PdC: You had a press release out this week about the costs of running a women's cycling team - what prompted you to do that?
Stef: It was Nick Hussey from Vulpine who wrote the release. He's a supporter and a sponsor of the team. We were in discussion about how we progress and grow our partnership for 2014. I mentioned to him something that I've spoken to many people about, which is the myths surrounding the costs of running a team. Some people think it’s free, some think it costs millions. So Nick decided it would be good to put some benchmark figures out there in the public domain that I work in.
Now it’s obvious from the reaction there are two schools of thought. One set think it’s great and are pleased to know the figures. They are shocked it’s so low and seem keen for it to be fulfilled and also advance. And there is another set keen to prove the figures wrong and apply their own maths to the situation. I'm happy with that. Both sides. Debate is good for the sport. These figures are not definitive figures that everyone in the world must adhere to. They are not maximums. Equally some of them are minimums. But Nick wanted to get a message out that lifted the lid on the costs of running a team according to me.
PdC: I was really interested in that second response - because you've been around the block in women's cycling more than once, and you obviously talk with other teams etc, so I wasn't sure what people thought might be motivating the figures, if they believed them to be wrong. Do you have any ideas on why there was that response?
Stef: You say that, but women’s cycling is a secretive little place. Everyone seems to work behind each others’ backs. There are very few 'open' teams. But for sure those open teams do talk to each other. I've got great relationships with some teams, pro and non-pro, but remember how small this team is presently. We are tiny. So big teams don't really see us as having a voice that can determine the sport in any way. I guess that’s totally true.
PdC: And let's be clear, the figure that caused some contention - £250k [approx €293k, US $390k , Aus $433k] for a team in the top races - that's not talking about ORICA, Specialized, or Rabobank, is it?
Stef: NO, totally not. That is a figure to start a pro team. It’s my opinion of the minimum level you need to run a team in the existing 'pro' ranks. So a team of 10 to 12 riders. One programme. I'm talking about my team. So it would be a British team. I'd assume a British sponsor. With a British Sponsor comes the need to race UK races (which are great by the way).
So the programme would be a mix of UK and European races. Races like the Tour Series and Tour of Britiain, the London Nocturne and Ride London would all be in the programme, as would other events in the UK that attract valuable TV coverage. But so would a carefully selected European race program that suit the riders’ abilities that are on the team, as well as sponsorship requirements.
I'm not saying that all teams only have £250k. Nor am I saying all teams should run on only that. But I would say a hell of a lot of teams run on vastly less than that. Some closer to £50k [€58k, US $78k, Aus $86k] I would imagine. I'm also not saying the wages on a team like this would change the world. But they would be wages. Something that a huge number of teams don't pay.
PdC: I think part of the problem is that there's such a wide gap between the various "pro" teams (and I use heavily inverted commas there), because the current UCI registration doesn't distinguish between, say, Rabobank, who are pro on every level, and the really tiny teams where no one is paid, but they've got the cash to apply for registration.
Can you tell me how much it costs to be "UCI registered", and what you'd get for that?
Stef: UCI registration is a simple process. But you need to put €20k into a bank deposit, more if you are then going to pay salaries. This is to guarantee the payments should the team default, and also to pay any fines the team might get. The money is held on deposit with a first charge to the Federation until a few months after the end of the season. Assuming you don't default, you get it all back.
Then there is a registration fee, its only a couple of thousand Euro (Non-returnable of course), plus a registration fee to your own Federation, around £300, and some small costs for processing forms. So it’s not actually that much.
PdC: And what do you get for it?
Stef: You get to be a UCI team, you get to be ranked in the UCI ranking, and therefore get to challenge for entry to events. For example in UCI World Cups, only UCI teams and National Teams can go. For a World Cup, a team that is selected get either their hotels paid, or a small allowance to go. So there is a strange system that not everyone understands, that when you are a 'pro' team, it actually becomes cheaper to race.
