THE Challenge Henley triathlon is moving to Weymouth. Race organisers Just Racing UK confirmed the new location on Wednesday, just days after announcing that the iron-distance event would be moving.
The decision was largely welcomed by residents, councillors, businesses and other organisations that have been critical of the event’s organisation.
Challenge has been held in Henley and the surrounding area on a Sunday in September for the past three years but has been dogged by controversy over the need for 12-hour road closures and rows with councillors over the disruption it causes compared with the economic benefit it brings.
Race director Alan Rose said he was “extremely proud” to have developed the event in Henley but the decision to move felt right due to the amount of opposition.
He said: “It is no secret that we had a difficult time in Henley and that various aspects of the community were very keen for us to not to be there. We really enjoyed putting the race on in Henley and we still think the area is fantastic.
“Obviously when we set up the event we saw it as a longer- term project than three years so we’ll definitely miss being in Henley because emotionally we do feel attached to the town.”
Just Racing UK has signed a three-year contract with the Dorset seaside town and Mr Rose said: “It was very refreshing talking to a local authority and community that were supportive.”
Henley MP John Howell said: “I am very sad that the triathlon is moving but it is inevitable given the disregard they [Just Racing UK] have shown for the people in the area.”
He chaired a liaision committee designed to bring the race organisers and parish councils together and minimise the disruption but the company refused to send a representative to any of the meetings.
Mr Howell said: “I think it is typical of their attitude that they either get what they want or they go elsewhere. They could have got what they wanted here if they spent some time with the parish councils who were affected by the event.”
Henley Mayor Stefan Gawrysiak said: “I think that the move is the right decision and it is very good that it is in the past and we can move forward.
“It is a shame that Alan Rose did not feel able to actually strike up a conversation with the parishioners of Henley and the surrounding villages.
“He has not turned up to any meetings for the last two years and all we wanted was a conversation with him to see if we could come up with a way of improving this event.
“I wish Just Racing well in Weymouth and I just hope that they communicate better with the councillors there.”
Cllr Gawrysiak said he doubted that businesses in Henley had benefited from the event and said Mr Rose had broken a pledge to pay for an economic impact assessment.
Liz Longley,who chairs Swyncombe Parish Council, said the move gave her a sense of “great relief”.
“It shows that all the parish councils working together has made a difference,” she said.
“I think it is sad that it all had to go so badly wrong and that it wasn’t a more positive thing but Just Racing just weren’t willing to come to the table with us.”
Cllr Longley was annoyed by comments on social networking sites accusing residents in this area of being “Nimbys”.
“Some people seem to be very aggravated by the way we have behaved but I think Just Racing actually has a lot to answer for,” she added.
Barbara Lewis, who chairs Nettlebed Parish Council, said she too was “relieved”.
She said: “It had become increasingly difficult over the three years and it seems like we had reached a stalemate.
“There seemed no way of addressing the problem because Just Racing refused to turn up to the meetings we had invited them to and you can’t have a discussion if they are not there.
“I think for the sake of our communities and the way things had been going it had become absolutely unacceptable.”
Watlington parish councilllor Robert Barber said: “Ever since the first race it has been a battle to try to get them [Just Racing] to understand and address the problems they have created and, for the last year, they have effectively refused to communicate with the communities at whose expense they are making their living.
“I am very sad that Just Racing’s failure to engage with the host communities has created such bad feeling and hostility when, if they had entered into constructive dialogue, the event might have enjoyed widespread support.”
David Hammond, chairman of chairman of Peppard Parish Council, said: “My view is that the move is probably to Henley’s advantage given the difficulties there have been over the three years.
“Having said that, I think Henley should continue to try to attract high-quality sporting events.
“I think it is unfortunate that there was so much divisiveness but actually if Just Racing had sat down and had a meaningful conversation with those affected, solutions might have been found.”
Kate Hill, who chairs Nuffield Parish Council, said: “A lot of businesses have lost out and that is not a good thing. I don’t think many people will be crying about it.”
Henley town and county councillor David Nimmo Smith said it was a shame that a workable solution could not be found.
“At the recent wash-up meeting, the attendees were supportive of the principle of a triathlon, as I have always been,” he said.
“However, it was also clear that the criticism was against the Just Racing attitude, their lack of proper consultation with the county council and residents and their lack of a workable event day plan for dealing with the legitimate demands of those who lived on and immediately adjacent to the cycle route.”
Town councillor Lorraine Hillier, who owns the Hot Gossip coffee house in Friday Street, said: “Anything that puts Henley on the map is not a bad thing and I just think it is a shame because it could have sorted itself out.”
“It is sad that the organisers had this preconception that there was this antagonism aimed at them but really it was just born out of frustration.”
Maidensgrove resident Arthur Weir, who investigated the triathlon’s legal basis, said: “The number of people who have cheered at its disappearance is astounding.
“It is a shame that it was set up in the way it was because if done properly, it could have succeeded.”
Ann Hood, who owns Greys Green Golf Course, welcomed the event’s departure, saying: “All I can say is that it’s brilliant.”
Jane Greenhaf, general manager of National Trust properties Greys Court and Nuffield Place, said: “We were never against the idea of a triathlon event in Henley, but there is no doubt that poor organisation on the day contributed to the impact it had on our visitors, whose business and support we depend on for upkeep.”
Neil Ainsworth, landlord of The Argyll, said: “I am happy it has gone because it can’t have been that popular with the amount of negative feedback I got from local people.”
Doug Green, landlord of the Little Angel in Henley, the Cherry Tree in Stoke Row and the Unicorn in Kingwood Common, said business would be better without the event.
Mr Green said: “I have always been a massive supporter of bringing people into Henley but what I find incredible is that a profit-making organisation is able to make money at the expense of local people.”
Tracey and Daniel Taverner, who run the Five Horseshoes in Maidensgrove, tried to seek compensation from Just Racing UK and Oxfordshire County Council for loss of takings totalling thousands of pounds each year.
Mrs Taverner said: “We are very pleased that we are not going to be affected again. It does seem a big shame that it couldn’t have have carried on in Henley without affecting businesses and residents.”
TV presenter and former Olympic skier Graham Bell, who completed the iron-distance triathlon last year, said Just Racing’s decision was a “massive shame”.
Bell, who lives in New Street, Henley, said: “Through the politics and Nimbyism of the town council we have managed to lose such a great event.
“I’ll definitely continue to do triathlons and I’ll go and spend my money elsewhere, as a lot of other people will do.”
Councillor Ian Bruce, tourism and culture spokesman on Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, said he looked forward to working with Just Racing UK.
He added: “The date is perfect for our aim to extend our festivals and events season and will provide a boost to the local economy as well as a fantastic viewing opportunity for locals and visitors.”