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Follow Me: pro cycling in the era of social media

In-depth
12 Jun 2020
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In a sport where exposure is everything, can a rider’s social media following be as important as their race wins? Cyclist finds out

Words: Felix Lowe

Sam Bewley has been cooking up a storm during the lockdown. Mitchelton-Scott’s New Zealander has also been vacuuming, washing and cleaning – all while dishing out tips in a series of amusing online videos shared on his Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Like most things these days, the idea originated on a group Zoom chat.

‘Bewley got in contact to discuss how the riders recognised the importance of social media during this challenging period,’ says Taryn Kirby, the team's communications director.

‘He wanted to use our reputation of being an open and friendly team to create some individual, light–hearted, content. We supported that, and Bewley's lockdown videos were born.’

Make no mistake, the Kiwi's no Peter Sagan. With a combined 3.5m followers across all platforms, the Slovakian showman is so popular he needs a social media manager to help juggle content.

Sagan’s take on staying safe at home saw 268k followers watch him perform squats on an exercise ball wearing a comedy helmet; meanwhile, just 30-odd kindly souls from Bewley's 11k Twitter followers 'liked' his lasagne cook–along. Still, you have to start somewhere – and it's not too late to join cycling's digital revolution.

Twitter stage updates, Instagram live stories at races, behind-the-scenes footage on YouTube, Facebook Live Q&As… social media has fast become cycling's common currency.

Today, team videographers, photographers, graphic designers and social media managers rub shoulders with masseurs and soigneurs at races.

The blue verification tick rules supreme, hashtags can win you contracts (as they did for Conor Dunne and Larry Warbasse after their #NoGoTour), and the mammoth Strava training ride almost rivals the Dauphiné as the pre-Tour de France psychological skirmish of choice.

‘Social media has changed everything. Before, fans only saw riders in races on TV. Now they know what riders do before, during, and after races – and what they get up to at home. Today, almost nothing is hidden,’ says Florent Poleyn, social media manager at Cofidis, the French team behind a sprawling catalogue of 500-plus rider and staff GIFs  that have amassed more than a billion views.

Bananas, bidons, binoculars, babies – at the click of a button there's an animated comedy image for every occasion (and many for none), including some seriously dodgy stuff with Geoffrey Soupe's beard.

This vast social media machine caters for everyone yet vies for attention in a saturated market where content is king and the right to rule comes from every direction.

Riders have never been so engaged with fans, all while helping their teams to build a community and keep sponsors happy.

But is the sport doing enough to harness the opportunities of what is still a fairly recent phenomenon? Has cycling clocked on to the true value of social media? 

Lockdown paralysis

If cycling without social media is almost unimaginable then the reverse is also applicable. From Zwift's #TourToAll to Instagram live chats and Mitchelton-Scott's #PelotonOnPause podcast, Bewley's been trying to keep busy while stuck at home in Girona.

He's not the only one. In a sport where visibility is everything but all racing is on hold, social media is practically the only means riders and teams can work for the sponsors who keep them alive.

‘Without the performing part we have to find other ways of giving something back,’ says Sven Jonker, Astana's communications manager. On top of everything else, coronavirus has highlighted the importance of having a social media strategy not entirely reliant on race results.

And a strategy that (Rohan Dennis, here’s looking at you) doesn’t include broadcasting a very public breaking of lockdown rules by posting your drive to Instagram…

Just days before this Instagram wobble, Dennis was one of 30 Team Ineos riders battling it out on a Zwift e-Race. Broadcast live across Facebook and YouTube, the event had a reach of 6.1m and 211,000 engagements.

Back at Astana, Davide Martinelli's victory in Zwift's Virtual Giro saw the team stage a podium ceremony during which the homebound Italian was awarded a pink facemask. This blend of humour and exposure is all very well but, as Jonker stresses, there's only so much virtual racing fans can take.

Social media has nevertheless proved the perfect antidote to the scourge of social distancing, with teams forced to think laterally and get creative as they bid to keep fans entertained.

‘We are a content company as well as a cycling team,’ says Mitchelton-Scott’s Kirby, citing owner Gerry Ryan's mantra, ‘“We're in the business of entertainment and our category is sport”.’

Mitchelton-Scott, in their GreenEdge days, were social media trailblazers with their pioneering Backstage Pass videos. Professionally shot and often accompanied by catchy soundtracks, these videos gave fans a unique insight into the team and their personalities.

