Transcribed by Veronique Sandler with editing by Eve Middleton
Downhill racing is at a cross roads. Entries are down. Downhill bike sales are down. Race fees are up. Industry enthusiasm to financially support racing is lower than ever. On the other hand, bike parks are on the up. Trail centres are more popular than ever. Mountain biking is – as far as we can see – strong and stable.
A sign of the times is the British Downhill Series – run for the last 11 years by Si Paton. For 2018, Si is out. He’s handed in his notice and will no longer run the UK’s official national downhill race series. British Cycling will appeal for applications for new organisers to come forward and help the series to grow.
In the run up to the announcement of Si’s departure we sat down for a good chat about the state of play of British downhill mountain bike racing as he sees it.
Simple question to start I guess. How is the British Downhill Series right now?
The first three rounds went ahead fine. Nothing went wrong, there’s been no complaints, those three rounds did sell out. Then Moelfre didn’t, for whatever reason. No one seemed to be able to tell me.
Basically the numbers have just gone down. We saw it at the National Champs last year at Revolution Bike Park when we had 320 riders and then this year it’s gone down to 240 riders. That’s 80 riders disappearing from national level racing within 12 months.
The Scottish Downhill Association were struggling at Dunkeld for the Scottish Champs where there were points available. They only had 120 riders so they had to cancel.
Downhill racing is a crowdfunding business. It’s widely seen that people are upset about costs and it’s well over £30,000 to put on a British Downhill Series round.
Most of them have been around £32,000 so you can see from the maths yourself, 250 riders at £95 you’re struggling to get 25 grand there and you’re still several grand short.
All those myths about me earning millions of pounds and driving round in black £90,000 Range Rovers round Birmingham is not actually true.
So we’re in trouble to be honest.
Llangollen and Hopton are still going to go ahead – I need more numbers. I’ve said that we’ll take the hit personally and I’ll have to still put the race on. But we may have to say to riders “you’re going to have to bring a marshal” you know?
I’ll stand on the bottom of the hill on Saturday and go “this is all here but you’re gonna have to provide a marshal for free today”. It’s that serious. We are going to have to cut a few costs here and there.
So that’s where we’re at at the moment. You can’t run a business not knowing that you’ve got the money coming in and yet you’ve still got to pay for the end product.
And that, to be honest, is the demise of the British downhill series.
And how does that leave you personally feeling about racing and mountain biking and the industry and all that?
If the riders aren’t going to enter in advance, I can’t put the series on. It’s as simple as that and the only way around that is if it was subsidised. We’ve got some great sponsors, I can’t knock them at all, but we need some big, big sponsors.
The way I run it is that the riders entries pay for the events and any of the sponsorship money is my salary for working and putting on the events. What people don’t realise is that it’s a full time job, it’s long hours, it’s a bit like being the England football manager.
I’m absolutely gutted. Especially the young kids who are coming up through the ranks (juvenile, youths and the juniors). You’ve only got to look at the likes of Charlie Hatton. He’s putting in some great results and has become a top 20 World Cup rider. He was on Team Wideopen, same with Laurie Greenland. You picked that talent up because they were there racing the BDS. They were highlighted at the BDS.
So what does everything you’ve just said mean for the BDS in 2018?
Well I’m not running it, so it won’t be called the British Downhill Series anymore.
I don’t know how it will be branded. It should just be called the HSBC UK National Downhill Series presented by X.
Will there be a series next year as far as you know?
Tender applications will go out from British Cycling, anybody that wants to tender can.
They’ll have to undergo a tender process, demonstrate that they can run events and have history, success in running events in the past. Then the decision will be made.
It could be a number of organisers and a central organiser. It might be handed out to Pearce cycles or the SDA who could run separate events or incorporate it into their series. It’s up to British Cycling to make the decision.
I won’t be involved in those talks but I still care deeply and passionately about it. I wish who ever takes the series on every success in the world and I hope that everybody would help them out.
It’s for the riders who are racing the series and they’re the ones that need to pull their fingers out and help.
It was never my series. It’s for them and they need to get behind it and say what they like about it and give feedback about what they don’t like as well. Also getting other riders and spectators to come along and watch.
What’s your feeling about the riders of your series at the minute?
As a whole, fantastic. There used to be some grumpy ones in the past but I think the team has delivered… Without sounding too big headed.
We put on a damn good event these days and I don’t really get any complaints. There are always a few niggles here and there, but as a whole it’s pretty good. For me the riders and parents are a lovely bunch of people, everyone is in it together, there’s so much support around the pits and everyone looks out for each other. Its great.. they’re a bloody good bunch and I genuinely feel like some of those people are my family.
Do you think the riders are giving the series the support that it deserves and putting back what you guys are putting into it?
I think it would be difficult for them to do that. I would like to see more support; as you know our team works damn hard day and night, not just during the events but prior and afterwards.
There are always people out there who expect stuff. We put toilets at the top of the hill, we put the security up. I think in 11 years we’ve had 3 bikes stolen.
