Cycling clubs are the backbone of grassroots cycling. A home for beginner cyclists and intermediate riders, right through to racers earning their stripes: the purpose of a cycling club has always been to help its members grow, progress and support the sport.
Despite their important role, many clubs have experienced a change in culture in recent years. Culture of any sort is a constantly evolving beast, so this shouldn’t come as a shock - but the nature of the mutation is undoubtedly causing discomfort among the ranks. Some cycling clubs are fragmenting; others are forming, whilst sadly some are slowly declining.
We've explored the changes, to find out why racers in many established organisations are moving away to form their own smaller groups, and what it is that makes a successful and multicultural cycling club.
Sportives vs Racers
Chairman at Redhill Cycling Club, Adrian Webb has seen the decisive change happening over recent years. Describing the process, he said: “With Redhill when I first became chairman, I [as a moderate pace rider] would be going on rides with some of the best racers, as well as someone who was 70-years-old. The racers would take their pace down for that ride, and then put themselves through their paces during structured training and races. Those sorts of groups were high etiquette, very sociable, very manageable, and there was a sort of integrity and respect. Then there was a sudden surge in membership. Those people didn't have the same etiquette, and as a result riders weren't learning from the best any more."
"When I first became chairman, I [as a moderate pace rider] would be going on rides with some of the best racers, as well as someone who was 70-years-old."
Explaining the current situation, which is far from limited to Redhill and something that's happening at a large number of established clubs, he said: “The response of the ‘top end’ of the club to the bulge in the middle - that doesn’t carry through the ethics of an old fashioned club - has been to move on. And now it’s hard for the club to improve because there’s no formative role models."
One 'break-off' club, formed by members from established clubs across Surrey and outer London, is Paceline-RT. Co-founder Gareth Thomas explained the mentality behind forming the new club which emerged in 2015, saying: “There was such an influx post-2012 Olympics in the ‘cycling-boom’ that clubs had a high turnover of members who would stay for 1 year, or use clubs as a short-term fix to train for sportives or Gran Fondos. A lot of the newer cyclists had varying range of fitnesses, but commonly lacked the group skills that they would otherwise have learned from the more experienced club members. The result was that the racing minority or more experienced riders had became, or felt, alienated."
National Hill Climb, Masters Crit and Road Race champion Maryka Sennema was involved in the launch of the club and agreed: "We had 8 founders and all of us came from established large clubs who were dealing with a big change in demographic of their membership, not to mention huge and unchecked growth."
Their goal as a club now is to continue to grow, drawing in racers and non-racers keen to be a part of a community, with a special focus on attracting more women.
“There was such an influx post-2012 Olympics... that clubs had a high turnover of members. The racing minority riders had became, or felt, alienated."
Not all established clubs are losing their members to new start ups, however. Some are flourising. Beth Hodge is the women's secretary at Dulwich Paragon. They've got an active and multicultural membership, including a large women's group. She said: "Only a few years ago, the then women's secretary Charly Roberge was the only woman that wanted to race. She recognised that the club needed to create the support and infrastructure to grow the club for women.
"Fast forward 5 years, and we are one of the best in the country. Our active female (and male) members act as ambassadors without being labelled as such. We're proud to be members of our club, with its history and vision. It's a great format, and as a result we have such a diverse range of female members, from cat 2 multi-disciplined racers to those who enjoy taking part in sportives. Before long, most women pin a number on, because we sell fun and friendship in cycling, not fear!"
Has Strava changed how we ride?
There was a time when clubs were pinned together by a series of regular weekly events: the club ride, a casual jaunt always followed by coffee. The chaingang: a fast paced charge with a focus on groups skills. The summer mid-week time trial: a chance to race in a social environment, before disbanding to amble home bathed in sun and the glow of adrenaline. Now, a lot of the testing has been replaced by Strava.
Ian Watson co-founded CC London in 2014. The club now boasts 150 members, 25 per cent of whom are female – a figure that beats most. Watson, now 45 years old, has been a part of a cycling club since the age of 8 but formed CC London because he couldn't find a local club operating in the traditional format described above.
Watson, or "Watto" said: "There's an antisocialness in some clubs now - and two things are responsible: sportives and Strava. Sportives have their place and encourage people into cycling… but often people train on their own, and ride these events on their own."
He added: "I’m not the biggest fan of Strava. I use it, as a diary to see what I’ve done, but not to do segments. That kind of obsession with Strava takes away from the ethos of what cycling is – riding with your mates, getting fitter, bunch racing if you want to, and enjoying the countryside."
Thomas of Paceline takes a similar approach to Strava, saying: "Strava is a great social tool, but with time trials and competitive racing so readily on offer, I don't understand the KOM and QOM hunting mindset especially now there's so many variations in segments."
Regular group rides and safety
A topic mentioned repeatedly by both club founders is ride safety. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum – militant chaingangs with no room for error, and the completely unregulated terror of MAMILs sprawled out across the road in a charge of competitive red mist.
"Every ride [we do] has a purpose, and you can enjoy time with other people rather than smashing round on your own."
In an ideal situation, a club run is fun, friendly, social, but disciplined. A sensible middle of the road position. Watson of CC London explains: “We have a weekend club run, a long ride where however fast or far you go, you’ll have a good ride and enjoy a café stop. Then mid-week we have rides on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesdays and Thursdays is the chaingang. A chaingang gets you used to riding in formation and in a group, on a wheel. It’s a skill."
