Morvélo Battle Royale

This set of images are from a commission documenting the Morvélo Battle Royale. The text is a piece I wrote to run alongside the photos 

A near-derelict covered market, the widest selection of riders and bikes you’re ever likely to find under one roof competing in knock-out heats, plenty of beer from the local brewery and a healthy sense of (mostly respectful) competition... There literally isn’t anything not to like.

Dave from Morvélo emails – “Any chance you fancy taking photos for us at Round Two of Battle Royale? Let us know.”

Having loved everything about Round One I was keen to cover the second and last instalment of this unique take on cycle speedway racing. The concrete oval of Brighton’s disused covered market, now graffiti covered, gradually decaying and with only half a roof, serves as a perfect backdrop for what is as chaotic and joyful a celebration of bikes and racing as you’ll see anywhere. 

Travelling down my cabbie gives his two pence worth – “Bike racing! In the old market? I used to work there. We’d race our forklifts between shifts... Health and safety didn’t exist in those days’… lucky it’s not wet today, that place gets like a skid pan.”

Any bike is allowed so long as it’s road worthy with a brake that works and although I can’t see a Chopper, pretty much the full spectrum of bikes are being made race-ready by an equally varied selection of riders. I spot last year’s winners, ‘Team Pivot-Boompods’ a mountain bike crew clad in sponsor covered Lycra who were decidedly imperious in their victory. They look equally serious this time round, they also look out of place amongst the majority of teams many of who are in fancy dress, padded downhill gear or in skinny jeans and slogan Tees.

The race format is simple enough; Teams of three go head to head in knock-out heats. The first to have all riders over the line after four laps goes on to the next round. The race rules are strictly ‘anything goes’.

Once the racing starts one would be forgiven for thinking Health and Safety still doesn’t exist and I can’t help thinking the disclaimers signed at registration may prove useful. The stiff breeze coming through the dilapidated roof has rendered yesterday’s track sweep a mere gesture and dust collects on the corners and eddies across the track. Back-ends and control get lost almost every race. One racer goes head first into the barriers, lies still long enough for the St John’s support to show interest, but the guy can still count four fingers and the race gets restarted. The cabbie was right... It’s lucky it’s not wet.

A serious looking rider on his way to the start – “If you want to see blood, we’re the team to watch” 

He isn’t blessed with subtlety – but at least he’s honest. Riding the opposition into the barriers is an unconventional tactic, which doesn’t go down well with the race comms, the crowd or the guy on the floor. It seems the limit of ‘anything goes’ has been established and the ‘Raging Rastas’ find themselves DQ’ed to a round of applause. The previous winners are also having a tough time and despite being the fittest and most professional team they fail to recover from a crash and get beaten in the 3rd round. 

A team captain, with a thousand yard stare, on the start line for his semi-final – “It’s fantastic racing! – Great fun – but I’m dead nervous and my legs are shot” 

This says it all. Fancy dress, clever team names and questionable tactics aside this has become serious racing and by the final rounds endurance and superior bike handling start to play their part (not to mentioned the ‘recovery’ ales that have been consumed between races). 

I ask Dave’s business partner Oli what motivates them to run events like this. He tells me they just love trying to devise new ways to celebrate bike riding – Battle Royale certainly fits in with this desire it also reflects their company motto: ‘Ride Everything’. Editing the photos afterwards I put my finger on why this event appeals to me. As a ‘roadie’ I’m all too aware of the different identities that exists within cycling and the in/out pressure of conforming to a set of ‘Rules’. Battle Royale transcends this fickle tribalism by getting all types of rider together to indulge in what they love and for me, as a photographer and rider, that’s its beauty. Sadly it’s over now but I trust that Oli and Dave will think up something equally special to replace it.