But then again you don’t expect people to come up and thank you for the toilets at the top or the security out there or that Shimano has been there fixing their rear mech or that we replaced over 100 inner tubes at the Fort William Deer Fence. No one came down the hill to say “Oh my gosh Si, thanks for the inner tube”.
But you know what..? They don’t need to because I see the smiles on their faces when I see them coming down the hill. But it would be nice if they put something up on Facebook thanking everyone for helping them over the weekend. If more people put it up on Facebook we might not be in this situation. If people were really bigging up the series then more riders and spectators would come and it would be a bigger, better series. Which is bigger and better for the riders.
What do you feel is the current state of DH racing in the UK as a whole at the moment?
Honestly, it’s in trouble.
I went to Morzine for the first time ever last week and I was asking people “Where are your downhill bikes?” and they were like “We haven’t got a downhill bike, we’ve only got a trail bike as we can’t afford two bikes and these ones have 170mm travel. We’ll just take it a bit easier down the hill.” But they also said they would have brought their downhill bikes if they had one.
So that’s the problem. Look what happened when Brexit came in. I saw bikes going up £500, everyone put their prices up so, you know, it is difficult. The numbers just aren’t there. Look at the SDA, look at all the regional races series that have gone.
That’s one of the reasons we introduced this new trail bike category, and you know what? If the SDA at Dunkeld got another 10 or 20 riders that race may still have gone ahead. So you’ve got to move with the times. My Mum would turn in her grave if someone won a BDS on a trail bike!
What do you think the things are that are affecting the health of DH racing in the UK at the minute?
There’s a massive number of uplifts available now, which is awesome. They’re anywhere from 25 to 38 quid so you can go and ride your bike all day which is awesome. Back in the day the only way you got a lift up the hill was when there was a race on.
So it’s the uplifts and the trail bikes thing. Also people always say it’s the price. I think the SDA is £75 and that’s not filling up, the BDS is £95 and that’s not filling up. We’ve reduced the numbers down to 250 two years ago and you still get the uplift, marshals, all the safety stuff is all tip top, plus you don’t really have to queue. But there’s still some negativity out there regarding the pricing.
It’s expensive to go to a downhill race. You think you have to go for 2 days, pay the fuel, and it’s a national series which means that there’s more travelling involved and it might eat into some work time. Its expensive and that’s the nature of the sport. No one ever said it was going to be cheap.
Do you think the popularity of enduro racing is having an impact too? Is enduro taking riders that might have previously raced downhill?
When you come to a downhill race everyone is bloody fast and they are so good. Guys and girls at the BDS, SDA and Pearce are quality riders. You have to be a quality rider to come down some of those courses.
So when you talk about Enduro, the level of rider is honestly less. As a whole there are no big jumps and drops. It’s open to the mass market.
Downhill is the F1 of the sport and people are put off by it. They don’t think they can do those big jumps and drops, especially under pressure, with a race format and crowd. And with Danny Hart and Gee Atherton breathing down their necks as they’re racing down.
So Enduro is strong, you’ve got Steve Parr relaunching the UK Gravity Enduro series which will be a strong series. Is that taking riders away from downhill? Well yeah, for sure, a couple of those riders will be moving over to Enduro.
Do you think people are just less interested in racing these days?
Yeah they are. If you’ve got a trail bike you can go to great venues like the Forest of Dean. You can ride for 3 hours, pack the bike up and it only costs you a few quid to park and you’re out for half the day. It’s very cost effective compared to downhill where you’re out early in the morning, back late at night, and it costs you an average of £30 to do the uplift.
What does it cost to put on a British Downhill Series race?
There’s no change out of £30k when you average in the Fort William costs.
Fort William as a UCI event costs an extra several thousand pounds on top of a normal BDS due to extra marshals, medics, UCI registration free, commissaries expenses, prize money, accommodation, food and time to put on the event, travel time and travel costs.
The average costs for a standard BDS is …
£7k Uplift and land hire.
£5k Timing and medics.
£2k BDS team wages.
£2k Marshals & Head Marshal.
£1,700 Prize money cash.
£1k BC levies, insurance and event registration.
£1k Crowd barriers and skip.
£1k BC Commissaires, travel, food and accommodation.
£600 Commentator and Security.
£400 Marshals and BDS food.
£200 Presentation cheques.
£150 Seeding and results.
£150 Satellite system.
£100 Zip ties, bin bags petrol for generators.
£100 Number boards.
Then you add in further running costs like additional series end prize money, secure storage container to store all the kit, accountants, mobile phone charges, bank charges, van and pick up truck tax, insurance, MOT, service and repair and more.
Plus there’s all the kit that had to be purchased and updated. That’s £40k at least for things like the van, quad bike, generators, podiums, satellite system, PA system, course poles, signage for the event, the finish gantry etc etc.
Last but not least, I need to take a salary for all my hard work as I have two children, a dog and myself to feed and water plus a house to live in.
British Cycling have very kindly helped to subsidise the events for years as have our very generous sponsors but you can clearly see it is not enough income. If you work it out you can see that 250 entries at £95 each is roughly £25k.
