Fighting Talk

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.

35 thoughts on “Fighting Talk”

  1. Yeah, but if you call your own shot and then win you look awesome. I’m all for more smack talk and/or general individuality from the peloton, too much media training dilutes the athletes’ personalities. The reasons people loved and still love Mario Cipollini aren’t just because he won lots of bike races, so did Alessandro Petacchi and many others. Bradley Wiggins is having a bit of a post-racing career at the moment as a media commentator and hasn’t been shy about letting people know what he thinks. Whether or not one agrees with Wiggo, you can’t really imagine Froome will ever be considered quite so valuable as a TV pundit after he retires.

    • Wiggo is good value as a pundit and this very subject was one that cropped up during Eurosport’s analysis.
      I can see some truck in it, but only to a degree.
      It seems to me that cycling has always operated around around the principle of ‘omerta’ and this pervades around all the teams and riders.
      Yates’ comments were, I’m sure, manna from heaven for journalists but it doesn’t seem to sit with the sport’s DNA?

    • I think you will find there are several media outlets who will be very interested in giving the four times (? Maybe even one more) a whirl as a commentator. And if you watch any of his interviews apart from the on -site, he is very articulate.

      • Why has Orange aka France Telecom removed the words ‘of the Tour de France’ from my comment? Surely they can’t have that long an arm……

    • Well, before being removed because of Aderlass investigations, Petacchi was having a decent career as a TV pundit, and was probably the best among many other colleagues of his age having a shot at that. Whereas Cipollini was in court because he had beat his sister and his former partner. Likeable personality!
      Destiny’s jokes apart, I must say I agree with your general point, although we must always remember that the personality we imagine in athletes is always filtered through many mirrors (the peloton itself, the media, expectations, stereotypes…).
      In fact, everybody was pretty much surprised when Petacchi showed he was that good with the mic.

  2. You can’t take everything they completely at face value either. Yesterday Nibs was quoted as saying Landa is the strongest and Carapaz is looking vulnerable. All meant to sow disharmony in Movistar.

  3. Inrng – Totally agree. Cycling’s interviews are painful to listen to and no one in the public would be engaged with any of our athletes… which is why it has a very poor viewership compared to other top sports.

    The only really interesting and athletes that really connect with general public are Sagan and He Who Must Not Be Named. HWMNBN was loved by the fans, and still has many (even media) who are strongly connected to him because he resonated with people – his answers weren’t always the painfully boring comments that most riders talk about.

    Cycling’s direct comparison is F1 which does a much better job of getting emotional responses from it’s athletes. Think about the Youtube videos after each Grands Prix of the racing comment highlights. Cycling needs those sort of in the moment commenting to reach the public somehow…

    • Inrng – I should get 10 points for not mentioning Yates’ stupid comments and then getting destroyed at every ITT and climbing stage… oh whoops..

    • Oh yeah, great interviews by athletes in poorly watched football, original world views and provocative thought all the time.

      By the way, I dunno what F1 interviews you’re speaking about, as I haven’t been watching for years and I can’t remember anything interesting back then… when F1 had a huge audience. OTOH, in recent years (let’s say, the last 5 years or so), F1 viewing figures declined both in Italy and in Spain and are now generally comparable to cycling, sometimes even inferior (especially in Spain).

      I guess it’s more or less pure chance if the sport pulls out some charismatic character or not, which surely help, but you just can’t make one up with Youtube videos. They can be useful, of course, but it doesn’t look like they really make a difference.

      • OK, I just saw that F1 had a great year in Brasil, China and the USA, with a notable increase also in Russia and in India. Not necessarily a great share, but in those countries you don’t need that to hit big figures. Totally eurocentric POV from me. Besides, that’s where you’re going to sell your Ferraris, so it couldn’t be better.

        • Plus, even if F1 is in “decline” for TV ratings, there is no argument in the world to say that F1 is less healthy than cycling in terms of financial strength and ability to gather revenue. The 2 or 3 worst teams in F1 have more aggregate budget than all World Tour teams combined. The top driver’s salary is more than all of Team Sky. Granted there are only 20 drivers, but there are thousands of staff for each team, whereas cycling’s team structure might include 2-3 dozen for a top tier team.

          There are no comparables that indicate cycling is even close to as strong as F1 is and that’s my point. Cycling has to find a way to connect better with fans so that it can compete with the other sports.

          • F1 budget don’t mean the sport is strong. It’s one factor among many others. F1’s got by its own nature a couple of the world’s biggest industry behind it. It’s not about their model, come on!
            A solid sport *also* means solid grassroots, positive social impact, both directly and indirectly, meaningful decade-long narratives, generational heritage, multipe actors (a broad range of actors means more trouble but also positive complexity), and a broad variety of concepts which stay culturally lively (and are valuable as brands, if you want)… Cycling is strong from all these POVs which, all together, mean sort of a inner “biodiversity” which on turn is key for long-term resilience. It’s not just about sheer *tradition* or being *conservative*, quite the other way around: cycling has been able to create successful new races (the whole gravel world) and even new labels (“the Five Monuments”); note that those are newly created formats which refer to *tradition* but don’t actually embody it!

      • Gabriele – For years I stopped watching F1 too, but in recent years it has gotten a lot more interesting…

        Plus, there are a handful of really passionate racers (Lewis, Raikonnen, Vettel, Ricciardo, Verstappen, etc.) that have really interesting comments and in general are much more interesting than cyclists.

        It does make a difference because F1 is making a comeback and cycling is still at a very low watch rate.

        • As always, it depends on what scale you refer to. Cycling is healthy and sustainable, in viewing figures term, that is, it sits where it used to. Financially, it’s richer than before.

