Interview: Chris Roberts - race organiser extraordinaire
Steve 'the butcher' fires some questions at one of the UK's finest race organisers; Chris Roberts...
Being a race organiser is often a pretty thankless task, but it kind of goes without saying that we'd be screwed without guys like Chris Roberts. Over the years Chris has put on countless races, in all kinds of disciplines, and with his down to earth 'Mini' races he's encouraged many riders to dip their toes into the world of racing for the first time. Anyway, we thought it was about time we gave Chris a bit more recognition so Steve 'the butcher' sat him down to pick his brains...
Chris Roberts (four men rolled into ONE)
Chris Roberts is a good friend of mine (even though he never pays for his Christmas turkey). Saying that I haven’t a clue what he does for a living, what his hobbies are, how old he is or whether he likes to wear women’s underwear. What I do know is he is truly passionate about the most underrated and forgotten (well by the idiots at the U.C.I) mountain bike racing discipline on this here narrow-minded planet. Yeah, you guessed it 4X. So, here goes, let’s find out about ‘biga’ Chris, why he keeps supporting and promoting a sport that is on the decline, his involvement with the new mountain bike craze of ‘gravity enduro’ and what size bra he needs...
Butch: Yo ‘biga’ how’s things? Let’s pretend you’re in a court of law. You’ve just taken an oath on the Ann Summers winter bra collection catalogue, so I want the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Agreed?
Chris: Errrrr, I don’t know...
You have been a race or organiser for years now, but you mainly run 4X races, how come?
I do all sorts of races all over the place but the major part is 4X racing, it’s got a mix of everything and always good fun. I’ve met so many amazing people around the world and I really enjoy it.
What did you think when the UCI pulled 4X from the World Cup race calendar?
Really? Bit pissed to be honest but then REALLY!!! No way, so they are going to hand us our own World Series, what for free? Well thank you very much UCI.
Do you think that’s why high profile racers like Jared Graves chose to leave their specialist sport behind?
No. I think Jared is different to most racers. He has goals he wants to achieve. Jared was at the top of 4X for years. Perhaps he just needed a new challenge?
You once told me that the marketing men who were largely behind the sponsorship of the World Cups would have preferred 4X to have been the ‘blue ribbon’ event over DH. So what happened?
Without a doubt, 4X is a perfect ‘made for television’ sport. They (major sponsors) could see that. Fingers crossed it will be back on your Tv soon.
Is there any sign that the UCI will ever re-introduce 4X racing onto the World Cup race circuit?
Not a chance. It’s all about XCE now. That’s where the trade teams are and it’s in the 2016 Olympics. The UCI are happy.
You’re heavily involved with the Euro 4X rounds and ‘Pro Tour’ with little to no media exposure. Have you anything to say to the powers that be (media wise)?
Really? Look at Pinkbike, it’s biggest mountain bike website in the World. They wanted 4X so much they did videos of the whole 4X Pro Tour last year. I think we get great media exposure. There are the old dinosaurs who harp back to the good old days of Dual and even duel and whatever else they try to hang onto to keep them thinking they are still young kids, but on a global scale, world-wide, there’s lots of media coverage.
When Scott (Chris’ son) got badly injured at last year’s national champs did you ever consider jacking it all in?
There are real highs and real lows and there was some soul searching going on, but the show must go on as they say, just look across the world there a quite a few people watching what we are doing with 4X and it’s certainly not the time to walk away from the sport, there is so much more to come.
With the sudden upsurge in UK BMX racing, a lot of people who used to race both disciplines now only race BMX only. Why do you think this is?
I don’t know. I have seen a major up-turn of BMX riders coming to race 4X and this year even more are coming to give it a go. The important thing is I really don’t care if they are BMX riders, DH riders, XC riders, Moto X riders or straddle a bloody lama. All I care about is they have a good time racing 4X. Last year we had a new girl start racing. She was racing Junior at DH, I think she won a national or something, but she tried it and loved it so much she travels from Scotland to race! Now that’s commitment and real love of a sport!
Do you think it’s anything to do with the cost of race entries (a BMX regional is under a tenner, a four-cross national is nearly thirty quid). Why the massive price difference?
Why compare a regional BMX against a national? A BMX national is more expensive than a 4X national which is £25. It’s got to be the cheapest national race series out there?
Where do you see 4X racing being at, in say 5 years?
Inside the 02 Arena, playing to a stadium full of people!
Last year I competed in the Pearce enduro race. No bullshit, I don’t know fuck all about enduro racing, the ridiculously expensive entry fees or the overpriced (in my opinion) carbon bikes that most people were on (including me). As a race organiser, do you think that this is the future of mountain bike racing?
