If mountain bike racing does hit the mainstream media in the UK – or even the general cycling media – it’s usually in the form of downhill racing. Between Red Bull TV, technical courses and the success of British riders, it’s easy to see why it’s downhill that grabs the attention. Enduro too is a fairly easy sell – photographs of riders shredding trails in beautiful settings around the world and rad-edit videos of sponsored riders living the #vanlife and selling the dream. Yup, we can see the attraction.
But what of XC racing? Despite being the only off road cycling discipline in the Olympic line up, and plenty of popularity in other countries, it’s failed to capture the imagination of the wider public in the UK. It can’t be for lack of spectacle – courses these days are often very technical, with riders tackling obstacles on hardtails that would have many a trail rider off and pushing. It can’t be the Lycra – road cycling in the UK has no problems with popularity. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s hard – an hour or so of racing with your heart rate in the red – but lacks the romance of wild eyes staring out from a face full of mud that comes with cyclocross? (Mind you, ‘cross isn’t that mainstream popular either). Think cyclocross and you also think beer and chips, while XC is more recovery protein shakes on the rollers. Even our national governing body, British Cycling, hasn’t appeared terribly interested in the sport, despite its Olympic status – although there are some good signs that’s changing – not least Annie Last’s success in the World Championships in Cairns.
Despite the apparent lack of media attention in the UK, up and down the country there are still XC race series drawing in the competitors – and the popularity of our reviews of race hardtails or short travel full suspension bikes suggests that there is an XC fan club out there, quietly pedalling away in their Lycra and hitting heart rate numbers instead of jumps. Among all this quiet industry, one team has emerged as being a bit different to the others. Until recently (and maybe even still), some might well have suggested that this team was doing as much for elite XC racing in the UK as British Cycling. That team is OMX Pro Team, which started life back in 2004 as ‘Orange Monkey’, a small local team from Waltham Abbey in Essex. We caught up with Paul Beales, team manager, to find out the secret behind their success – and indeed what motivates anyone to run a team in a sport that gets so little attention.
Planting The Seed
When you started as ‘Orange Monkey’ in 2004, did you have a plan for world domination then, or were you just mates wanting to race?
We formed OMX (previously Orange Monkey) because the local shop we were racing for discontinued their team. Originallly just Paul Beales and Will Cooper, we developed a young group of friends who loved racing and wanted to continue doing it, but we also had the goal of eventually becoming a well-known team in the UK. At the time World racing was just a distant dream.
The original four members were Paul Beales, Will Cooper, Mark Allen and Graham Clark, all Essex-based. Our first sponsor came from visiting the cycle show in London and getting a deal for four free helmets from LAS. That was a big moment as it showed somebody believed in what we were doing.
You must have had some good results in the early days to keep the team going and progress to where you are now. Are there any results or races that stand out as making you think ‘maybe we can be bigger than this?’.
We never actually focused on results. We soon realised that it’s a chicken and egg situation. To get good riders you need good sponsors and vice-versa so we concentrated on setting ourselves up as a European team, copying what the ‘big’ teams were doing from a visual perspective. It is all about perception and really we are here to do a marketing job and that doesn’t neccesarily have to come from great results.
We went to Cyprus for the big stage race called the Sunshine Cup in 2006 and that really was a turning point. It lit a fire in the belly being among idols of the sport at that time.
In 2010 the team competed in a World Cup race in Dalby Forest, Yorkshire. Paul recalls this as another big moment for the team:
At that time our support was relatively low key, we couldn’t afford arena space so it was working out the back of a car and our star rider at the time, Chris Andrews did a great job at representing the team on the biggest stage possible. It was a really proud day in Dalby forest for myself and Will. This was our first World Cup and gave us a taste of what could be, and, as it turned out, what was to come.
Growing The Sport
We asked Paul about the make up of the team, how easy it is to find British riders to race at this level, and whether is XC in the UK is quietly booming under our radar:
We have found that its hard to find really strong British riders with the same racing mentality as an International rider. You need a certain mindset and a lot of athletes get swayed by life’s temptations, I think some of that comes down to British culture – it doesn’t mean they’re aren’t any out there though.