Teams going to Tour of Qatar, it’s free. A Belgian team, or Belgian-based team going to Flanders or Flèche, it’s free, more or less. So big races don't mean big price tags for the teams necessarily.
Getting a team with riders in Gloucester, Sheffield, Belgium, Oxford and Manchester to a race in Ipswich for a 40 minute criterium, that costs a lot of money. So there are economies of scale in respect of running a pro team. For some races you'll get your travel paid. Big teams will mostly get all hotels paid. Maybe also a travel allowance.
PdC: But obviously, with the large number of UCI reg teams, they don't all get invites, so the top ranked teams get priority to the top races, right?
Stef: Yes, priority is to the top teams. By ranking. All of the selection criteria is in the UCI rule book.
PdC: I’ve heard rumours that at least two teams haven’t been paying riders salaries that are in their contracts this year. How come the UCI doesn't seem to take that out of the €20ks?
Stef: That’s a great question. I think part of the problem here lays in the fact riders don't have anyone to represent them at the point they take a contract. Very few riders have an agent. Even fewer have a UCI approved rider agent, so who is checking their contract is legal?
I'm totally not blaming the rider. They can't afford representation. Agents work on commission, so there isn't much to be made in women’s cycling. And a few teams are unscrupulous. So it’s a very vicious circle. It would help if the contracts were totally adhered to. But teams change parts of them. I think the UCI need to be held accountable as to why action isn't taken against teams and the management of UCI teams that do not honour contracts.
I think sometimes riders don't submit things to the UCI, simply because they either don't want the hassle, or they don't know how to. Some won't even know they can report this kind of thing.
Others do report it, but the UCI don't seem to take much action. I hear stories of defaults very often. It's a bad situation, but there seems to be little action.
PdC: Are there any other criteria to register as a UCI team, or is it just the bag of cash?
Stef: Your registration documents need to be checked and approved by your national Federation. They need to confirm they feel you are financially secure as a team. That’s a good thing, certainly when it is conscientiously carried out by a Federation like British Cycling. You need to have 8 plus riders, who fit into the age criteria and a majority of riders from the country you register in, and you need to put in place suitable rider contracts (UCI provide a model contract for a paid, or non-paid rider). Your bank guarantee needs to be in place and you need to meet other requirements like giving the riders a suitable amount of racing.
PdC: So, within the UCI registered teams, there are going to be some on your £50k level, and others on more like half a million, right? Any idea how much the biggest team budget would be?
Stef: Yes, for sure that’s the case. Budget, as we can tell from the discussion that followed Nick's article is a difficult thing to put your finger on. I'm talking cash budget. I'd guess a team like Rabo-Liv/Giant is 700k to 1m team. But it's guess-work. I've not been in the pro scene for a while.
My concern in the sport is that the bottom is getting more fragile and the middle ground is losing ground to the top. It comes back to the age-old point I have made that the sport needs two registration levels. This would give riders, race organisers and sponsors a chance to see where the sport is really at. We desperately need this to happen.
PdC: Yes, absolutely - a pro level, with minimum salaries, and freedoms from things like age restrictions, and a development level. I think of riders like Anna van der Breggen, who came up though small teams then signed to Sengers and learnt a lot about being the top rider on a very small team.
Stef: Yes, exactly. I say this every year. How can a team like mine just walk into pro races? How can that happen? Now we are trying hard. I think we operate very professionally and try to uphold standards. But surely if you can just go into pro races, what is the incentive to chase more money and go pro?
Personally I think we need 2 levels of registration. The top teams, Pro, and 2nd level, Conti. Only Pro and Conti teams should go to UCI races. Plus of course national teams. World Cups should be Pro and National team only, so there is a major benefit to be being Pro, providing those events progress and the TV rights are used.
Lower-ranked races could select from other Conti teams. Conti teams would have their own registration rules, I'd suggest similar to the rules for the existing pro teams. So again, it’s really clear who's who in the sport.
