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Wanted: Bums on seats in velodromes

Part two: An interview with Ron Webb, continued

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CN: Which would you name as the main track cycling countries in the world?

RW: If you mean the strongest nations winning medals, for some years now that has been, France, Australia and Germany, all consistent winners of medals. Great Britain and the Ukraine are knocking on the doors of the top three. Other nations win medals, but not in the same consistent way.

"The time is long overdue for someone to further modernise the races."

If we speak of events, then I guess France, has the top serious track event, the Open des Nations series with the pick of the world's best cycling nations sending their best teams. That promotion is on an indoor track.

Summer track racing in Europe is not much to write home about. Given dicey weather, it would be a brave promoter who found a sponsor and placed a date on the international calendar a long time ahead. Doubtful if a TV channel would take the risk of a direct broadcast. If it rains, everyone has egg on their face. So the summer tracks generally settle for staging club and local events.

Big track events in Europe happen in the winter and are confined to the indoor tracks. That means the six-day race season. There are few other promotions given that the tracks are in multi-purpose halls and the annual program of concerts, exhibitions, ice shows and other sporting attractions, leaves little space in their agenda for cycling events other than a six-day race and that only if it pulls big crowds on the level of a pop concert.

The Austral at Vodaphone
Photo: © Mikkeli Godfree
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The rent of a stadium in a big city can be prohibitive. I had to give up the SKOL Six-day promotion at Wembley, in the eighties, after a 12-year run, when the rent went over AUD 60,000 per day. Even with a hefty income from sponsors and advertisers, bike race promotions can't budget for that. And that was now a long time ago.

In Europe the Sixes are still fighting to survive. Some are very good promotions, others not quite so. The well-heeled Sixes can attract more customers if a top star name from the Tour de France or the Giro condescends to ride an event for a contract big enough to buy a yacht at St.Tropez. Okay, perhaps a poor joke, but sometimes we do watch an accomplished track rider riding his heart out around the inside of a wooden bathtub helping an acclaimed cycling hero who just happens to be out of his depth on the track. The few wealthy stadium promoters able to afford to do that see it simply as good business sense. They know more people will flock to the stadium and, once inside, spend oodles of cash on champers, wine, beer, sausages and ox steaks straight off the spit. What those promoters are doing is cashing in on the TV images of the road racing heroes during the three big tours. In that sense, the six-day race is, for that week, a fashionable thing to go and see.

Six-day promotions go in waves and troughs of success. When I was running three Sixes, London, Herning, (Denmark) and Hannover, there were at that time 17 six-day races on the calendar. Last winter there were eight in Western Europe. Four of those, I would think, are financially successful.

The decline in six-day promotions you might put down to complacency. Those promotions combining a carnival atmosphere, Bremen and Munich, or traditional loyalty by a cycle loving population, Gent, with the provinces of East and West Flanders, have survived and flourished. The Sixes that have been purely selling tickets for a sports promotion have withered.

When I started promoting the SKOL Six series at Wembley many years ago, six-day races were just that, with riders on the track more-or-less 24 hours with not much happening for a very substantial percentage of that time.

It would have been promotional suicide, in an outrageously expensive stadium, to bring something as archaic as a six days bike marathon. I needed to change the programme to action packed evening sessions only. In the following years all the European promotions had followed suit. Now, I think the time is long overdue for someone to further modernise the races. The chance of again expanding the number of promotions probably lies with a three night Festival of Cycling.

Europe, the original hub of cycling, is really little different to anywhere else in the world when charting the demise of track racing. Europe has also been complacent.

CN: You have built five indoor steeply banked velodromes in Australia. Has this changed the sport, if so, how?

Lining up at Manchester
Photo: © DJ Clark
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RW: That is a good question, but also a bit embarrassing. It has been wonderful coming home to Australia to build those five tracks. It also gives me a real good feeling that our new developed track shape, as in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne tops the rankings - all present all world records on 250m tracks are established on our tracks (Adelaide, Athens, Manchester and Sydney). All Olympic records are in Sydney bar two that stayed in Atlanta. Add to that Manchester last year with every Commonwealth record. Certainly any Sydneysider would understand the pride I felt when I built the Olympic track so close to my grass roots. I began racing as a fifteen year old youngster, with the Canterbury Club, just a few kilometres from the Dunc Gray Velodrome.

