the period when the Olympics is due to take place. People that were bidding for a World Cup are bidding based on the dates we've given them so we've had to go back and change them. So there was a bit of a reformat of the World Cup schedule but nothing apart from that - there's still the same number of World Cups and the same general flow to the season as it would have been this year. That only really affects the cross country side, not really the downhill side.