In the last few years the truly World class riders at Elite level can be named on one hand, I’m not sure if that’s down to a lack of teams, a downturn in participation or the philosophy of British Cycling but it’s certainly something we’d like to help change.
Domestic cross-country racing seems to have grown over the last few years – especially with the number of women and youth racing – however, it takes a number of years for this growth to translate into World-class riders.
Is it up to British Cycling to help promote the XC scene, or do teams, racers and riders need to be better at promoting themselves to the media?
Teams and riders work exceptionally hard to maximize their exposure, but it is hard in a country where cross-country MTB is currently very much in the shadows of road racing and the media are not receptive to XC action. British Cycling have a big platform from which to publish news on mountain biking, but they often chose not to, and that’s a huge opportunity lost for us and for all the MTBers out there. There is also plenty more that can be done by the cycling press as a whole to bring cross-country to prominence.
We have found it incredibly hard to get any stories/articles/results in the cycling press let alone the National press. It’s a growing sport with the figures at redbull.tv showing that popularity is booming. Growing the sport in the UK has always been one of our key goals. Only ten years ago cycling as a whole was not a mainstream sport in the UK, now it is, why not mountain biking next?
XC is an Olympic sport, but there’s been a lot of criticism of British Cycling, suggesting they’re not interested in mountain biking or XC racing. Do you think that criticism is fair?
Mountain biking certainly doesn’t get the same support within British Cycling as the Road and Track programs, and there have been decisions, appointments and situations within the British Cycling system that, as passionate mountain bikers, we have been disappointed and frustrated with. However, it is important to note that there are also some really committed individuals from British Cycling that are doing a great job with the U23 and Junior athletes.
I think the main criticism of British Cycling is that they only select riders for major championships if they believe they are in medal contention, this obviously closes the door on a lot of capable athletes from gaining experience and sets a precedent that doesn’t give a lot of inspiration to the younger generation. It also leaves a grey area for selection as there is no set criteria. However, its not always as it seems and for sure we have one of the strongest federations in the World.
In 2008 you set up a Youth Development Programme – this is the kind of thing usually taken on by big clubs or teams with big sponsors. Why were you so keen to establish this? Have you had any notable successes?
For us it was about having fun, looking professional and doing things differently. We didn’t want to be just another club team. From the beginning, it was important to us to try and help develop future British athletes and signing Nat Jarvis, Alex Baker and later Ben Roff gave us a great sense of pride about helping the sport we love. Although we don’t have a Youth Development team anymore we still invest in young riders and three years after signing Isla Short she is knocking on the door of the U23 World Cup podium and that’s a fantastic feeling; to know you are helping shape future stars.
Nat, Alex and Ben were very good domestic riders at Junior level but for sure Isla is a sensation and establishing herself as one of the World’s best.
We asked Paul about signing Annie Last in 2016. This interview was conducted before Annie won her silver medal at the World Championships – no doubt Paul’s even happier with his signing now! It’s worth noting that OMX Pro Team had a second member racing in Carins – Mariske Strauss, racing for South Africa, placed 24th despite a crash which lost her places and affected her rear mech.
We signed Annie because we believed in her ability, her character and ethic fitted with the team, and she wanted the support and environment that we could offer her. As a team, we worked very hard for a number of years to build a team that would be attractive for a rider of Annie’s caliber.
For us having the best British riders on a British team means everything.
You’ve got previous experience of having an Olympian on the team with Israel’s Shlomi Haimy competing in Rio. How did that work? Did you coordinate with the Israeli coaches, or was it an informal process?
Shlomi and the Israeli Federation had a good plan, and they worked really hard to make it work. We co-ordinated with Shlomi and his coach throughout the two year points-scoring period to ensure he had what he needed to secure his place at Rio. Sometimes his race schedule wasn’t the same as ours but we supported his individual plan as much as we could.