Do you think racing is good value for money?
100%, hand on heart. Of course it is.
If you look up the average price of an uplift for 2 days it’s probably close to £70.
At a race you’ve got 25 marshals on the hill, 5 medics, 5 commissars, prize money. If you start adding all that up with 250 riders, the national series should be close to £120-£150.
Don’t get me wrong, bike parks have diggers there maintaining the tracks so that’s kind of hidden costs but you know, people can’t expect a race to be the same price as an uplift weekend.
Do you think bells and whistles is still what riders want these days? Do people still want that F1 experience?
I spoke to a racer’s dad recently who told me that he’d been to a regional race and there was no commentator or sound system. He said he’d rather pay the extra £20 and have all the bells and whistles and someone who says his son’s name as he comes across the line to help with his sponsors or whatever.
You say the bells and whistles but I still say, if you took that £20 off, look what you’d lose. You’d be looking at safety issues. You’d loose the commentator, commissars, an easy up at the start line, toilets at the top, security. You get your bike nicked and tell me you don’t want to put another 2 quid on your entry fee to pay for a security guard when you’ve had your five grand bike nicked.
So saving twenty quid on the cost of that race weekend where on average it’s probably cost you fifty quid in fuel, accommodation, bits and pieces for your bike, your food, the extra £20 is not the biggest cost factor in that weekend.
People have been moaning at the entry price when it was £70, they moaned when it was £60.
Should the sponsors be covering the cost of racing? How supportive is the industry?
We’ve got some great sponsors and they’ve put their hands in their pockets that’s for sure.
It’s always difficult because I know what some of those riders are earning and I think to myself, you’re doing a great thing as a company by sponsoring the rider and putting money into the industry and sport. But unfortunately, if there’s no race series for them to do that…
Without the series they have to travel abroad. People say “Oh I’ll just race an IXS Cup”. But you’ve got a 20 hour drive, a ferry and it’s going to cost you £200 in tolls and £250 in diesel.
I like what the EWS has done, they’ve got that model where everyone who’s got a vested interest has chipped in and supported it. If everyone invested in British downhill it would be the same.
How easy is it to get sponsors for a race series these days?
You know the answer to that. Sponsors are not going to give you pound notes in this day and age.
It’s difficult. And we’ve got a great proposition, we’ve got a huge following on social media, our own satellite system that I’ve invested in that we take to every race so rain or shine no matter what venue you are at, even Bala where you can’t get phone signal, we have got the tools to get WiFi and call 999.
If you’re talking about sponsorship, we get the coverage. And there’s no one who gets better coverage than we do from a Social Media platform at a race.
You’ve seen all the live stuff that we’ve done on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. We are doing 50+ posts a day and we’ve got live timing.
It’s very difficult I would say, to get big money. You should be asking for somewhere in the region of 50 grand for a title sponsor. But… unfortunately we can’t have a title sponsor because HSBC is the title sponsor of the series.
In 2018, what will it take to run a successful BDS?
Riders need to enter in advance, riders need to big up the series and encourage other riders and spectators to come along and attend. The bike industry needs to support the series, and the pro riders need to support the series as well.
I know they (the pro riders) have a packed diary but we need to see those guys and girls attending our national series, boosting up the spectator and rider numbers and promoting the series themselves with things like telling fans that they are going to be there and come get a photo and autograph with them and watch them racing.
The series needs everyone to get involved, everyone to pull their finger out, everyone to come and help marshal, pick up rubbish, help with the track days and give credit where credit is due.
What’s your advice for anyone putting their tender in for the BDS next year?
To repeat everything I’ve just said and to make sure people do it.
Which is difficult because I haven’t been able to make people do that after 11 years.
Anything else to add?
Well, I’m now going to get a proper job. I’ve been to a few distributors within the industry and talked to a few people so there’s a few possibilities on the cards, just waiting for some openings.
And in the meantime I’ll still be organising The Malverns Festival. That will be a once a year event for a minimum of 3 years. So keep an eye out for that. It will be a fun weekend and get everyone involved. It’s not like a high class pro field event with massive jumps. It’s going to be a great fun weekend with dual slalom, cross country, downhill, enduro, bunny hop contest, big marquee with beer and wine and music. And a lot of fun little events and a big demo all weekend and lots of stuff for the kids with pump tracks and coaching lessons. Let’s have a great festival to celebrate mountain biking in 2018 and onwards!
I’d like to thank everyone that’s worked on the British Downhill Series and National Points Series. I’d like to thank all the team that’s worked tirelessly and delivered. The Commissaires volunteer for free so a big shout out to them. All the media guys as well who have helped to elevate the series to where it is.
Most of all, the riders and teams who have attended and parents who have made a lot of sacrifices to let their kids race at national level – so a big thank you to those guys!
I’ll probably start crying when I do the last one. Even Rich Thomas said he’s going to come out for the last one!
Are we having a leaving party?
(laughing) I haven’t got any money to have a leaving party, you’ll have to buy the beers!
Thanks to Si for his time to do this interview and giving us the exclusive on his story.