People have said to me it would kill the sport if only 10 teams went to a race. Personally I disagree. Have eight riders per team, to encourage better team work and therefore have a field of 80. Plus National teams. I'd much rather see a major event with the best 80 riders than I would a road packed with 200 of hugely differing abilities. In my opinion it would be a step forward.
PdC: I think it's interesting, we had riders dropped in Vårgårda before they even hit the end of the first lap
Stef: Yes, I think that in some way backs up what I'm saying. Imagine how quickly riders are dropped in Tour of Brittany, for example, where we went this year. We are talking neutral zone. This has a negative effect on the sport. I think it changes perceptions on the sport as a whole and reflects therefore on the top riders as well. I find that unacceptable.
PdC: So when you put out the figures, what amazed me is what good value that is. You said in your blog and tweets last week, too, that British cycling is a really good investment, given things like the Johnson's HealthTech GP series is on TV, the new Women's Tour of Britain etc etc - it seems like it's a great time for businesses to engage and it’s cheap as chips!
Stef: To me it’s a great time to invest. Starting points are very low. And with events such as the Commonwealth Games coming up, it’s prime time. More and more races are on TV. More and more events are run in conjunction with men’s events. The top pros like Laura Trott, Dani King and Lizzie Armitstead are an amazing pull at top events and we've even had top worldwide pros come to our events.
PdC: I do find it weird that things like the UK crit series get more tv time than races like the women's Flèche Wallonne! Not to take anything away from the crits, but it's a surprise to me - and great that I've got to see so much UK racing on tv this year, even if it’s not been live. The JHTGP, Nocturne, Prudential Crit, women all over The Cycle Show, and races like the Cheshire Classic making their own videos.
Stef: It is, but I think a huge pat on the back needs to go to a few people for that. Mick Bennett and Guy Elliott in the UK have put the weight of SweetSpot behind women’s cycling. I think Jon Johnson (Our main sponsor as the head of Matrix Fitness/JHT) deserves an even bigger pat on the back for putting his money where his mouth is. We sat down four years ago and mapped out a plan of what we wanted to see. We targeted racing on TV, and we went about it in a professional manner, people listened (and took Jon's money) and put huge effort behind it.
SweetSpot have clearly seen the benefit of women’s racing and are now targeting a Tour of Britain for women, with a 1.5m budget. Who'd have thought, hey?
PdC: What I enjoyed about the JHTGP coverage on ITV4 was the interviews with riders - that's one of the biggest selling points for the sport, in my opinion, the clever and funny and wildly different characters, and they really showed that off
Stef: They do. Guy takes the time to understand the sport. So does Jon. So do those involved in Century TV who film the events. Matt Stephens presenting this year took a lot of time to get things right on the women’s side. These people genuinely give a damn about the sport, and it shows.
PdC: I always liked how you worked with Jon not only on support for your team, but also for support for races. It makes perfect sense, but I can imagine others might have wanted all the money for themselves
Stef: Well, that’s totally their prerogative. I wouldn't knock them for it. But we see the picture differently. I come from a business background and I want to run a commercially viable team for my sponsors. I'm proud to represent companies like Skoda and Santini at events. They are huge names.
Then there are others that have chosen us as their entry to the sport in terms of sponsorship. I take that responsibility seriously. Like Velocite Bikes and Vulpine. These people could have paid for a TV advert, but they didn't. They showed faith and belief in what we are trying to achieve here.
PdC: And you were doing things to support the Bedford Three Day this year, weren't you? It makes sense, business-wise, because there’s no point having sponsors for a team if you can't race them!
Stef: Yes, we tried to boost an existing event, Bedford. It worked well. We are also working with great people like Huw Williams to provide coaching and race training at events across the UK. It's working and its increasing participation. We are increasing the size of the cake…. so our slice is also getting better.
