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UCI Champions League – Back on Track?

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Back on Track Press Day

World class track cycling is in a difficult place at the moment. The controversial decision to switch from a Winter to a Summer calendar was always going to be disruptive – with a near 18 month wait planned from the 2020 World Championships in Berlin to the 2021 Worlds in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Nobody really knew how the move from six World Cups between October and February to three Track Nations Cups in April, May and June would be affected by clashes with the road calendar.

Initially, it looked as though the Winter would be the exclusive domain of the 6 Day races but, on the last day of competition in Berlin, the UCI and Discovery announced a new series. Initially using European venues, but eventually global – to run from October to December – and starting in 2021, the UCI Track Champions League would feature the highest ranked riders from the World Championships.

Developed by the UCI in partnership with Discovery Sports Events, the Champions League was first conceived to build the global profile of track cycling beyond the four-year Olympic cycle, bringing a fresh new approach to the sport’s racing format designed to attract existing and new fans alike.

François Ribeiro, Head of Discovery Sports Events, said “Back in March 2020, when we announced our partnership with the UCI in Berlin, we committed to growing the appeal of track cycling beyond the Olympic Games through the UCI Track Champions League, leveraging all Discovery resources to bring a narrative to the sport and tell the stories of these riders.

The first season of the UCI Track Champions League delivered on its ambitions to reach new fans with 50% of the sell-out crowd at the opening round in Mallorca watching a track cycling event for the very first time, while the series reached a wider audience than has been the case in the past – across the Discovery network and broadcast partners around the world.

Despite obviously drawing heavily on both on the razzmatazz of six day racing – pretty much the oldest form of track cycling there is – and the three hour format of the UK’s Revolution Series (the co-founder of which, James Pope, is heavily involved), the UCI and Discovery – are determined to convince us that the UCI Champions League is a revolutionary new event.

The idea was for the top ranked 18 male and female, endurance and sprint competitors to compete for points across seven rounds – with equal prize money for the men and women. The fact that the top ranked riders would also earn ranking points for the following World Championships and ultimately the Olympics raised some concerns about a small, elite group of riders – and nations – breaking away from rest and being given an inbuilt buffer for the coming season, but, broadly, the move was welcomed. Anything that brings more people to track cycling has to be a good thing – even if something designed explicitly to attract a new audience always risks raising the hackles of the current audience.

Then, on top of all these planned changes, Covid hit. The 2020 and 2021 Track Nations Cups were decimated. The Olympics were postponed. The 2021 Worlds was moved from Ashgabat to Roubaix – with many of the nations only able to send riders already based in Europe, and some nations sending none at all. That meant that – while the 18 riders who started the competition undoubtedly included half a dozen or more of the best riders in the World – and arguably the best two or three – many top riders were absent.

Round 1 in Paris was cancelled in late September – moving the opening round to Mallorca and reducing the calendar to six rounds. The final round in Tel Aviv was cancelled just days ahead of the double-header in London that preceded it and we were down to five. The series was launched virtually and put together in lockdown, with many of those involved working entirely remotely until they arrived in Palma.

The one thing track cycling wasn’t short of – off the track at least – was drama.

In the early stages of planning, the Discovery team decided that they would shoot a behind the scenes documentary, giving fans an insight into the human stories behind the sport. Ribeiro, again “We have bought all the action from the velodrome, now we are going even further to tell the stories away from the track and introduce the riders, and the sport in general, to a broader audience.”

The obvious parallel is Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, which follows the people behind the Formula One circus and has been a huge success with a streaming audience who weren’t previously F1 fans. It has been credited with a huge boost in the sport’s popularity, particularly in the US and, itself, built on the legacy of Amazon Prime’s All or Nothing series, which has gone behind the scenes at NFL teams, the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and several European football clubs. Golf, tennis and, indeed, the Tour de France will get a similar treatment this year.

Back on Track was given an ‘anything goes’ brief by Discovery and the five episodes which follow the five rounds of the opening season of the Champions League are an enjoyable watch. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone, whether you’re interested in the sport or not. But you have to acknowledge its limitations.

Drive to Survive isn’t just about the F1 drivers – it’s made a star of Haas team principal Gunther Steiner, for example. Season one of Back on Track will always be somewhat hampered by the lack of ‘team’ stories – and that was made worse still by Covid restrictions, with many of the riders fending for themselves and others employing non-riding team mates as combination soigneur/mechanics – but there is never going to be the depth of personalities to cover.