Recent conversations with British Cycling seem to us to suggest things are improving and planning for Tokyo might be better than for Rio. With Annie a strong candidate to compete, will you be coordinating with them on training plans and race schedules?
Things do seem to be improving. We hope that there will be a much better MTB system at British Cycling in this Olympic cycle, and that we can work together to make it a success for any British athlete that we have on the team during that period. It’s not a case of ‘us and them’ when it comes to British Cycling. Yes, they have let down this discipline in the past years, but if we can now work together to get British riders to major games, then of course we will.
Similarly, the Commonwealth Games next year look like they may well see Isla and Annie on the start line – have you any plans around that?
Achieving the Commonwealth Games qualification criteria has been a major goal for Isla this season and with two top ten U23 World Cup finishes she has reached this target. Her training and racing schedule is made with her coach at Scottish Cycling and we have supported that as much as we can. Annie’s focus has been more on getting herself back to the front end of international bike races and letting everything else fall into place around that. Communication between the riders and the team management is constant; we address and adjust as we go along to ensure that goals are met and everyone is happy. The National Federations take care of the Games itself, we just do our best to get our riders selected.
On Sponsors, Money, And Punching Above Your Weight
How easy have you found it to secure sponsors to support the team each year, given that it’s not a widely televised sport and doesn’t get a huge amount of media coverage?
This has been the single hardest thing and it’s only through sheer will, hard work and quite possibly stupidity that we have got this far. In truth, we have invested everything personally and gone well beyond what is reasonable but we felt we had gone past the point of no return and to quit after so much investment was no longer an option. It’s what makes every big result that bit more special.
We have been disappointed over the years that some big British brands haven’t wanted to work with us, we feel we do a great job at promoting our sponsors and when you look at the teams around us in the World ranking we are the best for ROI (Return On Investment) against total budget.
That being said the sponsors we do have are amazing. We tend to keep our partnerships for a long time and believe that the longevity really enables you to build something special. We have been working with Schwalbe UK for seven years now, our longest running sponsor, they have been fantastic, other key long term deals include Prologo, Spiuk and of course Silverback who were the first bike brand to really take a chance on us.
For sure we are looking for a big sponsor to supplement these and allow us to run things parallel to the bigger teams out there. Lets just say we have to be very economical and push the boundaries sometimes.
How do your budgets compare to the bigger teams on the circuit?
We are currently ranked 13th in the World. Next to teams such as Trek Factory, Radon Factory, Ghost and Clif Bar to name a few. I’ve done some research into this previously and estimate we are working on around 20-40% of the (budget of the) teams around us.
Are there any particular difficulties faced by being a small team?
One of the big disadvantages is how, and how much, we can travel. For example, at the World Cup in Canada the team was reduced to two staff. Elsewhere in the year we cannot afford to support riders at each and every race, and transport is slow or we all end up squished in one car! We try as hard as humanly possible to give the riders the best team set up we can, and often the staff take a hit to ensure the riders are looked after perfectly. The team is driven by passion, not money!
Are there any benefits to being small that you think riders on the bigger teams are missing out on?
I think the benefits come not from the small budget but from the extra dedication, passion and humble nature that it necessitates. That is not to say that the big factory teams have an easy life – the whole discipline is full of hard-working people with a love for their sport – but we cannot afford to take anything or anyone for granted, so we don’t.
As managers of a small team, what drives you to keep going (much like bike journalism, it can’t be fame and wealth?)
Passion and a desire to succeed. We set big goals every few years and the last one was to become World No.1. When Annie won the World Cup in Lenzerheide our ‘story’ was complete. We could stop now in the knowledge that two young guys from Essex took a team to the top of the World. It goes to show that anything is possible with hard work, dedication and belief. We wont stop yet though, as its not in our nature, will we get to World No.1 before we call it a day, who knows. Like most things it starts to come down to money but we will have a damn good go.
From the remnants of a disbanded bike shop team to International racing and a World Championship medal. It’s the stuff dreams – and films – are made of. Let’s hope they can achieve their goals – we’ll be watching.