It should be the best job in the world to ride the top races and get paid for it. Some of the best bikes in the world are washed and prepped for you, roads get closed for you like a visiting head of state and thousands of fans wait by the road for hours to cheer.
Only too often many teams and riders show the pressure with stern faces and serious press releases. It’s exhausting but still, it’s all meant to be fun right?
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”
The quote gets attributed to many but one way to take the fun out of something is to turn it into a job, a daily obligation. The stress is obvious when big races involve big money and big pressure.
Another reason it’s not as fun as it looks is the mental approach to winning. From a performance perspective it makes sense to reduce the focus on the actual moment of victory and to concentrate on all the steps have to be taken one by one. By contrast if winning is the stuff of dreams then it becomes as remote and perplexing as that dream with the talking penguin paddling a kayak up a river made of gold. But this approach can suck the fun out of it all. Often we see riders win only express emotions of relief and satisfaction rather than joy and surprise when they win a big race.
Basic arithmetic suggests a team won’t win many races a year. Reversed this means even the best squad will lose more races than it wins and most squads come up empty most days. And that’s when there’s a race on. Even the most ardent racer rarely passes 100 days of racing meaning 265 days of non-racing. Winning, podium photos and post-race TV interviews and press conferences are what we see but they’re the exception.
Cycle racing is a rich sport where each race is full of different stories, often a loser can have a better story than the winner. To pick a random example, see the Giro stage to Montecopiolo won by Diego Ulissi. A fine win but the Italian sat tight on the wheels all day to emerge in the final 50 metres. Meanwhile Trek’s Julián Arredondo had been in the break all day and Europcar’s Pierre Rolland attacked on the descent of Monte Carpegna. Both riders didn’t win but their bold moves shaped the stage and provided plenty to talk about. Their effort was great to see and if they “lost”, they still won the day.
One team that understood the idea that you can’t win every day but how you try is as exciting a story was the Cervélo Test Team. Like all squads it would start a race with a plan for the day but unlike others if it didn’t win there would be a video to watch. The “Beyond the Peloton” documentaries remain viewing for the way they promote the team, the sponsors and more. Projects like this allow fans to follow the team all year long and not just get images when the team wins.
Orica-Greenedge’s excellent Back Stage Pass series is the similar. Each video shows the team briefing and other serious moments but the vibe is a bunch of guys having fun. I don’t know about you but watching the videos makes you warm to the team. As a sense check I asked on Twitter “which pro cycling team looks the most fun to ride for” and started counting the replies. After the first team got 100 votes I stopped and tallied up the numbers:
Now before you leap to the comment this poll is about as scientific as superstition. But hey, today’s subject is meant to be about having fun so let’s skip on: the take-home is that Orica-Greenedge’s efforts are connecting with a plenty. Note often people were voting for several teams, pleasingly cycling sees fans rooting for several teams rather than get tribal.
Back in 2010 Team Sky had the idea of erecting a screen around the team bus so that riders could warm-up on static bike. It made sense from a performance standpoint by creating a private space around the riders so they could focus on the warm-up and the technical challenge ahead without distraction. But it was a wall that isolated the riders from the public and broke the convention of teams offering access and visibility. Speaking in late 2010 Dave Brailsford told Pro Cycling’s Daniel Friebe:
“That for us was an obvious logical thing to do – from a rider’s point of view, it created a little haven for them, for them to perform, and off we go. But we weren’t thinking about the fans. We weren’t thinking about being engaging, and I think that’s where we learned lessons really. We want to be open. We want intimacy, to be engaging, inspiring. That’s what we want to do next year.”
Several years later and I’m not sure if they’ve cracked it yet, at least in terms of fan perception. But I’d say Orica-Greenedge and Team Sky are sporting cousin: both can be traced back to national track programmes, they’re predominantly English speaking (and joking) and each spend a disproportionate amount of the budget on coaching. It’s the perception that differs. But different approaches work for different teams, an image of performance and excellence matches Sky’s multinational corporate sponsors.
It’d take too long to rate each team’s efforts and it’s not the point. But for illustration Adam Hansen seems to outdo the Lotto-Belisol communications department, of course the team PR staff are busy writing press releases, arranging interviews and so on but Hansen’s antics – stealing balloons above, riding up Monte Grappa with a beer bottle on his bike – make it all look fun, publicity that Ridley, Campagnolo and others surely crave?
Audience vs audience
Having fun is a serious thing. Social media trivia, backstage videos and more are all for a segment of the audience, the kind of people who follow cycling and have the time and inclination to watch people goofing around on camera. It’s a valuable segment because it’s full of committed cyclists. We see the shiny bikes, the branded clothing and in time make consumer decisions about buying these products. By contrast the wider audience tends to catch a race on TV whether live or just highlights on a news bulletin and they’re not looking out to see who wears what shoes or rides which bike.
All this is a matter of communication and public relations, these team videos are not independently made but produced to show the team in a good light. But so what? If Orica-Greenedge look like a fun team thanks to their Backstage Pass videos then it’s working and best of all you’re watching and it doesn’t feel like an advert, those Scott bikes and Craft jerseys aren’t product placement but instead these sponsors are enabling the fun to happen.
Smile When You’re Winning… and Losing
None of this is a secret. Ad campaigns around the world rely on images of people smiling to sell everything from cars to insurance. Even pet food ads depict contented looking dogs and cats. The hard part is achieving this in a sport where exhaustion is almost guaranteed. Plus it’s not for everyone nor every sponsor, for example the Orica-Greenedge inflatable guitars are fun… but would a bank buy into this?
Some of the bigger teams look so serious and rightly they are, the business of winning is hard work and there are sponsors to satisfy and points to grab. But you can’t win every day and there’s a big variation in how teams try to reach fans to get their stories across and a few don’t seem to try that much beyond the racing.