Having Fun

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.

The Maths
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.

38 thoughts on “Having Fun”

  1. Lovely piece sir. Adam Hansen does seem to be one of the main protagonists in the ‘having the craic with joe public points competition’. There’s a lot to be admired there

  2. Great Uran photo!

    Hansen generally seems pretty unique in the peloton and I admire him for it.. Especially as his eccentricities seem to pay off with his ability to keep performing at that high level and maintain a sense of humour / perspective.

  3. What time was the poll taken? You could hardly control for it but perhaps it was more Southern Hemisphere friendly.
    Although for all the great marketing greenedge still only have the one naming sponsor and cervelo only lasted a few seasons. Sadly the key to a long lasting team isn’t the love of the public but rather the sugar daddy

    • I voted on it yesterday evening. I’m in the UK and as soon as it came out I thought of OGE. I’m not a specific OGE fan. I’ve not seen the backstage videos, but from the way they celebrate the TTTs and how they always seem to be smiling and getting those wins, I couldn’t think of any other team that had that ‘feel.’ I am sure it helps that the core is Australian. If ever a nation had a stereotype of fierce competitors but out for a laugh it is them.

  4. I can’t say I’m familiar with ‘that dream with the talking penguin…’, and even google couldn’t help me understand this one.

    Also – ‘Smile When You’re Winning…and Losing’. I suspect I’ll be criticised for being picky, but also have no doubt some of your other ‘particular’ readers will pick up on it 🙂

    • The dream idea is that people dream of all sorts of weird things and if you start to think of winning as a dream then it becomes as remote and odd as any other dream might be when in fact you want it to be as ordinary as clipping a shoe in a pedal or brewing a coffee.

  5. It’s a bit hard to judge with the non-English speaking teams like Lotto-Belisol because presumably their primary PR efforts are aimed at the places where their primary sponsors operate. Hansen’s visual antics and the accompanying pictures are a universal language, but his English-language tweets?

    I’d also observe that if the psychologists and sports scientists are sucking all the joy out of the process, they’re doing it wrong. From what I’ve read they often do in practice, but it’s still a mistake.

    • I try to follow all the teams but the anglo-saxon teams have a lead in social media and communications, for example the French were late to Twitter and Lampre-Merida’s online fun is largely Pozzato’s lifestyle… plus their google-translate English press releases which read like those old Japanese instruction manuals 🙂

      InCycle is trying to round up more news from the non-English teams that have signed up to the video project.

  6. Thumbs up for Orica-Greenedge, they are not afraid to make fun of themselves and they genuinely have fun as a team. I have to admit that Mick Jagger, sorry Rigoberto Uran Uran is great fun to watch in interviews. Watching the Processo alla tappa I realized that Ciccio, as they nicknamed him, is a totally different person off the bike.

    P.S. I am also a fan of Adam Hansen (I immediately thought of him when reading the 100 racing days stat) and Ted King

    • Jensie would have won the poll – him alone versus the teams. He is clearly having fun and also getting the token win. Can’t ask for a better promoter of the sport.

    • Voigt is simultaneously what is good and very bad about the sport.

      A shout out to American Continental pro Jeremy Powers who was/is(?) doing video following him around racing and whatnot. The sport needs more elites like J Pow and Tim Johnson to undo all the damage USAC does to the domestic sport.

  7. Great article. Certainly a topic which hasn’t been discussed much.
    People like Hansen and Sagan are necessary for keeping cycling close to the audience. It’s a good thing they’re around.

    However, I think diversity is even more important than smiling riders. The peloton is rich of all sort of people. The greatest thing about cycling is how every cyclist is different and has his own story. You have the guys who clearly have fun, like Sagan, you have guys that give 110% and you see them dying, like Evans, you have the stoic, focused riders like Froome, you have guys like Wiggins, Tom Boonen…. These are all different kind of guys, and they make the peloton so diverse.