Our team launch was inclusive, and free. We communicate as freely as is possible and we will continue to do so. We also use things like our twitter feed, website and Facebook page to promote the other teams and riders in the sport. To be honest, we get no love back from others, but we will continue to do so. Why shouldn't the other teams get RT's and congratulations when they do well?
PdC: I love that! It's very women's cycling to me. Because especially if you're working at a development/national level, it spreads the love but also, highlighting the international/elite scene shows young riders what to aim for.
Stef: Totally agree. I think the sport is a little bit too secretive. Where do the top players like the UCI want it to get to? What are their plans? What do they think about the development part of the sport? What are the Federations really doing? We don't know the answers to these things. That leads to odd situations.
For example when a tiny team like ours put out this set of figures in conjunction with Nick, riders and managers in the sport are seen to be publicly critical. I think that it’s not their fault, they are maybe looking for something to discuss, not necessarily disagree with. Rather than show a non-united front, I'd rather see these people put their energy into releasing details of their plans or ideas…. or set of figures. We need a united front. But we don't know what to unite about.
PdC: Some people have criticised the figures, and your idea of a minimum salary. I think some people were confusing the idea of A minimum salary with Government-appointed minimum wages.
Stef: They were, for sure. And also the costs of paying salaries in different countries with different taxation rules. But I'm glad there is a debate.
PdC: Yes, I think that's great! I think also some people might have got confused and thought you were talking about end points, not starting points.
Stef: I'd be happy to totally change my focus or direction if I had some idea of where I should be heading. While we all get info from above, we will all continue to push in our own ways, and there will be conflict.
PdC: But also not understanding about the sport - I mean the Hitec DS, Davy Wijnant, has a day job alongside his DSing; outside the top 4 teams, most pay soigneurs by the day, or get them for free, etc etc
Stef: Exactly. I don't want to get in debates criticising people’s naivety about the sport. I'm involved in it, and know most of the people. I don't just make things up. But overall it’s great people will debate things. However, what I will say is that what Nick was/is trying to achieve is something positive.
Women’s Cycling is a great place to invest. Great starting points. Great returns. It wasn't meant to start the same old debates of 'how much is a decent wage'. This is a positive step, to open the doors on costs, as I see them, right now.
PdC: Yes, absolutely, it can't lose, in my mind - and if it inspires people to prove you wrong and get different costs, then that's all to the good
Stef: If people think my figures are off, that’s cool. If they intend to back a team…. and want a team that are looking for more money, go to another team. If the figures are too high, go a team that wants less. But it was intended to open the doors and try to welcome some new sponsors into the sport.
PdC: So, if, I dunno, I won the lottery, and backed you to £250k, what would your aim for the team be? Are you still wanting to focus on the development side, or would you like to go back into pro?
Stef: I think with the £250k budget we mention it would be a very balanced team. UK focus. 12 riders, I'd guess with 2 second year juniors in that. Professional coaching etc, equipment partners like we have now and a very balanced racing program giving the riders the right chances and the right time.
I'd totally love to see an established name at the top. That’s for sure. I can't think of a better way forward for young riders than to learn from the best. Imagine a rider like Sharon Laws in a few years leading a young British team, being a leader and having the best young riders around her. To me, that would be fantastic.
PdC: Like Martine Bras and Boels Dolmans, or Emma Pooley and Bigla
PdC: So if someone's sitting there and knows that their company could give £25k/£50k in sponsorship and wanted the short version of what they'd get out of it, what would you say?
Stef: An unrivalled return and access to a group of inspirational athletes that can help drive their brand forward.
PdC: I loved for example that Hannah Walker was in the Adidas advert and that little film! And all the riders who blog, and manage their own social media presences! And for a big company for whom £250k isn't much at all, what would you say to them?
Stef: We really do see sponsorship as partnership. It sounds like BS, but it’s not. That’s why we retain our sponsors.
I'd tell them to give me a call. They won't be disappointed and we'll ensure we put a team together on and off the bike that would provide them with a partnership they'd be proud of.