I’m also somewhat surprised with the choice of Tour de France announcer Marc Chavet as the face of Back on Track. I’ve been covering the sport for over 17 years and I’ve seen Marc at one major track event prior to the UCI Champions League. If anything, he’s the target audience for the show. He doesn’t make any howling errors, but there’s precious little insight, either.

But the biggest problem – and the biggest difference between Against All Odds and Drive to Survive – is that the behind the scenes documentary is made by the same company which developed, promotes and televises the event.

The Amazon and Netflix series are warts and all; Back on Track is entirely blemish free. You know Covid happened because the riders and officials are wearing masks. But – and this is the reason this article is appearing three weeks after the series started to air and not ahead of episode one – at the press preview, we were only shown episodes one and five. There was no mention of the loss of the opening round and, far more importantly for the story, no mention of the loss of the final round. They appeared to have been airbrushed out. We decided to wait for another couple of shows to air, rather than prejudge the content, but after watching episodes two and three, it appears our fears were well founded.

The big story of the final episode is the disqualification of Sebastien Mora and the subsequent crowning of Gavin Hoover as the Men’s Endurance winner. It’s a moment of high drama and it’s covered well. But there’s no reflection on the significance of the change to the calendar.

The fact that Tel Aviv was cancelled wasn’t the UCI’s fault, or Discovery’s, or the Tel Aviv organisers. It was cancelled due to the emergence of the Omicron variant and the Israeli government’s total ban on foreigners entering the country. But it had a material affect on the outcome of the Championship. One more round and Mora might have been able to recover. Knowing there was one more round, he might not have ridden so aggressively. But none of that is explored.

And, sadly, I wasn’t surprised. The tone was set at the virtual press launch for the event, where journalists were required to submit questions in advance and the only questions put to the panel were variations on ‘This looks amazing, how amazing is it going to be?’ – from people who were almost exclusively Eurosport, Discovery and GCN staffers. It’s not healthy and it’s not helpful.

But back to the good stuff – of which there was plenty. Episode one focuses on the opening round in Palma and the sprint competition in particular. We spend a lot of time with Harrie Lavreysen training in Apeldoorn and behind the scenes in Mallorca. We learn about his almost-finished degree in physics and the complexities of his relationship with team mate and rival Jeffrey Hoogland. On the women’s side, we focus on the remarkable story of Canada’s Kelsey Mitchell – from retired soccer player to Olympic Sprint Champion in less than four years.

Episode three spends time with the four young sprinters at the UCI’s World Cycling Centre – Nicholas Paul of Trinidad and Tobago, Miriam Vece of Italy, Jai Agsuthasawit of Thailand and Jair Tjon en Fa of Suriname. We see them at the Aigle velodrome with Craig Maclean, but we also seem them off the bike and get some insight – as we did in episode two’s feature on Mathilde Gros – into everyday life in a track development squad.

Episode five focuses on the drama of Mora’s relegation, but also on the friendship between Canada’s Maggie Coles-Lyster and Olivija Baleisyte of Lithuania, forged in the 2016 Junior Worlds, where they crashed in the finishing straight and slid through the photo finish together – and on Katie Archibald’s preparations for the event. It ends with German sprint stars Emma Hinze and Lea Sophie Friedrich recognised in a café in Mallorca by someone who’d attended the opening round. Which is, ultimately, the point of all of this.

Episodes 1-3 are now available to stream on the Eurosport app and GCN+ and the final two episodes will be released over the next two weeks. It will be released later on Discovery+ and broadcast on Eurosport – and, perhaps, some of the 26 or so partners who took the UCI Champions League coverage (and maybe a few more) – between the 2022 Worlds in Paris and the start of the second season of the Champions League.

But here, too, there seems to me to be a fundamental disconnect. If the purpose of Back on Track and the Champions League is to attract a new audience, limiting their distribution to, essentially, existing cycling fans feels like fighting with (at least) one hand tied behind your back. Yes, a few more roadies converted to the cause is A Good Thing but it feels like a missed opportunity for the sport – and for Discovery’s viewing figures.

The other reason for waiting until now to publish our review is to coincide with the return of ‘traditional’ track cycling with the new UCI Track Nations Cup – replacement for the old World Cup series – which starts today in Glasgow.

Like the UCI Champions League itself, Back on Track may well be the right thing to do, and it’s almost certainly being done for the right reasons. And, honestly, it’s not half bad. It could just be so much more.

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