Ever wondered what the job of Race Director entails at the UCI Track Champions League? In this article we speak to James Pope, the person who holds that very position, to find out about his background, what he’s responsible for, and the roles he plays in ensuring every round runs to a water-tight schedule.
First off James, what’s your background? What did you do before you became Race Director for the UCI Track Champions League?
I’ve been involved in track cycling for over 20 years. I was one of the co-founders of the Revolution Series in the UK, which ran for over 15 years and was quite a pioneering track cycling event, and I also managed a few athletes including Mark Cavendish.
Were you a rider before you got into the organisational side of the sport?
No, not at all. My introduction to cycling was purely because I used to share a flat with (former British professional cyclist) David Millar’s sister. It was pure chance that I got into that situation and I wasn’t a rider at all before all this.
Were you involved with the UCI Track Champions League right from the start?
I was there from pretty much the start, yes. Discovery Sports Events brought me in because I had experience of organising track cycling events. It was great to be approached because I have a longstanding love of track cycling and really bought into the UCI Track Champions League’s vision of developing the sport, creating more stability, and increasing the riders’ profiles.
What was your role in conceiving the competition format?
A competition framework had already been worked up by Discovery Sports Events and the UCI when I joined. They wanted to develop track cycling and make it more attractive to fans by only including races which were exciting and easy to understand. My job was to develop the race programme and work out the schedule so it worked for TV, and the riders. I proposed that we should be getting the athletes’ input on that, so we brought Sir Chris Hoy on board early on, as well as ambassadors like Harrie Lavreysen. We were bouncing a lot of ideas off them to make sure the outcome would be positive for the racing, and the riders’ own experiences.
What do you do/what is your role on race weekends?
Me and my team go in a couple of days before each round to make sure the riders have everything they need to arrive OK, make sure everything is OK for them upon their arrival, and their pre-event training sessions go well. I also work with the UCI commissaires to go through exactly how the racing’s going to be run at each round. Then, on the night of the races, my team is responsible for making sure the athletes know where they need to be at all times and the races run to schedule. There’s a lot of that going on and it’s quite intense on the night, especially during the first round when everyone’s new to the series, but once we get up and running it does get easier and easier, week on week.
And what are your main roles during the off-season?
I help organise where the UCI Track Champions League fits into the wider racing calendar. That has always been one of the biggest challenges and this year in particular is going to be interesting as the UCI Track World Championships are moving to August. I also help devise the event scheduling and race programmes, and I’m in contact with the riders and coaches right throughout the year. My job is to make sure we have the strongest possible list of athletes signed up for when the season starts.
In terms of scheduling, why did you decide to organise the rounds of the UCI Track Champions League back-to-back, week-after-week?
Our view was that if you can create a weekly series, a bit like other major sports do, with people consistently tuning in, and you can create a narrative that spans several weeks, different countries and venues with different riders to focus on. That allows you to build a fan base and create consistent storytelling.
The challenge is that doing so over four weekends in a row is quite a commitment for the athletes. So the timing doesn’t make it easy, but we feel that it’s important to create that window in the calendar when the focus is on the UCI Track Champions League, providing the exposure that the sport needs, and the athletes benefit from.
That’s something that a lot of the riders have talked about, the intense racing week after week, and against the same top-tier riders from across the world.
Absolutely. A lot of those riders do benefit from that back-to-back racing. The UCI Track Champions League is a totally different format to the UCI Track World Championships, but for some of the less experienced riders in particular, they learn a lot from competing against the likes of Harrie Lavreysen, week-in-week-out, because without the series they’d only get to do that every few months.
The overwhelming feedback we get from the riders is that they get a lot out of it, and they especially enjoy that camaraderie that develops when you’re effectively on tour for a month, which is very different from just coming at a major Championships.
Stay tuned for more Beyond the Boards content to learn more about the UCI Track Champions League’s unsung heroes, and the pivotal roles they play in the series’ success.