The Tour of Britain’s SweetSpot: Hugh Roberts on the evolution of UK cycling’s keynote event

Hugh Roberts, chief executive of Tour of Britain organiser SweetSpot, talks exclusively to SportsPro about this summer's race.

The Tour of Britain’s SweetSpot: Hugh Roberts on the evolution of UK cycling’s keynote event

The 2016 edition of the UK’s elite cycling race, the Tour of Britain, has been heralded as its most successful reprisal yet, with record crowds, increased media activation and a high-calibre field. As the dust settled SportsPro spoke to Hugh Roberts, chief executive of race organiser SweetSpot, about what it takes to put on a eight-day multi-stage cycling race, his opinions of this year’s event, and the commercial future for the Tour of Britain.

--

How did SweetSpot’s involvement in cycling begin?

I started the company in 2002, primarily to run a charity golf tournament. My co-director of SweetSpot in those days was David Ross, who also sat on the board of the Sports Council. He came back from a meeting one day and felt that there was a golden opportunity for an organisation to put on a blue-riband road cycling event in the UK. So I went out and researched it, and quickly discovered that there hadn’t been one for a very long time. In my opinion, the market was around about right for us to put together a team to deliver what eventually became the Tour of Britain. 

We put on our first race in 2004 and it has grown ever since. We could never have imagined how amazing the event would become in terms of a spectator sport or spectacle, the quality of the riders and the teams competing. In addition, the amount of coverage we now get from various media organisations and publications is astounding.

It has grown and grown immeasurably, and it has spawned other events such as the Women’s Tour. We also came up with the idea for Ride London, that we are very proud of, alongside our colleagues at London Marathon. We came up with the Great Tour, the first collective circumnavigation of Britain by bike, and we worked with Sir Bradley Wiggins when he did his hour record attempt earlier in the year.

I am always working on new projects; there are always new schemes, concepts that we are trying to bring to the market. It is an interesting business and one which I really enjoy, as do the rest of the team here.      

Your relationship with cycling in the UK has coincided with period of great success. Was this a case of luck or design?

We could not have caught a better wave really. British cycling as a movement, if you like, rather than the organisation [British Cycling], has been extraordinarily helpful to us because of the amount of people that are taking up the sport, the number of people that are in positions of authority and responsibility, and the number of business people who now ride instead of playing golf at the weekends. 

Also, at grassroots, the amount of children that come out to watch is very inspiring for us, as an organisation, and for the riders, whose hearts are lifted when they see all of these kids cheering on the side of the road. It has been an incredible journey and, yes, we have been very lucky to be involved in possibly the fastest-growing sport in the UK over the past decade.

What activations did you have with the local schools on the Tour of Britain route?   

This has come about as a by-product of our relationships with the stakeholders of the race - by that I mean the regions, counties, the cities, the towns up and down the country. This is because they are very much involved in each of the stages. For instance, they help us craft a route that will paint their particular region in a favourable light. They will make sure that we will be going over places of architectural, historical or geographical interest.

Most importantly for us, it is how they activate their involvement with the schools. This year, the schools up in Congleton were given the day off on the day that the tour went through. The kids were all out there with their klaxons and bunting, and waving flags, which brought the event to life amazingly. This is all down to the local councils themselves. Whilst we could sit here and take credit, it is them that get the schools engaged but we, of course, advise them when we will be coming through. I have lost count of the schools that we have worked with but it runs into the hundreds and hundreds, possibly the thousands. 

The Tour of Britain is conspicuously without a title sponsor, why?

It is a combination of reasons. Our previous sponsor was Friends Life but they got taken over by Aviva, who triggered a clause in their contract, whereby if a company or brand for some reason doesn’t want to continue on they have the right to revoke that particular clause. 

Aviva’s withdrawal came as a bit of a surprise to us. It also came rather late in the day, which meant that in 2015, when companies are making their budgets, it was suddenly announced that we didn’t have a title sponsor anymore. Luckily, the model that we have in place is so robust that we don’t necessarily need a title sponsor. However, it is very nice to have one because it means that we can do things that we can could, perhaps, describe as luxury in terms of events, organisation and deliveries as opposed to necessities 

The model is designed in such a way that we can still exist without a title sponsor which I think is important for an event of national importance. You can’t imagine Wimbledon, The Open or Henley being cancelled because it didn’t have a title sponsor nor should the Tour of Britain. It does mean that we have had to forego some things that we would have liked to do like increase prize-money, perhaps giving an extra hour of TV coverage or improve the quality of hotels and hospitality.

