Tamworth Cycling Festival shows how good local bike racing can be

2018 Tamworth Cycling Festival 360 Fitness Club Tamworth City Criteriums

Last weekend, I attended the inaugural Tamworth Cycling Festival to work in Cycling NSW’s events and timing team. It was my first time in Tamworth, and what I’d call my first true regional event (Nowra and the Illawarra aren’t exactly in the ‘country’). For this Sydney-born city-slicker, the experience was enlightening.

The Festival showed how good grassroots bicycle racing can be. Organising a bicycle race is a difficult endeavour: obtaining traffic management approval, drafting volunteers, securing sponsorships and attracting race entrants are just a few of the challenges faced by race promoters.

With that caveat in mind, the following are three key things Tamworth Cycle Club did well. They serve as some basic principles on putting on an excellent cycling event.

Bring cycling to the people

Crowds during the 2018 Tamworth Cycling Festival City Criteriums
Crowds gathered on Saturday afternoon to watch the Tamworth City Criteriums.

On my first morning in Tamworth, one thing surprised me most. We were staying at a motel in town. Driving in the Cycling NSW van, we turned at the first roundabout, and what did we see?

The velodrome, right in the heart of town. It looked so accessible; so inviting – laying there out in the open, steep concrete banking and all. For me, having a velodrome so close to the town centre symbolises what it means to bring cycling to the people. It’s about making cycling accessible, visible and in the public consciousness.

That’s where the Tamworth Cycling Festival succeeded most. It held criteriums on urban streets in a busy part of town. For five wonderful hours, they shut down a whole block of Tamworth and transformed it into a bike racing circuit. The finishing straight ran alongside a large park, with the start/finish line in front of a cafe and a huge children’s playground – a natural hive of activity for a Saturday afternoon.

This was about putting cycling in front of people’s eyeballs. Spectators slowly gravitated to the event throughout the day. By late afternoon, when trees beside the road were casting ever-lengthening shadows, a reasonably large crowd had gathered to watch the Division 1 finish. Encouragingly, a lot of spectators were families with young children – perhaps the next generation of bike riders?

Another great idea was to run a junior participation event alongside the main races. When you hold events for kids, you draw in their parents, too – at least one extra pair of eyeballs.

When you can put on a race in a populated environment, especially during prime time, it makes a huge difference. Last year’s White Bay Criteriums were a prime example of this, as well as the annual Bathurst Cycling Classic and the old Spring Cycle Criteriums. Most bike races these days take place on rural roads in the middle of nowhere, or dedicated criterium circuits hidden away from major centres. They’re beyond the public eye; one really has to go out of their way to stumble upon a bicycle race.

To drive home the point, Sunday’s Nemingha to Nundle road race started and finished merely ten minutes out of town. In stark contrast to the city criteriums, spectators at the road race were few and far between. As far as I could tell, everyone watching was either a rider, a club member, or a relative of one of the above. The only local who stopped by was a farmer who drove out briefly to make sure nobody drove over his crops.

I’m sure there are immense difficulties in hosting a bike race in a town – as it is, even the road race outside Tamworth attracted NIMBYs complaining about road closures. But where it can be achieved, bringing bike racing into urban centres is the way to go. 

Put on a show

Goodyear Autocare arch during Tamworth Cycling Festival City Criteriums
Nothing screams ‘big cycling event’ like a sponsor’s inflatable arch.

You can plonk a bike race in front of spectators, but in order to keep their attention, you need to put on an entertaining event.

As the home of the Australia’s biggest Country Music Festival, Tamworth surely knows something about putting on a show. Some of that must have rubbed off on the Tamworth Cycle Club, because the Festival felt like a true event.

Let’s start with the essentials: coffee van at the start and finish of every race. Food options as well: a more-than-decent BBQ as a bare minimum; trendy urban cafe and food stalls at the city criterium. The sponsor’s shop down the street – an automotive repair centre – had a pop-up bar going.

Then, build atmosphere: live music at the top of Oxley Hill and throughout the crits. Commentator Paul Craft on the microphone, geeing up the crowd, explaining tactics to new spectators, bantering with riders and sports directors. Capped off by a large inflatable sponsor’s arch over the finish line, which screamed, ‘this is a big race!’

Finally, we come to the racing itself. A short crit circuit meant riders were never out of sight for long. Every minute, you’d watch the bottom corner with anticipation, waiting to see which rider would come around first. Intermediate sprints ensured there was action throughout the afternoon.

A successful bike race not only draws a crowd, it keeps the crowd. To do this, you have to offer value to spectators; help them understand and appreciate bike racing. Again, Tamworth did this well for the criteriums. The format is inherently simple to understand: whoever crosses the line first, wins. With Crafty explaining nuances of bike racing, including drafting, crosswinds, cornering and lead-outs, even the least-experienced spectator could follow the race.

It was a little more challenging for the hill climb: being an individual time trial rather than a mass start event, it’s difficult for spectators to tell who’s winning and what’s going on. It was also challenging for the road race: a 100km out-and-back circuit meant that spectators only saw a few seconds of action. However, attaching a participation ride to the handicap race helped to bring a few more casual riders out to the event, who stuck around afterwards to watch the race.

Rally club volunteers

Tamworth CC President Min McDonald climbing Oxley Hill during the 2018 Tamworth Cycling Festival
Tamworth CC President Min McDonald climbing Oxley Hill during the 2018 Tamworth Cycling Festival

From this outsider’s point of view, the Tamworth Cycling Festival was a real community effort. No grassroots bicycle race gets off the ground without the mighty effort of a club’s volunteers. This was all the more true for a State Open with the ambition of the Tamworth Cycling Festival.

From manning the sign-in desk, to corner marshalling, erecting banners, and even driving this author to the airport, every part of the operation was overseen by what seemed like a large army of volunteers in printed grey T-shirts.

By all accounts, Tamworth Cycle Club President Min McDonald has done extremely well to rally her town’s cyclists together. Speaking with locals, I learned that membership numbers have grown significantly over the past few years, especially among women. One volunteer told me that there used to be about six female cyclists in the club. Now, there are about 30 female members.

McDonald, together with race coordinator Rob Wright, someone managed to mobilise a team of enthusiastic club members, family and friends to pitch in and make the event a success.


Special Event In Progress sign during 2018 Tamworth Cycling Festival City Criteriums

The inaugural Tamworth Cycling Festival had all the energy and vibrancy of a new, big sporting event, but it was not without its challenges. No doubt the organisers will review the weekend and identify some of the shortcomings. I am sure, for instance, they would hope to see more participants make the trip out to Tamworth next year.

Nevertheless, the event had what I’ve identified as some fundamental hallmarks of a successful cycling event. Congratulations to Tamworth Cycle Club for an excellent weekend, and here’s hoping they can carry that success into 2019.

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