Matt McKerrow, chief executive of Cycling Ireland, tells Brendan O’Brien about the boom in the numbers buying bikes and cycling through the shutdown, along with the road forward now that the government has lifted all remaining restrictions on sport

The CEO series - Matt McKerrow: ‘You hear people who are comparing bikes to toilet roll in terms of supply and demand’
Matt McKerrow: ‘We are seeing a bike boom now in terms of sales and the active piece being championed by government and backed by funding as well. Hopefully, people will continue to see the benefits of cycling long after the pandemic.’ Professional cyclist Imogen Cotter during a training session at her home in Ruan, Clare. Picture: David Fitzgerald

Q: What was the moment you realised that this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

A: Whilst a number of people would point to that week of March 12/13 when the schools were closed and everyone started working from home, the one that resonates with me was the day that the 2k radius was imposed. That to me felt a lot more restrictive. You thought then, ‘hey, they’re really serious here’. Until that point, it still seemed a little bit as though it may come and go quite quickly.

Q: Has anything in your past professional experience been a help in dealing with this?

A: I’ve obviously had plenty of challenges in my career but this one outdoes everything. The big lesson that I would draw upon is to try and be grateful in the face of adversity and look out for the silver linings or the opportunities that come. At no point through this was there a scenario where people couldn’t ride their bikes, even when we were quite constrained by guidelines. We are seeing a bike boom now in terms of sales and the whole active piece being championed by government and backed by funding as well. Hopefully, people will continue to see the benefits of cycling long after the pandemic.

Q: You predicted losses to Cycling Ireland approaching half a million euro and detailed huge drops in membership when we spoke last month. You also said that was the ‘tip of the iceberg’ for the sport at large so how severe is the financial impact looking now?

A: The full implications won’t be known until we get back into a new normal. We have taken a significant hit on membership, on programmes, on event revenue. I guess the corresponding side is that we have been able to tighten the belt on expenditure wherever we can but the losses are still going to run into the hundreds of thousands of euros.

Q: The Government’s €70m rescue package for sport was announced last week. Will Cycling Ireland be looking to apply for some of the €10m set aside for the 78 NGBs aside from the ‘Big Three’?

A: We would be mad not to. We’ll have to wait and see what the criteria is for that and how it is structured but how I understand it is that there is €10m of the €70m for NGBs and aimed at helping us plug the gaps or respond to the challenges. We are going to take on a lot of extra costs in terms of making clubs and programmes and our activities Covid-safe so we would hope that there is some support to help us meet those expenditures.

Q: Sports in New Zealand are still awaiting details of a similar package announced there last month…

A: Yeah, I know that system well having worked down there and the other thing for them is their timing was really good. That’s funding for the next four years so their regular funding cycle was coming up. It is great to look at things over there but I would always caution that you look at the context. You can’t always look at what works in the UK or New Zealand and dump it here. You have to overlay the Irish context. They have very minimal cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand and they have been able to contain it.

Q: The small print in the Irish government’s rescue package talks of funds being available to NGBs ‘in need of assistance to avoid closing’. That looks, on paper, to be a very high threshold so what is your reading of it?

A: I would expect that to avail of that funding you would have to demonstrate some downturn or some impact and so it will be one of two things: a retrospective ‘tell us what it cost you and we will plug the gap’ or it will be a ‘tell us what your plans are to respond to this and to be stronger after this and we will fund that’.

Q: All sport has been given the green light to return. How are Cycling Ireland and the cycling community at large set for this? Will we see a full resumption of activity?

A: There is a roadmap document on our website that largely follows the structure of the government one so it was initially done in five phases. What we are saying is that we are still phasing some activities. So all club activity comes back in phase three but it is quite an undertaking to organise even a small cycling event so it won’t be an immediate ‘turn the taps back on, there’s an event this weekend’. It will probably take a few weeks so it may well be mid- to late-July before some of these events come back onstream.

Q: You have mentioned before that there are an estimated 900 races around the country every year. Is there scope for many of them still going ahead in 2020?

A: To take a bit of guesstimate, we think somewhere between 300 and 350 events will still happen this year. We have stayed in touch with the event organisers and the clubs running the races and each time we get a bit more of an indication.

There might be still a few that pull out or don’t go ahead. We will also have a fairly comprehensive week of protocols and checklists and guidance for clubs and events. There may be some of those projected 300-350 events that don’t happen on the back of that. It might be something as simple as the club normally uses the local GAA club for logistics and the GAA club is not available or it can’t be used for one reason or another. There are still a lot of unknowns with it.

Q: So does all this mean that something like the so-called ‘slipstream effect’ is no longer an issue anymore?

A: We will have guidance documents that go out to the events. The slipstream thing is still there but we haven’t had any guidance from the UCI about that.

In the absence of a peer-reviewed study that states ‘this is the way it goes’ all we will be able to do is offer our advice to people and then it ultimately becomes a personal responsibility piece.

It’s not something we can make a regulation on but we can make people aware of it so they can make their own choice.

Q: How is cycling progressing or not in other jurisdictions right now?

A: Again, it comes back to the context, doesn’t it? There are a number of European countries where their professional teams and their squads are up and going much quicker than we have been able to. We are hoping that our riders won’t get left behind given we still hope to have an Olympics next year.

I was reading an article saying there have been 1.3m bikes sold in the UK since the pandemic. I don’t have a corresponding figure in Ireland but if you go by any of the bike shops, some of them are talking about an eight-fold increase in sales. We did a feature on Ireland AM the other morning with one of our staff demonstrating how you would teach your children to cycle. That had to be delayed by three weeks because we had arranged to give away a few bikes as part of a promotion and the bikes just weren’t available. They had all been sold. You’re hearing people who are comparing bikes to toilet paper in terms of supply and demand. I never thought I’d hear anyone saying bikes are the new toilet paper.

The CEO series - Matt McKerrow: ‘You hear people who are comparing bikes to toilet roll in terms of supply and demand’

Q: Three of the six major marathons have now been cancelled with New York and Berlin scrubbed this week. There are road cycling races cancelled on the UCI calendar as late as November this year. Where are we at in terms of the professional cycling scene?

A: There’s still a lot of unknowns. The World and European Road Championships are still set to take place later in the year. There’s some question marks about that and, regardless of whether they do or not, there are question marks as to whether we can travel or not. There’s not enough information to make solid decisions yet. It is just wait and see.

Q: Prof Paddy Mallon, an expert in infectious diseases, has said that a second wave is “inevitable” as restrictions are eased and foreign travel picks up again. What happens if sport is among any sectors shut down for another period of time?

A: We would all hope that will not be the case. We all responded to the pandemic having never done anything like that before so I guess if we get a second wave we have got some previous learnings and structures that we might lean back on.

Q: What would your message be to your clubs and sport?

A: The message is a resounding thank you to them for engaging in our online activities. You’ve probably seen our Zwift League that had 1,800 people competing. We were blown away by how successful that was and the engagement with it.

I would thank people for their patience and for their adherence to the guidelines, all they’ve done to date and all they will do as we plan to resume all club activities.