          The question should be if you really need to grow more and or indefinitely and what for (and at what price).

          Before developing its current BRIC audience (plus, something from the USA), F1 went through very hard years because it was losing its traditional public and Eastern or Western Indians weren’t liking it yet.
          F1 could endure it also because the other factor you name, that is, the huge quantity of money teams are throwing in, irrespective of its commercial or TV results. Don’t forget that petrol and car industry are massively supporting F1, something which (luckily enough) isn’t true for cycling despite Ineos or Total’s recent involvement.

    • It all depends what you’re looking for. I hated Voldemort and though I wouldn’t go as far as to say I hate Sagan I prefer it when someone else wins. This classics season was enjoyable in that regard! I didn’t like the dark lord because his dominance of the Tour was extremely tedious, extremely dubious and his personality was just as questionable. Sagan comes across as fake to me. He puts on a show for the media and social media in particular and the vast majority of people seem to lap it up but I prefer people to act naturally and not seek attention. Give me Gilbert any day of the week.

      I also used to get up at 2 or 3am to watch live Grand Prix in Japan and Australia. Now I don’t even watch the races that some would regard as unmissable – Monaco, Spa, Monza. I haven’t watched a Grand Prix at all for 3 or 4 years and I haven’t watched a whole season for knocking on 10. F1 changed too much, discarded too much of what it was and became fake (DRS, circuits so wide all the field can drive side by side, softening of previously hard circuits and run off areas 10 times wider than the track). Its not a model I would encourage cycling to follow.

  4. “perhaps it’s comforting that the sport hasn’t resorted to manufacturing scenes and quotes in order to get attention.”

    Really? I guess it depends what you mean by ‘the sport’, but if you’re including the cycling media in that it seems an odd claim. About every 3rd story on Cycling News seems to consist of exactly that.

  5. Yes, the sport does need more personality. Peter Sagan can’t prop up the whole thing by himself. The smart teams like EF Education First encourage their riders to express themselves. It makes new fans, creates engagement, raises the interest level. Froome is a great rider but his quotes are uniformly bland. Many riders seem hesitant to speak their mind but it’s good for the sport!

    • AGREED!
      EF Education First riders are doing a great job on social media, expressing their lives, out of the ordinary. I really like the way they encourage or at least allow their riders in to other cycling disciplines (Dirty Kanza,…Taylor Phinney, Lachlan Morton) add Bahrein Merida rider Ivan Cortina, riding fixed gear criteriums and gravel events, and you have some stories to tell.

      it´s Sagan and M V P that will get all the attention in the next 5-10 years, listening to MVP is going to save us some yawning interviews in the future.

    • let’s hope Froome’s wife get’s her twitter stream up and running when he’s under pressure from Thomas and Bernal this summer – that wasn’t boring last time out!

  6. How about a little more piss and vinegar from YOU Inner Ring? This wasn’t even a luke warm take on cycling beef, it’s toooo sterile, emotionless – can’t you bring some verve to the discussion? A strong opinion, strongly stated?

    • To be fair, I think what is great about this site is amount of balance and reasoning we have in the articles especially around controversial subjects. Inner ring is very measured, where other sites/articles go the click bait route, stirring up comments, jumping to conclusions etc

  7. A nice bresaola is a good snack for what lies ahead.

    Great article. For some reason the age old “beef” coming back to bite you reminded me of the tour stage when Hincapie was “robbed” of yellow by I believe Garmin chasing for no obvious reason.

    Could it be that Astana avoided just such a beef yesterday by putting on a good show of a sprint?

  8. This just in: Coppi and Bartali were actually quite good friends.
    Each sport is different so its athletes (are F1 drivers athletes?*) have a take on their endeavours which is specific to their sport.
    We like road racing – that thing where there are five hours of racing every day for three weeks in a grand tour – so we like the sorts of things the athletes say. But they only say them because the media seem not to be satisfied by letting their performance do the talking. They connive to seem more on the inside and authoritative. The athletes can choose to be bland or they can be outspoken in response, but we all know it’s down to their team orders, fitness and attitude; none of which it’s in their interest to express honestly.
    Just watch the sport. Isn’t all the hours of racing enough entertainment?!
    * Yes they are, but it just sounds odd.

  9. Whenever they have those rider interviews, during the race, on Eurosport it is time for a natural break or to put the kettle on.

  10. I think most interviews/press conference are pretty sterile in sport with same old tripe rolled out.
    As pointed out I think there has been a distinct change in Simon Yates’ interviews as quite frankly they were quite awkward and he gave very blunt short answers without any real emotion.

  11. We live in an age of twitter and soundbytes and everyone wants an interview. Hinault/Millar/Pantani/Ullrich/Indurain etc just wanted to ride a bike. Now, you have to do interviews for everyone. Most of the riders aren’t that interesting in front of a camera.

  12. Primoz Roglic after the Lomardia stage: “I’m bleeding the most here from the face, but it’s not so hard, luckily I don’t’ pedal so much with the face.”
    He always had great quotes, but in his native language, in English he couldn’t express himself appropriately – until now.

  13. I think it takes a very special & mentally type of person to be able to boast a la Yates and make it work and indeed your punters have mentioned a few of them.

    If you are just slightly mentally weak or not in control of your chimp these comments can only serve to harm your challenge which I predicted with Yates at the time.

    Therefore from a completing your challenge point of you I would always recommend to leave it out.

    As far as making the sport more entertaining for us TV munchers that’s someone else’s job let them do theirs and you do yours you have enough to do riding full gas for 3 weeks IMHO

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