Simon Yates is having to eat some of words these days after telling Rouleur magazine that his rivals ought to be “shitting themselves” at the prospect of racing against him. His confidence turned out to be excessive but sport relies on rivalry and entertainment, and cycling could do with some more fighting talk to get the public interested. It’s not easy, especially as bike racing relies on cooperating with your enemy in order to beat them.
This post isn’t about Simon Yates – and try to avoid putting him on trial in the comments below – but a quick reference to him anyway…: yes his words are being handed back to him but he seems to be a lot more confident and expressive in interviews these days, when he’s on TV before or after a race it’s worth listening to and a contrast from the past when privately I’d think of him and his brother Adam as Siri and Adam Yates for their plain and rather robotic responses. It’s not easy to be articulate in front of a microphone, even less so if you’ve just been racing for six hours but riders grow into it. He’s more interesting and engaging and hopefully doesn’t get beaten back.
Cycling needs some interesting quotes and confident phrases. Pre-race press conferences are set-piece moments and the standard quotes (“I don’t know if I can win but I’m ready do to my best”, “the team is strong”, “we just want to get started”) often have the synthetic feel of attributed quotes, the lines written by PR gophers rather than the actual voice of the person concerned. These moments can help fill general newspapers but more specialist media have probably reported on the specifics already, for example whether a niggling injury is on the mend, or how the team plans to divide resources between GC ambitions and sprinting. Instead some trenchant talk and lively lines can make all the difference. This need not be trash talk, nor clickbait, a rider doesn’t even have to mention the competition, it could just be a turn of phrase or something novel. Anything that stands out can be turned into a headline, which in turn can get the public interest. Put simply it’s good for business although perhaps it’s comforting that the sport hasn’t resorted to manufacturing scenes and quotes in order to get attention.
In this Giro we’ve seen Vincenzo Nibali try to stir Primož Roglič with talk about him needing to work more and the comments are mild rather than rude or vicious, but still enough to create a few polemics in the headlines although if this is a “beef”, it’s a slice of bresaola than a sizzling bistecca.
One reason for the lack of tough talk in the cycling media must be race tactics. The peloton is a mini society and rivals live alongside each other and respect each other. In order to win a race it’s impossible to do it on your own, you need the help and cooperation of your rivals. If it’s boxing, tennis or football then your path to victory relies on beating your rivals in direct contests but in a bike race you might be freewheeling alongside your nemesis one day, the next you might need their team’s help to join in a chase. Only if you’ve upset someone, chances are the words are noted in a little ledger and these things can add up. Space in the peloton might be less forthcoming, someone might be unwilling to take a turn on the front and so on. In the past teams have held grudges against other squads, memories can be long, an incident from a windy day in the Vuelta can lead to revenge being served up months and even years later.
Bold talk can backfire but hopefully the episode with Simon Yates doesn’t deter others from making confident claims and expressing themselves. Several teams give riders media training classes over the winter where the aim can be to narrow conversations down for the sake of avoiding controversy but in avoiding risk, interest can go too. There’s no need for trash talk but confidence, self-expression, humour or just something new about a rider’s background or personality can help.