The Season That Never Was

Frustration and anxiety for AWOL riders in a surprise off-season

The Season That Never Was

At best, the last four months for cycling in the UK could be described as "interesting", writes Pat Hayes, Velocity columnist, Be First chief executive and directeur sportif of AWOL under-23 women's cycling team.

It seems an age since 8 March when the team was racing at Milton Keynes in what could be the last road race of the season. The shadow of Covid-19 was already hanging over the country and I remember seeing the TV trucks outside the hospital in MK, where the first UK victim of the disease had died. The race was abandoned after a crash: an ill omen.

Since then the challenge has been to manage a team with no racing: trying to look after the mental and physical wellbeing of the riders , keeping in touch with race organisers and seeking sponsors for 2021. Almost all our riders are at school or university and most of them live largely for cycling, and the camaraderie and social contacts around it. The abrupt end to racing was a huge blow, compounded by a sudden end to school and university careers without the usual goodbyes and celebrations. And they had to cope knowing that vital examinations would be replaced with course work and teacher assessments.

To deal with that frustration, it's been tempting for our riders to train themselves into the ground by riding big distances, day in, day out. Particularly for young women, that can cause fatigue and loss of long-term fitness and we've tried to dissuade them. But the mental impact on riders for whom cycling is a lot more than a pastime is hard to fully understand.

My role has been to try to keep them positive and give them some hope that racing might return. This hasn’t been helped by the speed with which organisers scrapped races, months in advance: two cyclocross leagues cancelled winter 2020-21 races in March!

There is little money to be made organising races and most of the people involved are aged over 65. In the current circumstances there is little incentive to push for races to happen, and plenty of reasons not to put them on - even if government guidance allows. Meanwhile, the national governing body gives the impression of not being to bothered if amateur racing doesn’t happen. Their main concern is Olympics training and making sure the general public isn't upset, rather than the wellbeing of amateur riders.

Incidentally, a few AWOL riders and people they know have experienced Covid-19 symptoms, but none have been seriously ill despite exposure at races and in their own time, at concerts and so on, in early March. They are super-fit, at a level where they are training every day. Cycling is integral to their identity, to who they are, but they are outside the professional ranks where financial pressures will get racing going again.

No racing also means no excitment to attract sponsors. We have spent less this year, of course, but next years plans mean that money matters are pressing. With Covid-19 and a "No Deal" Brexit recession looming, survival is going to be a challenge for most women’s teams. Simultaneously, the options for riders to jump up a level are reduced by the collapse of a number of professional women’s teams: their riders will have to drop back into the amateur and semipro ranks.

Things haven’t been all bad, though. Invitations to all the cancelled high level races have been rolled over to next year and, while we haven’t got into the GP Isbergues again, because more top level teams want to take it on, we do have an invitation to the Tour of The Ardeche. That's one of the few women’s races that includes seriously big climbs. Quite how our riders will cope if it is their first road race in six months is a bit of an unknown, though at least they didn’t have the long period of home confinement suffered by their French peers.

There is some time trialling resuming, too, and the chance that road racing will start again in Belgium in August. By strange coincidence it is 78 years this month since the late great Percy Stallard organised the first mass start road race in the UK. He did that in defiance of his governing body which, echoing British Cycling today, was so obsessed about not upsetting rural residents and motorists that it would only allow time trialling. That legacy that still holds back the UK sport and, unhelpfully, it means that cycling here has two governing bodies one of which operates outside the jurisdiction of the world governing organisation.

Still, our first socially-distanced team training session has taken place (pictured) so we are back to the fray, at least in part. And thanks to a 52-weeks-a-year racing habit, one of our riders is the only female in the country to have retained her second category status. She racked up enough points in February to sit top of the national rankings. One assumes common sense will prevail and all riders will be allowed to carry their existing category status over to next season.

In the meantime, if you know anyone who wants to sponsor a slightly quirky team of young women battling away to make it at the toughest level of the toughest sport there is, you know who to call...