Yeah I think everyone in the industry is knocking one over Enduro, it’s just another dimension to racing bikes and it is always good to get people on bikes. The cost of races, well you can thank all that no win no fee solicitors that have screwed the whole country up and tied everyone up in red tape. You have to understand that with a gravity type enduro every stage is a downhill race, so the more stages the more cost. Yeah there are ways to cut costs but what’s the point and who wants to do that, every race you do you want it to be the best and you are not going to do that cutting costs.
You are doing the timing for this year’s gravity enduro national series. Given the massive problems that Steve (Parr) has encountered in the past, is there a lot of pressure on you to ‘get it right’?
Yes Steve came to me and said “could we time his enduro’s like to we do our DH races"? Steve has raced a few 661 Mini DH races and knows we can deliver the results. There is a little bit of pressure to deliver five stages live, all at the same time, but it is nothing we cannot do. We have made a major investment in extra new timing equipment and I love a bit of extra tech to play with.
I really enjoyed the ‘one day’ Pearce enduro, in particular the fact that the stages were so long. A lot of riders at that event (who’d raced the UK based series throughout the year) said “that’s how the stages should be and that the national series stages were to short". What do you think?
It’s the UK. We don’t have mountains, only hills, so stage length is dictated by the location. This is still a new sport and will take time develop, but the really good thing ‘Enduro racing’ has going for it, is there are no restrictions to what is possible and where it can go like ‘downhill racing’ which only really has handful of ‘proper’ tracks that we have been using since Dave Morgan was around organising races.
From a riders point of view the Enduro was great and physically demanding, with lots of bike time. However if you were a spectator it was like pulling teeth and there was zero atmosphere on the hill, the opposite to watching a 4X race. Have you ever been to watch an enduro? What did you think?
Yes I have been to two and you’re correct, Enduro is not a spectator sport, but then no one said it is. It’s more about taking part, where as with 4X the spectators can have as much fun as the riders. Just take a look how much fun the spectators have at Fort William, it has got to be one of the best 4X races in the world!
How can you race organisers overcome the ‘watching paint dry’ syndrome of enduro racing?
The Italians seem to do a good job. On Saturday night with the pro log around the streets and big screen etc, but in my opinion it’s not what Enduro should be about. Enduro racing is about the riding and time on your bike. We should leave the ‘razzmatazz’ to exciting sports, where the spectators feel as though they are part of the action.
You used to run the Carsws dh events. What happened?
Ran out of riders. We did not get enough riders to cover the costs, so that was that.
Is DH racing on the decline?
There are few riders around and this is down to the UK economy. In years gone by riders would do all sorts of DH races, travel all over the country to do them. Now they cannot afford it and uplift days are to blame for some of it. In the past to get an uplift you had to do a race, there were not that many places where you could go and just do an up-lift. Now they are everywhere, every weekend and you get more time riding your bike just doing an up-lift day in comparison to a race, so why race?
High-end DH bikes are crazy expensive now. Given the cost of the DH bikes and for the small amount of time that riders are actually riding them on race day, why don’t people just come 4X’ing?
Beats me! You can buy a pro spec 4X bike from as little as £1500 and it really will do anything. The social side of 4X is so chilled, just go to Redhill on a weekend or a Wednesday night in the summer, no attitudes, nobody thinks the sport owes them a living, just guys & girls having fun on bikes. The skill level is just amazing and the flow some of these guys have on a bike it just a pleasure to watch.
I’ve known you for years now. What is it you actually do for a ‘proper job’?
Yeah people keep asking me that a lot. I do have full time job, but it is all about pushing the boundaries for racing! My boss is pretty chilled about it. He even apologizes now when he calls me up and asks if I’m working first before he asks me anything work related! Funny thing is now I have pushed it that far that now I don’t tell anyone when I’m on holiday, just when I’m coming to work!
Can I blag a lift to one of the Euro 4X rounds (if I cook, clean, and bring a joke book)?
Yes of course. We often take a mini bus full of 4X riders.
You’re hardly ever at home (with your busy race schedule). Mrs. Roberts seems pretty laid back about it all? But does she bust your balls behind closed doors?
No she loves it. The house is always tidy when we are not there!
Are you ever going to retire from the race scene, and if you do would you be interested in swapping the 4X gate (complete system though), in exchange for some chicken breast?
I’ll swap it for some real breasts! No plans to retire, I’m what’s known as a ‘lifer’!