Two Types of Bicycle Races

Two labels to describe bike races: top-down and bottom-up. Here it’s not a description of the course profile, instead this is about the organisation and culture.

Simplisitc? Sure, I’ll explain more below but the point is to explore two reasons for having a bike race in caricature and having these labels to hand means they can be referred to in future pieces.

Top-down races
These are the events that have been created at the stroke of pen, a click of a mouse or in a committee meeting. Important people have met and decided they want a bike race to happen somewhere. Their wish is their command and so the race duly happens. Typically this requires bringing in outsiders as organisers. Often the pro race in question can be one of the few big bike races going in the area, the sporting calendar is thin on other bike races. Think of the UAE Tour or the Tour of Oman.

Bottom-up races
Think of a local event that has started out small and grown, usually underpinned by local support whether funding or volunteer work and if there’s government involvement, it’s more likely to be local and regional rather than national. A newly-ordained pro race could still be included here if it’s an event that sits on top of a pyramid of other pro races, elite events and right down to kids races. A further aspect here is the authenticity, an event that takes some of the local characteristics and charms, it borrows from the landscape. Examples could include the Strade Bianche which grew out of the Eroica event and has become an event beloved by locals and non-locals alike.

Either or?
Obviously there’s a substantial grey zone. Go through the calendar race by race and we’d struggle to brand each event as top down or bottom up with a snap judgement in three seconds. It might take more deliberation or even hesitation, and that’s no bad thing. Inevitably given these two labels are caricatures but in evoking them means this topic can be raised in the future and linked to, I can mention a “top down race” in passing, perhaps with a hyperlink, and you’ll know the meaning already or can find it out with the link.

The Tour de France is clearly a massive event but it benefits from a huge societal support in France. It’s grown into an institution that’s part of France’s cultural heritage, ditto the Giro and Vuelta. The Tour Colombia 2.1 stage race is back for 2024, clearly a race with massive popular support in Colombia but the revival this year has required political sign-off at a high level, locals alone aren’t sufficient.

Authenticity was suggested above and a top down race can have it if the new race is cherished by locals, takes on local characteristics and so on. The Tour de Yorkshire felt very real, but it was dependent on local funding and once the mood changed it was gone.

Labels and attitudes can shift too. A race that is imposed from the top down can take roots and become locally supported, perhaps outlasting the initial political or financial support. The season-ending Japan Cup race started out as a top-down race in the wake of the 1990 World Championships but has since been nurtured by host city Utsunomiya as a valuable addition to the city’s calendar. The Tour Down Under was created by politicians but has been adopted by locals as their festival of cycling and this in turn reinforces political support.

All this is particular to cycling. Viewed from the outside from a cycling blog it looks like you can rustle up a a golf or tennis tournament, or a Formula 1 GP and they can become instantly important. A bike race can happen, it can be awarded a high UCI status, it might have fine racing but this doesn’t bring prestige nor bless it with authenticity that makes it a hit.

Two labels that might come in handy later to describe races. Not every race can can fit one of these two labels but having them is going to help in the future when we look at calendar reform and the commercial imperative to create new races. If it helps, think of top down races as those where people said “we should hold a bike race there” and bottom-up races are where people said “we should hold a bike race here”.

24 thoughts on “Two Types of Bicycle Races”

    • It’s hard to apply to old races, the Tour started out like some rogue gravel race today with a few riders and nightime control checkpoints, none of the closed roads etc that make what is defined as an official road race today. But in growing from these origins and becoming an institution, if forced I’d say it’s “bottom up” as it’s grown upwards.

  1. An interesting piece. Feels especially relevant in the UK today as British Cycling have just published their recommendations on reviving the British road racing scene.

    The previous decade and a half have surely been a boom time for bike racing here – hugely different from when I was growing up, my only home grown hero was Sean Yates and we had the Kellogg’s Tour, or Leeds Classic, the remnants of the Milk Race. But now the peloton is awash with British pros that must have been inspired by Olympic and Team Sky success. Huge events like the Tour (x2), TdY, the Olympics and Ride London should have provided fertile ground for the domestic calendar to grow, but it seems to have only contracted, not grown beyond the scene 20 or 30 years ago.

