Cycling events in the UK have been evolving rapidly in recent years. Alex Ballinger spoke to event organiser Focal Events about how consumer tastes are changing
This piece first appeared in the May edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
I still remember my first proper cycling event – a 100km sportive across Exmoor, hours spent in heavy downpours on open roads, finishing at Butlins resort in Minehead.
For many years, this was the blueprint for most mass participation cycling events in the UK – traditional sportives offering a selection of three distances, on some of the country’s more picturesque roads.
Following the success of the London Olympics, we saw the sudden rise of closed road events like RideLondon and the Velothon in Wales, but in recent years, cycling events have begun to evolve rapidly, as riders pursue more testing terrain, more picturesque (and traffic-free) locales, and more adventurous experiences.
Enter Focal Events, a two-man event organisation company that specialises in gravel and adventure.
Focal was founded as a merger between two events companies that combined to bring a long-distance gravel event to the UK – the result was Dirty Reiver.
Bryan Singleton, and Neil Atkinson, the pair behind Focal Events, told BikeBiz: “Focal Events came about through a collaboration with a single aim of providing riders with the best possible event experience. Our tag line ‘Focused on the Detail’ sums up our ethos perfectly.
“There have been a number of changes [in cycling events] over the past few years. With so many event options, riders are faced with more choice, leaving organisers to think more creatively in order to fill places. The iconic events will always be popular and still attract good numbers. With people living busier lives they often want to ‘get away’ at weekends and return refreshed having had an adventure with memorable experiences – a goal to keep them going through the week! Rides such as the Dirty Reiver, Battle on the Beach, Grinduro and the road classic the Fred Whitton, to name a few examples, tick that box.”
The current Focal portfolio consists of a number of famous events, including the 200km Dirty Reiver event in Northumberland, the UK edition of multi-day party and riding event Grinduro, and returning for 2023 after a number of years off the calendar bike-packing inspired The Distance (which was recently rescheduled for September, due to low entry numbers). I had my first experience of a Focal event at Grinduro in Wales last year – a phenomenal experience, akin to a festival atmosphere but with some of the most glorious gravel riding the UK has to offer (and some challenging technical riding thrown in for good measure).
Unsurprisingly the cycling event market took an enormous hit during the Covid pandemic, and Focal Events is continuing to feel the fallout, as riders have been slow to return to events at pre-pandemic levels.
Combined with the current economic climate, the UK events scene still has some way to reach past heights.
“Over the past couple of years people have got out of the habit of travelling and some events are certainly struggling for numbers,” said the Focal team.
“It may take some time for this confidence to build back to previous levels. There are also economic factors in play, with customer spend more measured, and riders looking for better quality event experiences. This may start to translate to a change in habit as people look closer to home – after all the UK has some great event destinations.”
While the sense of achievement and adventure for riders is a major attraction, cycling events often draw plenty of interest from brands and sponsors. But what do mass participation events offer some of the brand closely involved?
Grvl Apparel is a new premium clothing company founded by Stuart Brooke, and is a sponsor of the returning Distance event – a unique bikepacking weekend with varying distance and routes for each rider.
Brooke told BikeBiz: “[The Distance] target market is perfectly aligned to our brand. Our customers are passionate about Gravel and Bike Packing forms a strong part of this passion. An epic location, tough terrain, quality bikes and kit are key ingredients of this event, so sponsoring it was a simple decision.
“We wanted to align Grvl with gravel and adventure cycling events that shared the same brand values and passion for the sports as we do,” Brooke added.
“The Distance resonated with us not only because of the multi day format of the event but also because they are a proven established event organiser that know how to put on a great event.”
With multi-day events like those in the Focal portfolio, brands have access to dedicated riders, who are located in one place, and keen for entertainment.
On supporting sponsors, the Focal Events team said: “Our events offer a unique opportunity for brands to be directly engaged with riders who are buying their products. There is a huge potential to create positive and memorable experiences beyond simply displaying or advertising products. There is an appetite for knowledge, and events offer brands that platform.
“We have been fortunate to work with some brands for many years and can see, first hand, the benefits of the continuity in support. As rider/brand relations build overtime there is an increasing sense of loyalty towards them and their products.”
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So what’s next on the horizon for Focal?
“This year is about consolidating after a difficult few years. We are constantly looking at how we can improve our service to brands and provide great ride experiences.
“We have joined the 1% for the Planet movement as a way to give something back and we are constantly looking to reduce our impact.
“In terms of events themselves we are always looking at opportunities – whether that is working alongside a brand to create a bespoke event or to look at new directions for ourselves.”