But have these super tracks changed the sport? I really do doubt that. Certainly it will be years before the colour and excitement of the Olympic track events fade from memory. Just that wonderful week justifies the building of the stadium. One does not have so many indelible memories of earlier Olympic cycling events.

There have been disappointments along the way. To be honest, I have built a fair few white elephants around the world. One can see what is coming in the future, but the question of who will stand up for the ongoing annual expenditure is rarely addressed. So, we must also count the minus points in the legacy of those five Australian tracks.

It is disappointing that we have not seen a turn of fortune for the track sport, given those five tracks. We have a culture in the bike sport that is very hard to break. When building Launceston and Perth, I had expected that track cycling in Australia would lock into year-round racing. The possibility that European winter track riders, out of their season, might be offered reasonable contracts to race in Australia in an important series of promotions, one in each State, it did not seem interesting enough to warrant discussion. The track season is in summer and that is written in stone. The fact that the indoor bike track is standing unused in Autumn, Winter and Spring, is really something the stadium management is expected to accept. That leaves the management to look for other events. It must not be easy to go into competition with purpose built entertainment centres, especially when velodromes are built out of town.

Ready for the off at Austral
Photo: © Mal Sawford
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Management run a velodrome for 12 months of the year, income and expenditure should balance. It is just simple housekeeping. The daily rent is a percentage of income based on estimated annual expenditure on the other side of the budget, cleaning, heating, lighting, staff, building maintenance etc. It must have been a big shock to the clubs, when the wonderful new venue came at a steep price compared to the previous cost of the municipal track they used before moving indoors. The rent for the old track would have been negotiated with the local council parks department who would have had an obligation to cushion charges for local sport and leisure use. When a velodrome is built, the cost involved with the 120m span building, the grandstands, amenities and landscaping, is enormous. The cycle track, the whole purpose for the velodrome, is cheap compared to the rest of the project. In big purpose built velodromes such as Manchester or Sydney, the bike track would cost less than two and a half percent of the total velodrome cost. With an annual cost of keeping a huge building like that in a state of good repair and staffed, do you wonder why I am amazed at how, with so little use, the velodromes can exist.

I can't remember, in project planning meetings I attended, that rents and added obligations have been discussed. "She'll be right" is also a culture. Of course, cycling use cannot meet budget deficits. Local authorities are left to pick up the annual running costs. Not something peculiar to Australia. Velodromes all over the world lose money. The only surprising fact is that requests to build velodromes still keep coming in.

All is not doom and gloom in Australia. Four days before the start of the Tour Down Under, a track promotion took place in Adelaide's Super Drome. Local drawcard, Stuart O'Grady, was away winning the Australian championships on the road in Victoria. The track promotion still attracted a full house. Those people don't come to the Super Drome just for Mike Turtur's loveable grumpy personality, they come because he puts on a slick programme of events. The events warm the crowd motivate good racing, as the excellent sprinting by a very talented field and Brad McGee and Brett Aitkin doing a professional job.

The north coast Tasmanian carnivals, the Victorian country carnivals and the Bendigo Madison, all have a following and the crowds know what they are going to see. There are good promoters around. We need more. But track cycling has a desperate need for commercial image.

Sprinters at the Silverdome
Photo: © Gerard Knapp/CN
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Of the last two velodromes built. Well, I think the Vodafone Arena is a sad case. Smack on the doorstep of central Melbourne. The ideal venue for an impresario to exploit. One could be excused for having puzzled thoughts just why Melbourne and Olympic Parks hesitate to introduce a commercial cycling policy. One must hope that the track will not disappear after the Commonwealth Games. Sydney is in the hands of Bankstown Sports Club, a leisure and gaming club. They might have the funds and the motivation to further cycling as part of their entertainment strategy. I would guess they will look very closely at their commitment and the possibilities.

There is a lot of great things about Australian cycling, I just think we should not keep it as a secret society. There are companies out there who could be tempted to use track cycling as a publicity and entertainment vehicle. But they need a glossy and professional presentation. It still comes down to comparing the appeal of road racing with the lack of promotional success in track racing. Logically it should be the other way around. Crowds travel for hours to stand by the roadside to see a road race go by and they see it for just one minute.

Given the opportunity to open up, I have no doubt talked too much! But if someone, somewhere can find just one item or remark, to further their track promoting ambitions, then it might at least be worthwhile.