    Now we can see that these banner events were unsustainable and ‘top down’. Of course they were. And the ‘bottom-up’ events – e.g. Lincoln, Rutland – haven’t had the chance to kick-on and grow as perhaps they should have. Now with the Tour Series criteriums and national Tours under threat we are left with slim pickings indeed, and the wider public recognition of cycling is surely not what it was 10 years ago. A chance squandered, though I hope I’m wrong.

    • It just seems astonishing the the current third-ranked PCS nation (and UCI fourth-ranked) can’t even manage a single mens WT or even Pro series race. That even more so after seeing the popularity of the Tour de Yorkshire with ideal and varied terrain, a county prepared to accept the disruption, home riders making a mark…. yet lowly ranked countries manage WT and Pro series races galore with fairly modest fields, often boring terrain and deserted roadsides. What went wrong for GB?

      I hope we don’t return to my early days of following the sport with a single lonely rider visible in top races (Barry Hoban) while the other UK pros (Sid Barrass, Phil Bayton, Keith Lambert… many of whom could have done much better) rode round the houses on Saturday evenings.

      • “What went wrong for GB?”
        When you act like the peak of popularity of cycling should somehow be looked at as normal rather than an anomaly, you ask questions like these.
        Same for the USA…they had the gas-shortage “bike boom” in the 1970’s followed by the success of Greg LeMond in the 1980’s and BigTex in the 1990+ era. Yet pro cycling in that country is doing a lot of nothing, unless you count the current gravel fad as something.
        No matter what the UCI does with “Heinie’s Folly” (aka World Tour) things seem to be mostly the same with a few anomalies from (mostly) short-lived government interest.
        IMHO what they should be doing is figuring out ways to make fielding a high-level, competitive pro team cost LESS instead of more.

    • I agree with this – such a squandering of the 2012 Olympic legacy (and not just in cycling, but that is another story). Ride London is a prime example, with the link to the Olympic road race course broken by Surrey NIMBYS kicking up such a fuss, that it relocated to Essex. Would the Yorkshire Grand Depart have happened without the Olympics – and so the TDY came and went.

      Covid hasn’t helped either – participation in mass running and cycling races has been appreciably down (25% or so I have read) – so if there isn’t the groundswell of public support, no wonder that UK races struggle to be economically viable, particularly when it was a hard enough gig for them to subsist a few years ago during the “boom” years.

    • A problem is that a lot of the discussion doesn’t take into account the general financial situation of public bodies in the UK.

      Not that I’m looking back on past halcyon days but, in the last 15 years there has been the enormous impact of austerity, and defunding that stretches back much further. It means that local authorities, other public authorities, and the police are absolutely strapped for cash. And events are already an expense So even if you’re a govt official and a fan of cycling, those costs have to be found and are unlikely to get much subsidy. And so the cost to organisers has, IIUC, been rising substantially.

      • Good point gastrogeorge. I’ve not looked closely into the Tour of Britain/Women’s Tour organisers Sweetspot going into liquidation but it seems local/regional government finances being squeezed are a big factor here.

        As much as pro cycling is nakedly commercial at times, it is also very reliant on mayors and regional officials.

        • That’s true. Recent governments have pushed endless additional tasks onto local authorities yet squeezed budgets at the same time. Then, given the choice between a bike race and an essential public service, the result in inevitable. but very sad for cycling fans including me.

          When I see local races here in N-E France the sponsors are always regional banks, assurers, the region, department, local town, and regional press… who seem to consider supprting local events (of all types) part of their social obligation.

    • In my experience living in France (Loire Valley)and England, ( Cotswolds, Vale of White Horse) the impact of closing a road for a race is just much higher in England. The route through my town in France, and through other local Tour towns we visited carried about a quarter of the traffic compared to very similar sized roads in my areas of England.