PdC: So, a couple of quick-fire questions.... What's the best thing about being a DS?
Stef: Seeing the riders progress. Seeing things click, and the progress than follows. Those special eureka moments.
PdC: The worst?
Stef: There are lots of bad sides. When a rider doesn't make it for whatever reason. Seeing your riders crash. As a manager, I'd say knowing how close we are to doing something special, but just how far that feels away at times.
PdC: This year hasn't been as good as last year in terms of results.... so what's the plan for '14?
Stef: This year has been a mixed bag in terms of race results. But we had a new team with 6 of the 8 being new. It was, as always, a slow progress to get them all in it together. And I mean really together. But I've been proud of them and their efforts. They have never given up. With a small team it’s hard to balance illness, injury, form, exams, Great Britain duties, jobs and time off….. so they have done exceptionally well. I don't think any other team has got more 2nd places than us, haha, so it shows we are there or there about. So I think we have a perfect foundation.
2014 we'll look to win more of course, we want to achieve selection for the Tour of Britain, we want to give some other riders an opportunity and we want to continue developing the scene as a whole.
PdC: Yeah, and it's been hard to win crits with Hannah Barnes out there this year!
Stef: Totally, but I've been proud that we aren't satisfied to finish 2nd behind her. We try to win. My riders are angry when we don't win. That’s what I want to see. They have the hunger.
Hannah Barnes should get a chance to race overseas. Whether she will or not is year to be seen. Even if a chance comes along its not to say it going to be the right one. I would love to see her gain a place on a top team and learn from the best.
PdC: You're coming up to that time of year where you'll stop being a road DS and start working for Helen's CX season, how does that feel? A different vibe?
Stef: Yeah, its totally different. Helen is a more mature athlete. She knows her goals, she knows if she's good or bad, she knows what to eat and when, she knows how to train hard. I certainly see working for Helen in the winter as my reward for putting a hard shift of work in all year to help keep the Matrix team going. She's a pleasure to work and travel with. We are so lucky to spend our lives together like we do. We are very privileged.
PdC: I'm not sure many people could live and work 100% with their partner like you do and still survive as a couple... what's your secret?
Stef: Communication. It really is as simple as that. I occasionally let her appear to beat me in training as well, which kind of puts her in a good mood. So that helps.
PdC: If you could change ONE thing about the UCI's road rules, what would it be?
Stef: Prize funds
PdC: And in CX?
Stef: To be honest I think CX is in some good hands. Equal prize funds across the board would be the next great step for the sport. And the introduction of a Junior World Cup and World Championships for women.
PdC: What's the best thing about women's cycling?
Stef: Seeing the growth of the sport over the years I've been involved is the best thing for me. The strength and professionalism of top teams like Wiggle and Orica is fantastic. The passion and class that team owners like Karl Lima put into the sport and the stability they offer. It’s all a very different situation to not that many years ago.
PdC: And on the way up too, it feels. This post-Olympic year is very different than 2009!
Stef: Yes, there are a lot of good people involved in the sport at pro level.
PdC: The Vårgårda World Cup yesterday was everything I want - exciting to the end, great characters, Marianne Vos with sparkling eyes looking amazed to have won, watching it online with a community of fans, with crazy streaming solutions!
Stef: I agree. It’s all progress. It’s great to see. I really want to run a team at that level again. I want to be involved with it. That’s why Nick wrote this article. Lots of people around the team see its potential to get back up there. So fingers crossed we can make it happen.
For more information on Stef’s costs of women’s cycling, there are articles on Cycling Weekly, Total Women’s Cycling and Road.cc, and Stef’s blog, You can be our legacy, has more on the benefits of sponsoring women’s racing.
If you want to ask Stef questions, leave them in the comments and he'll be by to answer them - or you can always contact him on twitter, or via the team's email, info [at] onthedrops [dot] com. He really does welcome the debate!