Beyond the Boards: Learn about the role of our Event Director Gary Willis

Ever wondered how the UCI Track Champions League transfers smoothly from one host city to the next? In this article we speak to Event Director Gary Willis to find out about the crucial role he plays in overseeing the series, and ensuring fans get the same incredible experience, whichever velodrome they watch the action in.

First off, Gary, what’s your background?

I raced up until Under-23 level and came out just as coaching was becoming more professional. First of all, I moved into the coaching and administration side of the sport, and over the years I’ve gradually moved into event operations and delivery. 

With the UCI Track Champions League, we want everything to be done properly for the athletes, so it’s helpful to have staff onboard like myself who are able to look at things from a rider’s perspective. My background in coaching also helps in my role as Event Director too, because I’m able to communicate with different people and try and get the best out of everyone.

Were you involved in the UCI Track Champions League right from the beginning?

Yes. [Race Director] James Pope and I go back a long way and we both came onboard for the first series. No-one met each other in person before the first round in 2021 though, everything was done on Zoom on account of the pandemic. Looking back, while it wasn’t ideal, it was still a really good way of working, collaborating with people from all over the world who might not otherwise have been together.

Tell us about one of the main aspects of your role.

There are so many moving parts and so many different suppliers to deal with on the UCI Track Champions League, all coming from completely different backgrounds. One of the main parts of my role is trying to get everyone focused in the same way, on the same schedule, and then I let all the experts in their own areas get on with their own jobs.

There must be a huge amount going on behind the scenes at every round?

It’s like two different worlds. I love that while you’ve got races crossing the finish line, there are about 150 people under the track in their yellow vests ready to go as soon as the lights go up at the end of the night.

Do you have to bring everything with you, when you move from velodrome to velodrome?

Yes. Everything you see when you’re watching at home – we bring it all that in and take it all back out again. We manage everything from the largest detail to the smallest, like from the overall layout of the track centre, right down to the types of chairs the riders sit in. You wouldn’t have a terrible-looking white plastic chair sitting in an F1 pit, so why have it in track cycling? If we can make the riders feel like they’re part of something special, they’ll up their game and the whole production grows legs from there.

You must have a huge crew?

There’s me and my assistant Catrina who make up an operations team of two, and then maybe 10 supplier managers who each have their teams, so it quite quickly adds up to a couple of hundred people. With the different supplier teams involved, it’s too much for us to try and micro-manage everything, so we just let them get on with their own areas of expertise. 

What does a typical race week look like?

We travel to the velodrome on the Tuesday before the racing starts and by Friday afternoon all the rigging is up, the floor is carpeted, everything’s in place and we’re ready to go with rehearsals. We’ve got pretty good at it now but things still evolve from round to round as we learn and develop.

What do you find yourself doing once the racing has started?

I help manage a control centre with the medical, security and other event teams to make sure everything is going to plan. People radio in if there are any issues, but if it’s going well and everything’s quiet, we do get bit of downtime before it’s all go again at the end of the night.

And does everything need to get de-rigged on the same night as the racing?

Yes. As soon as the last person’s left the building, about 200-250 people leap into action, and we’re generally out of the door ourselves by about three o’clock in the morning – you wouldn’t know we were there!

Everything’s loaded onto the trucks and shipped across Europe to the next location, and we just have to hope everything turns up.

What’s the best thing about your role?

My favourite part is when it’s a happy ship and everyone’s working away at their own thing. So it’s actually incredibly busy, but at the same time, really calm. At the events themselves, my job is pretty much just walking around chatting to people, making sure things are working to schedule and everyone’s happy.

It’s also great working on ‘first times’ – like when we first screened projections onto the track. In February 2020 it was just an idea, we didn’t know if it would actually work and was something that had never been done before, so seeing that come to fruition was a really rewarding process. 

Doing groundbreaking things seems to be in keeping with the whole idea of the UCI Track Champions League?

Absolutely. Here at the UCI Track Champions League we’re always asking ‘What’s next?’. People get used to amazing things very quickly, so we’re always thinking ‘How can we do things better next time?’.

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