      It’s also much more difficult to visit a race site in England ( at least in the South East/ south which is my area.) Compared to France there are very few places to park if you come from further than walking or cycling distance. I don’t feel we have the same relationship with local Government, either. I knew the Mayors of all three communes I have lived in , they appeared at local events all the time, formal and informal. I have a passing acquaintance with one local Councillor ( over a local issue, not socially).

  2. For me, this is just further evidence that in a lot of countries people just aren’t that interested in cycling. If Britons were interested in cycling, these races would probably have thrived.
    Some seem convinced – for reasons I don’t really comprehend other than the belief that bigger is always better, as is more money – that cycling must be spread worldwide. Far better, I think, to focus on saving the historic races that we already have (from the likes of One Cycling) in the countries that are actually interested in the sport.

    • +1 I dunno why certain people seem obsessed with cramming something down-the-throats of people who so far have remained happily uninterested. Worse, there’s my “A-hole Factor” theory that says when you double the number of people involved, the a-holes involved go up by a factor of 10.
      I’d bet there’s a sociologist out there who can explain it better, but IMHO it’s a valid theory.

      • I think that there is a big difference between stakeholders in the sport wanting to increase viewership so that they can make more money and spreading the enjoyment you get from riding or racing a bike.

        It’s probably easier to secure local government funding to put on a race if you say it will get more people into cycling irrespective of whether that is the case or not.

        • “It’s probably easier to secure local government funding to put on a race if you say it will get more people into cycling irrespective of whether that is the case or not.”
          I suppose that depends on where one is since local governments are not likely to be universally interested in getting “more people into cycling.”
          Currently in Italy we have an infrastructure minister who seems to be against things like that – he’s fighting against cities imposing 30 kph speed limits, tried to require road cyclists to have license plates, helmets and turn indicators and just imposed a some crazy laws about hauling bikes on your car! I read somewhere this draconian set of rules makes every team car in the Giro d’Italia technically illegal to operate on public roads. So if RCS was to propose something like the Giro as a new idea…this bozo would probably actively oppose it!

  3. A very intetesting article. I would like to see the correleation of each of these styles of race organisation to their longevity. And if ultimatley for a race to suceed and remain on the calander or grow, the opposit side need to be engaged and brought in as stakeholder. E.g. local bottom-up events only grow and remain when gov support begins to be provided, and top-down events only grow and remain when local support begins be become embedded in the event. (Provided of coarse they have a good course and nice slot in the calander).

    • I think this is where the labels can and should change. A race imposed all of a sudden can put down roots and if given enough time, anchor itself in the community. But it’d be hard to run the correlation given the survivorship factor, the races that have made it and stand for themselves are visible while all the others have gone, think Yorkshire, California are hard to count up.

  4. An interesting perspective. In the UK the decline in decent quality races is through two main factors.
    1. The passing of a generation of event organizers who loved the sport, and were supported by the small number of members(~13.000) in British Cycling Federation days.
    2. When the BCF was rebranded as BC the ethos changed. For better or worse. 130.000 members, mainly non racing, non cycling CEOs and emphasis on Olympic track glory. Finance from members, clubs and club activities and sponsors became ever more important to feed the Olympic dream. The grassroots, who supplied much of the finance became victims of the H&S culture with its ever increasing regulation and higher costs. Organizers voted with their feet, so domestic events went into dramatic decline. BC appears only recently to have woken up to the inevitable consequences of its actions.
    I am not sure which of the two categories INRNG suggests this scenario fits. BUT it should be a lesson to all.
    Incidentally. It may also explain in part the large number of UK riders now racing on the continent. Staying in the UK, where decent races and pro teams are now few and far between, offers little prospect to ambitious young riders.

  5. I think that the main difference might be that grass roots people are more likely to know what makes for an interesting course.
    The Tour of California was a race that I wanted to like but just found the roads visually uninteresting.