This was arguably cycling's greatest PR coup in recent years, and has since been the standard to which other teams aspire. Yet, Kirby says, they were almost the victims of their own success.

‘Most teams have now seen the value in producing quality content, particularly video, and the social feeds are now much more saturated. You have to do so much more to stand out because there's so much content on offer these days.’

Rap to TikTok and beyond

Astana are one of the teams now jumping on the bandwagon – although the Kazakh outfit was late to join the party.

‘Astana was really good with the Russian, old-fashioned way of communicating – to show nothing, to say nothing, to ignore everything,’ Jonker says, the Dutchman having been brought in five years ago to help change the mindset and image of the team.

And it’s paying off, under his stewardship Astana has had viral hits as contrasting as Laurens De Vreese's rap and a poignant tribute to the late Michele Scarponi.

Like many teams, Astana is currently exploring the possibilities in the popular video-sharing service, TikTok.

‘It's a much younger group which isn't directly relevant to our sponsors, but who knows, they could develop over age,’ Jonker continues.

Social media is now fully integrated into Astana's business model, the team capable of reporting back to investors each month on the reach generated with their name or logo. From this a media value can be equated and future contracts discussed.

Other teams should wise up to this, according to Xylon van Eyck, the founder of Believ Content Agency and former communications strategist with MTN-Qhubeka and Cervélo Bigla.

‘Teams should absolutely, immediately, start integrating social media in their business as a potential revenue stream and not a cost centre,’ says the South African. ‘This will take investment upfront but can set you up for sustainability.’

Jonker believes more could be done. Astana are looking into selling products direct on Instagram, the fastest growing social platform for cycling, where fans can click on photos of kit and be redirected to an online store.

Plans for a behind-the-scenes documentary are on hold until the 2020 season gets back on track. Should it be made, there are two viable paths: free to view, like Movistar six-part Netflix series The Least Expected Day, or a subscription model.

The former would help the team's sponsors reach a larger audience, the latter could introduce an additional, short-term revenue stream. 

The Dutch Jumbo-Visma team favours the subscription model through exclusive video content produced by independent journalists.

Snippets are fed through their social channels – including the now-legendary George Bennett quip about Chris Froome ‘doing a Landis’ in the 2018 Giro, and directeur sportif Addy Engels being caught short during last year's race.

Perhaps the most stylish proponent of the video content craze are EF Education First, the American team who owe their very existence to an online crowd-funding campaign in 2018.

Through clothing sponsor Rapha, EF produce the dreamy Gone Racing series on YouTube (1.5m views), catering for the pro-racing market and the team's ‘alternative racing calendar’. Pouring resources and energy into non-racing activities is what sets EF apart, thinks Jonker:

‘Everyone has different goals and for our team it's mostly about performing and winning races,’ says the man hired to improve Astana's image. But the main sponsor – the Kazakh government – still deals in prestige, which presents a conundrum.

‘They want us to win races. The first question they ask is not how many views we had on YouTube or how many followers we have on social media, it’s “Why didn't we win the Tour de France?”’

This performance–alone focus was how things used to be seen at Katusha–Alpecin, which until 2017 ran out of Moscow under the auspices of the Russian Global Cycling Project. 

‘It all changed three years ago when Katusha became a Swiss clothing brand,’ explains Philippe Maertens, the team's former communications manager. ‘When you sell sexy race clothing you need more than a victory of Ilnur Zakarin.

In the end the number of “likes” we got was almost as important as the number of victories on the bike,’ says Maertens, resisting the obvious quip about the team not being that popular on social media.

The king of Twitter

Now head of communications and PR at Lotto Soudal, following Israel Cycling Academy's Katusha buyout, Maertens has among his flock a rider with a unique grasp of social media.

Not content with picking up stages in all three Grand Tours and finishing on the podium of the Giro d’Italia, Thomas De Gendt has become the unofficial king of Twitter after being voted the Social Rider of 2019 in one online poll.

In Twitter, the Belgian breakaway artist leads the field with his blend of dry wit and self-depreciating humour. He gets what fans are after – whether that's a photo of his race meals, a wry observation about off-season weight gain or updates from his end-of-season bike-packing jaunts with teammate Tim Wellens (with its catchy hashtag #TheFinalBreakaway).

‘It's nice to be voted most popular rider on Twitter,’ De Gendt says. ‘I just try to be genuine and tweet what's on my mind and react to fans.’