Issues with riders jumping from sportives or other sports such as triathlon, and straight into bunch racing without experiencing the training offered by clubs have arisen over recent years.
Surrey League’s Event Manager Glyn Durrant explained: “Ten years ago, we were hardly having any crashes. Then they crept up and up and up. To the state we were having one a race, in 4th cat [beginner] races."
The league took action, and introduced a system that meant all new racers must take part in two rider training sessions – it worked – he explains: “As soon as we introduced the training it went down to none a race… or one a season."
He’s seen the positive impact formal training can have on race craft, and said: “All riders should do it as part of their training. Nobody is too good to do race preparation, riders need to embrace it."
Thomas of Paceline, who have supported the accreditation days by offering ride leaders – said: “I don't think the sessions are a direct replacement [for the etiquette picked up on regular club rides], as it's only 5-6 hours long. That's roughly equivalent of 2 club rides, but it sets the foundations for safe effective fast group riding and racing which can be built on with club rides."
Leagues and putting back
Another important role of a cycling club is to support its local league and racing scene. With many established clubs moving towards a focus on sportives some organisations are struggling to field the marshals required to support the race scene.
Surrey League’s Durrant said: “I think we’re fairly unique in Surrey. We expect clubs that join to organise races, and we’ve been very successful in doing that. I think in other areas in the country – the extremities – Devon and Cornwall, South West Region, they’re struggling a bit."
"Road racing and time trialling has always had that culture of it being the volunteer club that puts the event on."
He explained many of those issues came down to a lack of understanding of the structure of cycling and its events: “Many of the new people coming into the sport don’t understand the culture, of having to put something back – and that needs to change. They’re often coming from sportives and triathlons. Events are run by professional organisations, there to make money, so they’re not expecting volunteers to put events on. Road racing and time trialling has always had that culture of it being the volunteer club that puts the event on."
He added that in Surrey they were lucky, saying: “We’ve got a number of clubs that have joined the Surrey League in the last three years, and they’ve drawn people from big clubs to make a smaller club. But they know how it works, and they come in saying ‘yes, we are going to put something on’. That’s their first statement, and it’s very refreshing."
“A league is only what the clubs involved put back into it, both in competitors and promotions."
Paceline RT is one such club. Their motto is “everyone takes their turn" and Thomas explains that they always set out to ensure all members understood that to be part of the club meant giving back. He said: “A league is only what the clubs involved put back into it, both in competitors and promotions. With the accredited marshall scheme being trialled this year in the South-East region, there’s little excuse not to get involved and wave a flag if your team doesn’t put on an event."
CC London’s Watson is very much in agreement, he said: “All these splinter groups, they call themselves teams, they take from organisers and marshalls and don’t give back. I co-organise our events, it’s not an easy job, but I do it for the love of cycling. You’ve got to give back. If someone’s stood on a corner with a flag for a race you did, you’ve got to go back and do it for somebody else."
Moving with the times
Of course, not all of the established clubs are losing their racers to new start ups, some of them are retaining them and evolving in a way that supports everyone. What are they doing differently?
Much of the metamorphosis in cycling clubs simply follows our gradually changing society – and one of the major drivers of that is social media. Durrant said: “The clubs that have embraced social media are the successful clubs. They’ve all embraced it and are using it to an advantage. The ones that haven’t are declining."
“The clubs that have embraced social media are the successful clubs."
Looking back to years passed, he said: “Before we had social media, clubs had a club night, or a newsletter, and people did all their interaction through those mediums, and they worked very well at that time. I think the clubs still trying to do that haven’t moved with the times, and we know what happens when you don’t move with the times."
It’s not just a strong presence on social media that makes a good club, though – it’s just being social. Watson said: “The keys to a successful club are a good ride structure – regular rides with a purpose, and a strong social element. Every one of our rides starts, ends, or includes a coffee."
Thomas says the same of Paceline, commenting: "I don't want our members to feel anonymous, and I don't feel it's right to be meeting teammates for the first time on a start line of a race. We have well attended social pub nights every 6 weeks or so."
Dulwich Paragon and its Paragonnette group are very active on social media. Hodge said: "There is always time to respond to an email or tweet, particularly the ones I get to my inbox that start with 'I'm not sure I'm good enough to join'. It's my opinion that if a rider has made contact with us, they have overcome the first mental hurdle. It's then up to me and the members to make sure that rider is integrated into the club as quickly as possible. If we're still not right, we link them with other suitable clubs. "
She added: "The social side of the club is busy, such as women only bi-monthly social rides, talks and training. We find that if we can get a new member to attend a ride or a social event shortly after joining the club, they are much more likely to feel a part of something and stay. They find a network of friends and then they become the existing members who welcome the newbies!"
What do we need to do?
This is a topic we could discuss into eternity - and this is an article that will no doubt be outdated within the year. Societies always change, and that's no different in cycling.
Looking at the success of some of the newer clubs, and the established clubs working to move with the times, then the answer to the initial question: 'should we be worried about changing cycling club culture?' is probably no.
However, we do have to remember that no cycling club can survive on its own. They take dedication and support from their membership, and that's the same across the grassroots leagues that provide us with events. The onus is on cyclists to keep the communities going.
However, the agreement is mutual. Club organisers need to maintain interest, prevent alienation and keep members working towards a common goal. That starts with community; and in a modern day environment, a good place to begin is with a strong social media presence, backed up by strong role models behind the pictures, disciplined rides - and of course one thing we've not mentioned yet: good kit.
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