Is anybody out there? Cyclocross’ lack of spectators in the UK

Does the sport's participation trump audience participation?

As a participant in cyclo-cross since the early 1990s, I’ve seen a lot of cyclocross. I’ve seen trends come and go, started out on 28mm tyres, and was amazed when we could shift gears without bar end shifters. Disc Brakes?  1 x gear systems? Electronic gears? Yes – there’s been a lot of change.

In the period, there’s also been a bit of a change come along in the way we “consume” the sport, as spectators. Back then, we were lucky enough to get the World Champs on Eurosport once a year. If you had a mate who had Eurosport. Then if you didn’t, have you got a DVD burnt of it, and maybe someone posted it to you etc.  It was a hardship by today’s standards, but a real luxury by former standards.

A game of numbers

I’ve really struggled with why the spectator turnouts at our high profile National Trophy series are not larger. It’s a strange sport – to have so high a participation rate but so low a spectator count.

Even at really well attended events in the UK heartlands, such as Peel Park, Bradford, or Sutton Park, Birmingham (back in the day), the audience could be accounted for as almost all participants, or former participants, or participants’ close families.

But with around a dozen people “spectating” the Elite Men’s podium presentation yesterday in the Pembrey Country Park National Trophy event, have things got out of hand with the rider-to-spectator ratio?  Maybe us organisers need to look at perceived barriers to  access and spectating. What would it take to get people to come? Certainly less than a fiver to park and free spectator entry to pretty much every event means that money isn’t going to be an issue. Is it?

Getting the balance right

What doesn’t bother me about the lower spectator numbers is that – across the much-respected Belgian or Netherlands ‘cross scene, turnout seems to be 90% pissheads who love being at a sport that you can just get drunk at, since it’s got too hard and too expensive to be a hooligan at football matches these days.  What looks like a great day out on the TV can often be not the best of places for a family day out. Overcrowded urinals and massive crowds sloshing lager around to Links Recht may look like a laugh from the outside, but it seems to have gone a little too far the other way.

Please don’t mistake that as being a slight against people from those countries, but if we truly want to attract mainstream audiences to cyclocross in this country, then we’d need to be prepared – in our own community – to NOT say it was better when we just had proper ‘cross fans watching.

On balance, I think it’s a healthy sport. Like most sports, it’s almost always more memorable to DO than to WATCH – and maybe the things people love about other low-key sports is what we need to enjoy, whilst it lasts. And if that means a quiet round of applause at the end of a thrilling race of the best riders in the country, then let’s just grit our teeth and embrace it.

Lone rider

A lone rider with a typically spectator-free view at National Trophy Round 2, Westmorland, October 2019

Quietly leading

Nothing to see here

A different world

Telly addicts – a crowd at the World Championship in Valkenburg 2018 – waiting for the riders to pass next time, and watching the race on a screen

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