British Cycling’s new chief executive, Brian Facer, has only been in the role for five weeks - most of which he has spent at home - but he certainly has his hands full. With Covid-19 having forced the cancellation of 4000 races in the last 12 months, the country’s domestic scene is struggling. Internationally, Britain’s cyclists are facing a period of huge uncertainty with new Brexit regulations requiring work permits of certain non-elite riders. HSBC UK, the national governing body’s commercial partner, is pulling out at the end of this year leaving an estimated £30 million black hole of funding. And there is always the ever-present threat of a doping scandal.
On Tuesday, a medical tribunal will hand down its decision on the case of Richard Freeman, the former British Cycling and Team Sky doctor who is accused of ordering a batch of testosterone to the national velodrome in 2011 with the intention to dope a rider. Regardless of the verdict, UK Anti-Doping has already charged Freeman with two anti-doping rule violations arising from his evidence. It has been described as potentially the most serious blow yet to the reputation of the all-conquering professional road and Olympic teams. Yet Facer could hardly sound more thrilled with his lot.
“It’s a hugely exciting time,” says the former London Irish CEO, in what is his first interview since taking over from Julie Harrington. “I’d argue there’s never been a better time to get involved in cycling.”
Facer’s positivity is based on the fact that, while Covid may have hit the professional and amateur race scene, cycling is booming at a grassroots level. Retailers could hardly keep up with the lockdown demand as families and individuals rediscovered the simple enjoyment of riding on traffic-free roads. “23 million people are riding bikes,” Facer says. “9.1 million people are riding their bikes more than three times a week. You’ve got 1.4 million more children cycling last summer, bicycle sales grew by 60 per cent [in lockdown]... it’s a substantial market. There are huge opportunities out there to capitalise.”
Facer, 50, is one of the 23 million. An unashamed ‘fan’ of cycling, he rides with Daventry CC and in the press release last autumn which announced his move to British Cycling he made a point of saying that he had completed a number of Etapes du Tour, including Col du Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez. It’s not hard to imagine how some might have seen that as a bit try-hard, but Facer is unconcerned.
“I think it's definitely beneficial to love what you do and be passionate about what you do and want to get involved in it,” he says. “Yes, I’m a huge fan. I’ve been to every Tour de France for the last 15/16yrs. I’ve been standing on the side of the road with my cowbells. And normally, to be fair, when I'm not at races in person, I'm usually on GCN or one of the channels watching what's going on. Even when I was working in rugby I’d always have the races on my phone or whatever.”
Facer, who names mountain biking as his discipline-of-choice, is clearly not just a fan, though. If London Irish’s current renaissance is anything to go by - the club, in a new home in Brentford and with a revitalised squad, are closing in on the Premiership play-offs having been relegated in his first season - he knows how to run a business. He also clearly brings a strong work ethic. Facer drove two-and-a-half hours to Sunbury-on-Thames and back every day while at the Exiles, and still got up at 5am every day for a run with his dog and sometimes got a ride in on his return.
He has now rented a place in Glossop [although lockdown 3.0 hit the day after he signed the lease so he hasn’t been able to use it] and says he wants to apply that energy at British Cycling in a number of areas.
Finding a new commercial sponsor is clearly high on the list - “Obviously, the pandemic doesn't help. But the positives of what we heard [from the Prime Minister] on Monday night has certainly helped now with our conversations. And we are in some good conversations at the moment.” - but so, too, areas such as diversity, gender equality and athlete welfare.
British Cycling has just announced a new diversity advisory group, featuring an impressive expert panel, about which Facer is excited. “There’s got to be a shift in the way we take cycling to the cities and the way we talk to different groups within the Bame community,” he says. “I’m a big champion of Freestyle BMX because that is something you can take to the cities.” He adds that this is not merely box-ticking, with British Cycling’s own makeup under review. “Absolutely. You have got to look inwardly first. We’ve got to be more diverse and inclusive. And then it gives comfort that we're doing the right thing. So absolutely, it’s a root and branch thing. If you're going to talk, you have to walk the walk.”
He is also keen to set up some sort of independent body, similar to The Rugby Players Association [RPA], for riders and athletes to air grievances. “There’s things I think I can bring from the rugby world which could help us develop,” he says. “But overall I think we’re in great shape. Julie did an amazing job. She did the hard yards in terms of overhauling the culture and governance of the organisation.”
Would a high-profile ban for Freeman undermine that progress and set British Cycling back? “We expect that there will be mud thrown at us because it's so high profile,” Facer says. “But it’s important to us that those allegations are really out there and properly pursued. I think we’re a very different organisation to back then, both culturally and from a medical governance point of view.
“If you talk to UK Sport, to Sport England, or DCMS, actually we now set the standards. I think it’s something we need to shout about a bit more.
“In the conversations we’ve been having [with potential partners] it hasn’t been a problem. This is a great time to be invested into cycling on the back of the Tokyo Olympics, with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year, then the cycling world championships in the UK in Glasgow the year after, and then Paris 2024. Millions of people on bikes. It couldn’t be a better time to invest really in a sport that’s really on the up.”