    If everyone would be smiling on their bikes, it wouldn’t seem real. It would be like a scary circus.

  8. Can’t help that ‘fun’ chart played at least a small part in the Yates twins ending up at Orica as well…and that coup looks like it’s going to be pay some big dividends. Not to mention getting Mathews back on track…

    • Interesting point, and I recall that Sky were disappointed the Yates brothers slipped through their fingers.

      Orica seem to have been an influence on other teams and the way they present themselves. If you look at OPQS’s YouTube channel you can see lately they’ve been putting up more “fun” stuff rather than just talking about races and techniques, and the recent Sky Vs OGE was probably partially an attempt by Sky to show they’re not the humourless automatons they often seem on the bike.

      • Sky did not offer Adam Yates a contract. Only Simon. Adam was offered a contract by FDJ (he was riding for their feeder team over the previous couple of years).

        Its all worked out well. They’re both flourishing there, and as well as being good for them personally, its also good for British cycling

        • Quite true, Sky didn’t offer a package deal (quite stupid of them, really, unless they know something we don’t). It still does highlight that if you’re a young, talented rider coming out, OGE looks like a more interesting place to set down than Astana for example.

  9. I love how you always find topics to entertain us during non-racing days and how you developed some expertise around the cycling sector! Keep up the outstanding work!

  10. As someone who works in PR, you can try to manage and manipulate communications and image as much as you like, but at the end of the day, nothing compares to something that’s just genuine and authentic.

    Good PR allows those qualities to shine through, which is why the likes of Garmin and Orica come across so well. It’s not just the culture that’s been created by the team, it’s the opportunities they create (such as Backstage Pass) that lets the personality come to the fore.

    Sky I think do a great job of PR where they can, but I think it’s clear their culture isn’t anywhere near as strong as Orica/Garmin etc

  11. Very good and interesting piece. I would, nevertheless, make a difference between fun and pleasure in this case (“pleasure” being a more intimate and personal experience). I’d rather have “pleasure” on the bike, or fancy pro riders having that “pleasure” (which basically derives from overcoming suffering), than some sort of humorous joy, full of smiles and the like. I don’t think it’s appropriate for cycling, which should be more circumspect, or even stern (towards oneself, à la Merckx or Ocaña).

  12. Interesting piece, as usual. For me cycling is fun, even though it’s also our business. BUT we control all of that, even to the point of turning down reservations from folks we don’t think will be fun after a brief interview. The pros don’t get that luxury, they have to perform to earn their keep. During my brief pro moto career I faced that situation – so many have worked so hard to get you there and if you can’t perform up to your expectations (which seemed to always be higher than theirs) it’s way-t0o-easy to become a cranky jerk. I’m amazed at how many pro cyclists avoid falling into this trap, with notable exceptions of course! The guys riding slowly up Zoncolan faced no pressure, as long as they made it up there before the time-cut, their work was done and their Giro was over. Even knowing this their playfullness, with wheelies and high-fives, seemed to me to acknowledge the fans, especially their efforts to get up there to see them race past. Truly a rare thing in sports these days.

  13. and how ’bout Jos van Emden? Loved watching Aru signing an autograph for the boy after the hill TT… perfecto! He gets it…. and they love him for it… The day when the riders and teams become inaccessible to the fans, the sport is dead…. gotta remember who really pays the bills…

  14. As a fan who has only recently immersed themselves in pro-cycling (since 2012) I wasn’t familiar with the Cervelo Test Team. It’s been an absolute pleasure working my way through the ‘Beyond the Peloton’ series, – it feels like a snapshot back in time and it’s amazing to see how much has changed at the top of cycling in just 5 years, especially the careers of Cervelos ‘Star Riders’. That interview with Thor and Haussler before Flanders is just brilliant.

    Another huge thanks to Mr INRNG for bringing it to my attention. By far and away the most informative and enjoyable blog / site on pro-cycling anywhere on the web. Looking forward to clicking that ‘donate’ button.

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