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The pros (and cons) of social media

Felix Lowe
7 Jan 2019

Media exposure is how teams secure sponsors, so could we see a time when social media following is as valuable as actual race wins?

Something rum happens this winter: Tejay van Garderen joins Education First-Drapac from BMC. That a US rider should join a US team is hardly unusual. It’s also not that team manager Jonathan Vaughters is recruiting a cyclist whose last good three weeks came a good three years ago. It’s that he’s taking a punt on someone with zero social media presence.

Education First-Drapac is a team that owes its continued existence to a Twitter-led crowd-sourcing campaign; a team whose rider Lawson Craddock battled through the Tour with a fractured scapula while asking his followers to help save his local velodrome – raising around $280,000 in the process.

With more characters now available in a single tweet than an entire peloton, having a Yeti-sized digital footprint seems a prerequisite to a career in cycling.

Just ask American Larry Warbasse, whose recent #NoGoTour with Irishman Conor Dunne went viral and won him a contract with Ag2R-La Mondiale.

They lost their jobs when ProContinental team Aqua Blue folded in August, so instead of racing the Tour of Britain they simply rode their bikes through the hills of southern Europe, blogged and tweeted about it, and garnered far more publicity for themselves than if they’d raced around the likes of Newport and Leamington Spa for a week.

The rest of the Aqua Blue team are now scrabbling to upload their CVs to Twitter. Which is why Van Garderen is such an anomaly.

He came off Twitter last year following an online team time-trial-related spat (those are the worst, huh?) with Movistar, meaning Education First-Drapac will have one fewer figure engaging with fans and promoting sponsors on a global scale.

Of course, simply being on Twitter doesn’t guarantee a steady stream of positive coverage.

Pros – who, let’s remember, are tired, bored and hungry a lot of the time – are just as likely to attract bad publicity as good when they take to social media.

Remember Fabio Aru threatening Greg Henderson with a lawsuit after the latter ranted about the former’s bio passport? Or André Greipel eating humble pie after accusing Arnaud Démare of cheating?

What of George Bennett’s memorable aside that Chris Froome had ‘done a Landis’, forcing his team to double down? Or those expletive-laden rants from Oleg Tinkov?

It’s a sign of the times, though, that Phil Gaimon can achieve more fame breaking Strava records in retirement while accusing Fabian Cancellara of motor-doping on Twitter than he did in his stint as a pro.

Meanwhile, a single Facebook post by Peter Sagan wearing a pair of motorcross goggles is supposedly worth £33,000 to his sponsors.

To what end are we hurtling towards, eyes fixed at the screen? Will riders out of contract feel compelled to put themselves in the shop window with a catchy hashtag?

Will job interviews be conducted via TrainerRoad while Stacy from HR tallies up ‘likes’ and agents remind their clients that ‘Strava or it didn’t happen’? Will wildcard teams be decided by an online poll?

I’m exaggerating, of course: we’re still a way off Black Mirror On Wheels, even if the proliferation of on-board cameras means that everyone and his (big) brother is watching.

And despite the inescapable role of marketing in sport, even riders without a digital presence such as Tejay should be worth backing if they’re good enough, with their education first being actual riding rather than social media training.

Of course, some are lucky enough to be gifted in both domains. Take breakaway king Thomas De Gendt. Before riding home to Belgium from Il Lombardia with teammate Tim Wellens on their #TimTomTour, he garnered a thousand ‘likes’ for posting: ‘The only purpose of this tweet is to waste your time.’

There’s no doubting Thomas, eh?

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