Bristol 'crossgate: the Council responds
"We're not banning cyclocross", they say. But the current situation is a de facto ban
Bristol City Council have responded to the accusation that they're banning cyclocross events from their parks. They've made it plain that no such ban exists; however the requirement of a £2,500 bond for 'repairs to the turf', for an event comprising 50 people cycling on the grass for an hour, will for the orangisers be a ban in everything but name.
We approached Gary Hopkins, the councillor responsible for Parks and Open Spaces, as have some road.cc readers. We asked him whether the council had made a formal damage assessment for cyclocross races on their sites, and how the damage compared to other sports. He didn't specifically respond to these questions, but did give us the following reply:
I have received a number of e-mails of varying tones,varying from the ultra reasonable enquiry to the aggressively accusatory, regarding a report that has been passed out claiming that a ban has been put on cycling events in parks. LET ME FIRSTLY BE CLEAR THAT NO SUCH BAN EXISTS and that in fact parks dept. are looking to develop further BMX facilities building on the success of fairly recently installed courses and that in general encouraging physical activities in parks is encouraged and is increasing.
I understand that there was some interaction between council officers in the events team and a club. Clearly any activity in a park,be it pop concert,fun day or sporting activity will have an effect upon the park and any group needs to take responsibility for any damage which could have a negative effect upon other users and contribute to the reinstatement costs.
This matter came up some months ago and I am surprised and disappointed that it has reemerged at this time. I trust that this is down to misunderstanding/miscommunication.I sincerely hope that nobody has been deliberately misled.
More enlightening was a written statement read out on Steve Lefevre's breakfast show on BBC radio Bristol (from about 37 minutes), which also featured CX organiser Craig Denning who we spoke to in the original article, and Anthony de Heveningham of Bristol Trails Group, who's heavily involved with the local cycling scene. Here's what the council said:
The advice was given for pro-park reasons and not anti-cycling ones. The group were advised that the winter season following the wettest summer for 100 years is simply not a good time for cycling on parkland. The grass is dormant. The turf will be significantly damaged and it will not even begin to grow back for five or six months. That's not an acceptable situation for other park users. If a group wishes to hold a cycling event on council land in these conditions it will require a significant bond, £2,500 per event, for repairs to the turf. The group in question has so far not provided a bond and the event cannot go ahead without it. The road.cc blog [sic] argues that football and rugby also cause damage. This is true; however, the sports clubs pay significant fees and the damage is confined to the pitches. There are free, dedicated mountain bike facilities at Ashton court.
So, that's £2.5k to run an event for 50 people for an hour, which is effectively a ban: no-one's going to be able to put up that kind of money for an event where the normal entry fee is about a tenner. Bristol Council's claims are inaccurate on a number of fronts. The 'significant fees' levied on football and rugby clubs are £42 for the use of a pitch for a game, or £62 if changing facilities are required; CX races don't usually bother with that. They're only significant because there's lots of pitches and lots of games. The Council is effectively saying that a Cyclocross race is sixty times as bad to the park environment as a football match.
Secondly, the assertion that 'the grass is dormant' and 'the turf will not even begin to grow back for five or six months' is simply not true. We went over the road and had a chat with out friendly local groundsmen Dave Perryman and Si Freear, who look after the pitches at King Edwards school fields at Bathampton.
"The grass is entering a stage where it's slowing down for the winter," they told us, "but it's still growing fine here, and the turf is in no worse condition than any other year. It doesn't ever really stop growing. If these races have been held every year then there's no reason this year's events would kill the grass."
And of the £2,500 bond? "Reading between the lines it seems like they've costed out how much it would be to re-seed the whole course. For good seed and say a mile and a half of course that sounds about right. But they wouldn't be able to reseed it until the spring anyway, as the new shoots might not survive the winter. By the time they got round to doing it it would all have grown back anyway. A bit of winter rain and spring sun and you'd never know."
That's certainly the experience of Chipps of Singletrack fame, who runs Todcross every year in January, a much larger event. "My council park officer lets me use the town park every year for a New Year 'cross race. It's always wet and muddy (when it's not frozen) and we do make a bit of a mess of the park. However, after a good rain and a month or so, it's already started to heal and you'd not know it had happened."
"I got in touch with the Council to ask to use it after seeing the park criticised in the paper due to the football pitches always being waterlogged, or having poor quality turf. In contrast, we get 300 or so riders (from 6 to 70) from all over the north coming to race in the middle of winter, loving the park and being really positive about it. Can you imagine the organisation and mess that getting 300 footballers to turn up for one day of matches would cause?"
The video above shows this year's Todcross race, which Chipps described to us as 'ankle deep' in some places. However, a month later it was nearly gone, and now, after a subsequent race in the wettest July Todmorden has probably ever had it looks like this:
See 2:59 in the vid above for what this corner looked like on the day...
There's no evidence of either race, at all. "The council charge me their standard 'Day use' fee for (the whole of) the park - which is... wait for it... about £25," Chipps told us. "I have an understanding with them that any bits that need re-seeding will be charged to me, but so far that's never been necessary in five years."
Another organiser told us, "When you go to a new venue that's never heard of cyclocross – especially if it's a public park – then often there's some convincing needs to be done. But in this case events have been going on as long as i can remember, particularly at Ashton Court.
"Cyclocross doesn't do long term damage. An extreme example would be the World Championships at Roundhay Park in Leeds, in 1992. There were 25,000 people watching and I remember the council panicking, thinking that the park would be destroyed. The park warden was fine though; he knew the racing was not destroying the grass. In a month or so it comes back."
Certainly it seems to be what the park looks like, rather than the actual level of damage, that seems to be a sticking point for Councils. Another round of the Western League, in Pitville Park in Cheltenham has come under fire for leaving the park looking messy. Judy Longhorn, chairman of the Friends of Pitville Park, is quoted as saying, "We spend a lot of time making the park look nice. People need to be leave it as they wish to find it". Leaving the park looking like it did before you started isn't really possible for a CX race, any more than it's possible for a cross country race, or a car boot sale. But is it doing any long-term damage? The evidence of decades of racing would suggest that it isn't. Some would suggest that the £2,500 bond demanded by the Council is just a way for them to stop the racing because they've decided they don't like the look of it, and their justification of it doesn't really bear scrutiny.