A multi-million dollar quest to bring track to the masses: the UCI Track Champions League

Warner Brothers Discovery are doing everything in their power to put track back in the spotlight

Clock17:17, Friday 27th October 2023
Florian Pavia, the brains behind the UCI Track Champions League


Florian Pavia, the brains behind the UCI Track Champions League

Track cycling has the potential to fill stadiums. With short, fast races, big power numbers and athletes rippling with muscles, it has mass-appeal that other disciplines of cycling lack. The problem is that traditionally, the exciting bits of track cycling are dragged down by a quagmire of complicated itineraries and event categories. For the uninitiated, watching a traditional track event is like watching an old Bond film; you get some action every few minutes, but you’re not quite sure where it fits into the plot.

Warner Brothers Discovery (WBD) have set out to resolve that. Having identified track cycling as a diamond in the rough, WBD have adopted a no-holes-barred approach to get track cycling into the mainstream. The centrepiece of this campaign is the UCI Track Champions League (TCL), a bespoke four-part track racing series that this year is entering its third edition.

From the ground up, the TCL is designed to look good on TV. With the help of a slick, simplified racing program, dramatic light displays and blasting music, the people behind the TCL are doing their best to turn track racing into something anyone could enjoy.

Read more: UCI Track Champions League: How does it work?

In the velodrome, this is most evident in the showbiz sparkle, but the fact is that WBD are doing far more than simply adding razzle dazzle. This is an eight year project to build a narrative and a set of characters within track racing, and ultimately, to turn it into a thrilling, drama-filled sport. At the first round in Mallorca, we spoke to project lead Florian Pavia to find out how he was going to achieve it.

Simplifying track cycling

To create a series that appeals to track newbies, WBD have found a track newbie of their own to run the show. Florian Pavia came to WBD having spent a few years in charge of ASO’s iconic l’Etape du Tour sportive, and admits he knew almost nothing about track cycling.

As he delved into track cycling for the first time, he realised, as he told GCN, “these kind of races were really hard to understand, but mostly really hard to broadcast.”

“TCL is all about trying to make this sport a bit simpler to follow.”

Pavia has pared down the track schedule, keeping the bits that are the most interesting to watch, and getting rid of the complicated stuff. The subsequent format is about as simple as you can make track cycling. The riders are separated into two groups: ‘sprint’ and ‘endurance’. The ‘sprint’ riders have two events: the sprint and the keirin, and the ‘endurance’ riders have two events: the scratch and the elimination. It’s still a mouthful to explain, but compared to a traditional track event, it’s totally straightforward.

The broadcast itself is peppered with educational content, explaining how the series works, what each of the races involve, and how the results will affect the standings. It’s hard trying to educate your audience as you entertain them, but it’s essential for building a new generation of track fans.

Adding a bit of showbiz magic

Taking inspiration from American sports, Pavia then slots the events into a neat three hour broadcast. It runs like clockwork, and is designed to constantly build in importance with each event. For the athletes, this has been a bit of a rude awakening. Some of the sprinters objected to being kicked off the track after finishing, rather than enjoying a few warm down laps. Pavia is always keen to adapt to make things better, but the TV viewers always come first.

The next step was to use lighting and staging to highlight the drama on the boards. Usually, velodromes are blanket lit. The TCL on the other hand, has the kind of elaborate lighting and audio setup you’d expect from the Taylor Swift Eras Tour.

To achieve this, WBD transport a truly mind-boggling amount of kit from venue to venue. Twelve tonnes of lighting, camera and audio equipment are trundled from one country to another: Hundreds of orbital stage lights are rigged to the ceiling; an unbroken LED screen wraps around the entire outer barrier of the track; two jumbotron-style screens hang above the centre of the velodrome. Setting all this up requires around 250 people, most of which are flown in for the task.

Then there’s the broadcast itself. Outside, four enormous diesel generators, each the size of a shipping container, gurgle away. They are hooked up to a white truck with an entire production studio in the back, attended to by five or six directors. From here, each director remotely manages a camera crew within the velodrome. Another more senior director then selects which shots to use during live broadcast. This is an operation with more moving parts than a swiss watch.

Even more impressive is the speed with which the whole lot gets packed up and moved on. Within a day, every stitch is packed up and on its way to the next venue. The army of producers, engineers and athletes move on with it, and within a week, the grand spectacle is set up somewhere entirely new.

Turning athletes into characters

So does all that glitz and glamour make track cycling a thrill to watch? Well, it's a work in progress that's moving in a positive direction.

The lighting and music builds tension wonderfully as the riders prepare for each race, but once they’ve set off, there’s a slight lull as you watch a sprinkling of stars race against a batch of lesser known but up-and-coming athletes.

Pavia and the WBD team are aware of this, and are putting in groundwork to make track cycling into a sport that people can truly fall in love with. The key, says Pavia, is building up a new set of characters.

“We ask questions of the riders. We're trying to dig in, dig in, dig in. And at the end you realise there's a lot of good stories,” says Pavia.

The researchers then report back to the sports management team, “who are in charge of, I cannot say ‘recruiting’, but confirming the riders,” says Pavia – by the sounds of it, the strength of a rider’s personal story can determine whether they’re invited to the series or not.

Alla Biletska for example, a Ukrainian sprinter who lost her home to the Russian invasion, has been granted a ‘wildcard’ entry, and has been supported financially and logistically by the organisers so she is able to attend the series. It’s a nice gesture from WBD, and one that has the potential to create a spell-binding story of victory in the face of adversity.

Ultimately, Pavia wants the athletes to be aware that their role in this league goes far beyond simply riding a bike as fast as they can.

“The athletes are almost part of the staff,” Pavia says. “We told the athletes, ‘don’t be camera shy; the cameras are here to help you.’”

This is a long term project – the TCL is three years into an eight year contract. That’s enough time to foster long, winding narratives with athletes. It’s enough time to forge rivalries, both on and off the track. And it’s enough time for the public to learn the names and faces hidden behind the helmets and visors.

Moving into the future

WBD are giving track cycling a shot at the big time that the sport has never had before. They’re stripping away the jargon and complexity; they’re putting the sport on a stadium-lit plinth, and they’re spraying it with more money than the sport has seen in years.

Only time will tell whether this multi-million dollar gamble will pay off, but there’s no denying that WBD are giving track cycling their all with the UCI Track Champions League. With their small army of PR and comms people, their new race format, and enhanced rider profiles, there should be little doubt that WBD will move this event into the consciousness of cycling fans.

When can I watch the Track Champions League on GCN+?

All five rounds of the UCI Track Champions League will be broadcast worldwide, live and ad-free on GCN+, with live shows providing additional analysis and interviews from inside the velodrome. The schedule for the 2023 series is as follows:

  • October 21 | Round 1 - Mallorca (Velòdrom Illes Balears)
  • October 28 | Round 2 - Berlin (Berlin Velodrom)
  • November 4 | Round 3 - Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (Velodrome National de St-Quentin-En-Yvelines)
  • November 10 | Round 4 - London (Lee Valley VeloPark)
  • November 11 | Round 5 - London (Lee Valley VeloPark)

Head over to GCN+ now to check the broadcast times in your region so you don't miss a minute of the TCL action. Plus, catch up with all the behind-the-scenes action from the 2022 series with our Back on Track documentary series.

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