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‘It’ll kill us off’: Huub-Wattbike on being cut from the Track Cycling World Cup

Joseph Delves
27 Jun 2019

We talk to Dan Bigham of the record-breaking HUUB Wattbike team about the rule change that’s set to end the squad

The UCI has announced sweeping changes to the track cycling World Cup format, chief among them that trade teams will no longer be eligible to take part. Given that commercial squads allowed riders outside the world’s various national programmes to race at the highest level, it's fair to say the move blindsided teams, along with at least some national bodies.

Despite trade teams being home to world record holders and Olympic medallists, the development will lead to the disbanding of most of the nearly 40 commercial teams currently competing. Alongside these changes the reforms will also see the series move from the winter to summer, and the number of events cut form six to three.

Following the news, we caught up with Huub-Wattbike’s Dan Bigham to discuss how the news would affect him and the team.

Cyclist: How did you find out about the UCI’s decision?

Dan Bigham: A journalist from the Times called me asking for a quote, and I thought 'oh what’s going on here'. I thought this can’t be right, as we hadn’t been consulted at any level. The UCI is pretty poor at sending us correspondence. So in a way, I wasn’t surprised, but to not be involved in the process was shocking.

This isn’t a small change, it’s a dramatic wholesale change that’ll destroy the sport. Of the 38 trade teams around the world, not a single one was consulted.

Cyc: What was communication with the UCI like leading up to the announcement?

DB: We’ve never had a huge reason to discuss things because we didn’t expect changes like this. Track cycling is developing well. Domestically it’s becoming increasingly well followed. Still, we’ve always tried to engage with the UCI.

Since we started it has been hard work, even finding out things like how to register as a trade team. Entering races, finding out the calendar, it’s a real closed shop. You’re trying to race around the world and you can’t even find out when the events are on, or where the official hotel is.

Cyc: Did any of this give you an inkling of what was coming?

DB: Since we’ve known the UCI it’s been like this. Maybe they’re different with other people. For the nations, it’s probably easier as they have a bit more sway. They’re like voters in a democracy, whereas we’ve no rights, no vote, and no say. When electing the president of the UCI it’s the nations that vote, not trade teams. So we’re left in the dark.

Cyc: How will your exclusion affect the viability of the team?

DB: It’ll kill us off. There’s no commercial viability for us to race at a lower level. It’d be the equivalent of Manchester United being made to play at the county regional championships.

At the World Cup events, you’re having to push some of the fastest times in history just to get on the podium. If we ride elsewhere the sponsors won’t get the exposure they need, and there won’t be the same push for development.

Cyc: What will be the direct impact on you as an individual?

DB: We’re quite lucky in that we don’t take money from the team. We all have our own jobs. Last year our budget was £60,000. We have part-time staff that we pay, and they’ll now be losing out on income.

But there will be teams out there where riders have effectively been made redundant. It’s a sad state of affairs when people learn they’ve lost their job via a press release.

Cyc: The UCI says the calendar and events need to be reformed. Do you agree, and if so how would you go about it?

DB: The current six event format isn’t well attended throughout the season. The first two or three get the best attendance, then it tapers off as people prepare for the World Champs. So to force people to come to three rounds might not be such a bad thing.

But the moving of the calendar into the summer, to clash with the Tour de France, the Vuelta and the Olympics just seems comical. It’ll leave riders having to choose between the disciplines, which will see the track probably losing riders like Elia Viviani and Mark Cavendish. It’s absolutely backwards. What fan is going to pick track cycling over the Tour?

Cyc: What benefits do trade teams like Huub-Wattbike bring that national federations can’t?

DB: There’s the technology and development side. You’ll never see commercial equipment developed by a national team put onto the market in the middle of the season. The only way we could be commercially viable was to help develop equipment. The sponsor obviously pays for that, and at the end has a product it can sell.

Recently it’s the track that’s being driving innovation in clothing, equipment or aerodynamics. The other thing is the personalities and entertainment factor we bring.

The riders put forward by national bodies are there to qualify for the Olympics, they’re there to perform and that’s what they’re paid for. They’re not being paid to chat with Joe Bloggs and inspire kids.

As a commercial outfit, we need to have that exposure and engagement with fans. How often do you see riders on national squads up in the stands? I think it’ll suck the life out of it.

Cyc: How does this affect the likelihood of any of the team riders making it to the 2020 Olympics?

DB: Towards Tokyo, it won’t impact anything. That being said I don’t think that’s a viable thing right now. The conversation between us and British Cycling has pretty much run dry for different reasons. Post-Tokyo the possibilities are non-existent. We won’t be a team in a format that can show our potential off.

Look at Charlie Tanfield, John Archibald or Ashton Lambie. Trade teams provide a platform for riders to compete and exist outside of the various governing bodies and national federations. If we go that will just wither away into nothing and suddenly you’ve got a much smaller talent pool to pick from.

Cyc: It’s a move that will make the national federations even more powerful. Do you see unintended consequences of making them arbiters of who can compete at World Cup level?

DB: I think that’s the reason behind it. The nations want power and Lappartient is voted in by the nations. I think he also likes the idea of having nations on the road and nations on the track, and trade teams being non-existent. Dave Brailsford had a bit of a head to head with him about it last season.

Brailsford’s opinion was, ‘It doesn’t matter where the money is coming from as long as it’s going into the sport’. Lappartient seems to favour it being the other way round, taking money out of the sport and pushing it to the national federations.

I don’t see how that will push the sport forward, as the national federations don’t have the incentive to grow the sport in the same way the commercial teams do.

Cyc: Have you spoken with other teams and do you see any potential for appeal?

DB: We’re good friends with Beat Cycling. They’ve put out a petition and we’re supporting that. We’re also talking to all the other trade teams, having formed a working group. We need a joint approach with all of us sitting around a table with Lappartient and saying ‘this isn’t on’.

There are 30-plus teams, lots of investment, lots of personalities, and all of a sudden that’s gone and you don’t have all the best riders there.

Then there are two options that we don’t really want to go down which are taking it to the European Court of Justice with regards to limitation of trade. The other one is the Court of Arbitration in Sport. Neither are ones we want to go down and neither are cheap.

Cyc: Public reaction has been overwhelmingly negative, does this give you hope? Would you like to see national federations speak up on your behalf?

DB: I would absolutely love that. That would be the best thing. They’ve got weight which we don’t have as we’re not a voting member.

If British Cycling stood up and put their head above the parapet and said to Lappartient ‘no this is wrong', I could see that putting paid to it. Right now, we’ve not even had a response from the UCI to any of our emails.

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