We will get a title sponsor. The next part of our journey will be to find one but it has to be the right one. We want to find a brand that will provide us with connectivity with our viewers and spectators. I feel that we owe it them to provide them with more information about the race, more live pictures by the road, more access and information to the riders and team. Furthermore, I would like to release timings and telemetry like they do in Formula One.

It is far better for us to have a pound from a UK mobile network, for example, than a pound, with no disrespect, from a Chinese bank. We want to be as connected to our audience as possible, sustainable and – post-Brexit – we need to be as British as possible. We want to highlight British food, beer, the scenery and British talent: that is vital for us. If we could find a brand or company that could embody all of these ideals then we would be laughing.

Now that you have had time for the dust to settle, how would you assess the 2016 race?

Each year – sometimes after each stage – we say ‘that was the best we have ever done’. I think this year we were very lucky because Bristol on the Saturday was absolutely amazing and fully supported by the stakeholders down there, who put a fantastic day of activities: We work very closely with the Bristol Sports Partnership. London was, of course, a fantastic day because the weather was just sublime and we had massive crowds. 

Previously we had an amazing race in East Cheshire, whereby we had a start in Congleton which was absolutely awash with kids and an enormous amount of spectators, then the finish – not too far from Congleton – which finished in a stately home called Tatton Park. It attracted huge crowds and we put on fete there, with all sorts of side attractions. That was also a great example of how to activate an event and to put on a really good mid-week stage of the Tour of Britain.

All things considered, this year was probably the best we have put on. Luckily we had a British rider win because if an overseas rider wins we find that the domestic press doesn’t pay as much interest to us. So, Steve Cummings winning really capped a fantastic week.            

This year you were able to call on multiple Olympians to race. However, with Wiggins retiring and other major names not getting younger, will the race be able to continue its rapid popularity without them?

I am absolutely certain that it will. Don’t forget that we have got [Christopher] Froome, who will start to pay a bit more attention to the Tour of Britain in the coming years. He may be riding the Vuelta this week but we don’t always clash with it, despite this being the case for the past few years.

We would hope that we can find a way around this. It is one of the anomalies or complexities of the cycling calendar that we would have two of the best race in the world on at the same time, it is like having Flushing Meadows and Wimbledon clashing. It’s pretty bonkers but that is the world of cycling: there are too many races that are too long that are controlled by a small amount of organisations, which, in my opinion, is very unhealthy for a sport.

I think that Froome will come and ride the Tour of Britain before he puts his bike to bed, which is many years off anyways. Nonetheless, we have lots of young domestic talent coming through: I have no doubt that there will be a conveyor belt of British stars concentrating on the road as well the track. You will see the riders - in the same way that Wiggins and Cavendish have - flip-flopping between the two which is a good thing.

Despite not being in the first flushes of youth, it was great that Cummings did so well it because he is such a good role model. Nonetheless, he can go on for many many years.

Are you happy with the race’s status, or would you like to become a fully-fledged World Tour event?

That is a good question; we are now at HC status, which suits us. If we go up to the World Tour level then we have to restrict the amount of British teams we can have, and the development teams we can have.

Does the race being World Tour make a hell of a lot of difference to our spectators? I don’t think so really, they will still come out in their hundreds and thousands – if not millions to watch –so the World Tour comes with a set of conditions which we are not really bothered whether we sign up to them or not. The idea that we don’t have any say over who the teams are is not one that is particularly palatable for us.

We are quite happy to stay where we are, we want our race to become the ‘fourth major’ of cycling, that is our aspiration, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to achieve that in the next five to ten years 

For this year’s race you have changed the amount of domestic teams from five to three through a qualification process, why is that?

That was done in collaboration with British Cycling to create a little bit more demand and to create a little bit of an ‘event within an event’. It has not been met with universal approval because there will always be a couple of teams that will not make the cut – needless to say that when the teams miss out they think the idea is not a very good one.  But that is just the way it is.

There are people that are going to be left out of the Ryder Cup who think they should be playing but it creates, stimulates more interest which I think is healthy in the long run.

Where do you see the future of the race?

Over the next five years our goal would certainly be to be the ‘fourth major’ of cycling. In order to achieve that, we will need a title sponsor that not only provides us with connectivity but also additional funding, to enable an increase in prize money, the quality of accommodation and rider welfare. We like to possibly go completely live, as opposed to a three-hour slot. 

I want us to be looked upon as the best in breed in the UK.  And, if by that stage the UCI haven got themselves organised with a flattening out of the amount of time that these huge classic races take:  June, July and half of August are taken out by the Giro, the Tour de France and the Vuelta. It is an absolute nonsense really and something has got to be done about that.