  6. Sticking with the “easy labels and a bit of useful oversimplification” sheetstyle, I’d say that cycling’s been facing a couple of times – or hundreds – the “ride the bubble” paradox (it’s not by mere coincidence that it sounds like “read the Bible”!). It’s like the bubble is always perceived as a chance – which it is – failing to acknowledge the associated risks. Of course, it’s not about turning down money and public interest when it happens to suddenly come by, the idea would instead be trying to keep a high level of awareness on the *risks* of “riding a bubble”, so you can and do actively develop policies to prevent the well-known risks… we all see so clearly ex post. For example, protecting the existing environment against the internal competition of newcomers, putting in place structures which are hard to reverse, connect to broader social structures etc. Obviously, this means harder negotiations with the new partners & parties which now want to bring their money in as, say, cycling is now fashionable. And, on turn, this might turn out to imply… turning down money. It’s not easy, because someone else might then be ready to grab the fat checks, and bring disruption into the system all the same. Well, if it was easy we wouldn’t see all the time bubbles – in cycling and beyond – whose effect is rather negative in the middle term, Armstrong bein clearly a main example. OTOH in some countries the bike bubble of the 70s generated enduring effects etc. The UK case had some manifest issues which everybody knew were going to backfire, but I’m still mildly optimist for the middle to long term. Things go in cycles, too. UK went from a politically (way too) favourable political context within the UCI to a situation of friction and reactions which one can expect to bet better as time goes by and the impact of some power fight get diluted.

  7. A lot of cycling commentators are often a little bit condescendant or even hostile to the number of french races in the calendar, all the small .1 that are part of the Coupe de France for example (a few weeks ago, Benji Naesen spoke about “french ChatGPT generated races” : I didn’t understand what it meant but I’m not sure it was positive). Sure, from abroad I can understand it can be seen as undeserved and not so interesting, with only French and Belgian teams, and some Spanish ones sometimes ; the winners are not always part of the best riders in the world and sometimes are a little bit unexpected (when I started to follow cycling, young and naive, in 2005, I was sure Daniele Contrini was going to be a big name, after having won la Route Adélie, a stage of the Tour de Picardie and arriving 2nd in the GP de Rennes, all in two weeks !). Sure, you can say these races just exist because of the TdF effect, and the power of France in the international institutions. But I’m still amazed that all these races continue to exist, and they exist, in harder and harder conditions, with all the administrative complications, because of a lot of volunteers that are doing a lot of work, year after year, to make their race happen. They’re not known internationally (except some exceptions like the Tro Bro), they have no real prestige (unlike the Strade Bianche which in ten years started to equal the Monuments, and rightly so – was it RCS that organised the race from the beginning ?), but a hardcore of fans will make them happen. These are the archetypes of bottom-up races, except they don’t up that much : they are the fierce bottom of the international calendar :).
    More interesting even maybe are races like the Tour de Bretagne or the Tour de Guadeloupe, which are maybe the most popular 2.2 in the worlds, with huge crowds and a lot of regional press coverage, although they are half amateurs.

    • Some of these 1. races are great (and the same goes for Italy, Spain, Belgium etc like the Giro dell’Emilia, the GP de Wallonie) almost because of the strong local support for them as you say, it’s having people willing to get involved. I’m sure over the winter there will have been fundraising dinners, committee meetings in the back of a café etc, attempts to find more volunteers etc. Take Paris-Camembert, just a 1.1 but a hard race and with probably the longest unbroken sports sponsorship deal with the Lepetit dairy sponsoring the event every year since 1943.

  8. It is true that the club structure and club members are the core of smaller races. Without the clubs there will be no races. Members do the hard spade work of obtaining sponsors, sorting courses and its safety, advertising the event, printing posters and programs, arranging marshalls and officials, providing cars…. the list is endless. These are the unsung enthusiasts that make our sport tick over, looking for no form of reward. Look after the clubs and the rest will follow.

  9. Good article, thanks. I think it’s wise to focus on the individual races and their organisation. Contrary to other sports, the symbolic capital of cycling are the races and their territories they’re linked to, not so much the athletes or the (fleeting) team structures. Organisers deserve a lot of support, and I don’t necessarily mean ASO, RCS, of Flanders Classics, but those who make them happen at grassroot level (volunteers, local institutions, club managers, etc…). And not only at pro level.

Comments are closed.