According to Tom Copeland, a strategic sports communications specialist and director of PaceUp Media, De Gendt has successfully managed to use his social media channels to develop his identity:

‘You can work out what he's like to chat to just from looking at his social,’ says the former communications manager at Argos-Shimano. ‘His drive and sense of humour shines through – and that's something a sponsor or brand can relate to.’

Copeland runs social media workshops for riders from a number of WorldTour teams – including Bora–Hansgrohe's Pascal Ackermann – and believes the potential value of mastering the social game cannot be overestimated.

‘By giving fans what they want riders can grow engagement, grow their following, and therefore grow their own worth for a potential new contract or for a media opportunity post racing. You can immediately put a price tag on a million followers in a way you can't do with ten thousand.’

Along with Sagan, who has become a brand in himself, Copeland cites the likes of British duo Mark Cavendish and Alex Dowsett, Colombia's Rigoberto Uran, and De Gendt's former teammate Adam Blythe as riders who have cottoned on to the potential rewards.

By displaying flare and developing a USP in his line of loud shirts, Blythe (seen more in the Eurosport studio than in a Lotto jersey in his last year as a pro in 2019) is clearly toying with punditry.

No longer winning time-trials or breaking the Hour record, Dowsett keeps himself relevant through a line of good humour on Twitter, cat photos on Instagram and a YouTube channel with his partner Chanel.

Cavendish's days as a Tour stage winner may have past, but the Bahrain McLaren sprinter is still prolific across all social platforms, including TikTok. Copeland highlights a lockdown Instagram chat with Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson as Cavendish showing his ability to reach out to fresh audiences too.

As for Uran, the Colombian has over a million followers on both Twitter and Instagram, where he showcases his interests in fashion, dogs and music, while developing his Go Rigo Go brand with its own logo, website and hashtag.

‘It looks like Uran has really clocked on to leveraging his profile, because he's not going to win the Tour or be World Champion anymore,’ says Copeland.

With fewer opportunities for the EF Education First rider to achieve success in the saddle, he's building his own value away from getting results.

Forward thinking

This is a tactic Jonker encourages in Astana's squad. As with Team Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, Astana do not require any of their riders to have social media accounts – unlike Mitchelton-Scott where an online presence has become part of the riders' contractual requirements. Jonker nevertheless urges his riders to make hay while the sun shines.

‘I explain that if they do this now, they will profit from it when they are no longer a professional. They should see it as an investment that will fertilise when they retire.’

Could a strong online presence already be a key bargaining chip in signing a bumper contract? 

‘Management would rather someone who had no social media but wins one or two races a season than someone who is really active but doesn't finish top ten,’ says Jonker, explaining he believes Chris Froome has a combined 2.6m followers on Twitter and Instagram not because he's some kind of social guru but because of his four Tour victories.

Trek Segafredo also focuses on performance over marketability when it comes to recruitment, but Eva Tomé, the team's press secretary, admits that it is not unheard of for ‘agents and even some riders to play the social card in a negotiation’.

When quizzed on the subject by Cyclist, Sports Entertainment Group, an agency whose clients include the Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen and the Belgian classics specialist Sep Vanmarcke, said it was not inconceivable for riders to be hired or fired because of their social media presence.

‘It can happen, but the quality of the rider is still the primary concern for recruitment,’ says SEG's Martijn Berkhout. ‘You can have over one hundred thousand followers but if you don't have the level you can't turn pro.’

Where social media can make the difference is in marginal choices between two riders. Maertens gives the example of former Katusha rider Simon Špilak, who retired last year.

‘He was a good rider who won Suisse and Romandie, but he always refused to talk to the media. If the team has a choice between Špilak and another guy, they take the other guy because he can sell their product.’

It's for this reason that Maertens feels De Gendt will hold the cards when his contract expires this winter.

‘Maybe there will be no races this year but I'm sure Lotto Soudal will be eager to keep him because he's so interesting to the sponsors. We don't need to motivate him to do social media – he likes to do it himself.’

This hasn't been lost on De Gendt. While claiming he uses social media primarily for fun and fan engagement, he admits his spike in followers ‘opens some doors to smaller sponsors and maybe to a career after cycling’.

Widening the social network

The sooner teams start leveraging the popularity and appeal of their individual riders, the sooner they will harness the full potential of what social media offers them.

This is the view of Van Eyck, who says that ‘teams haven't fully realised the collective distribution numbers their athletes bring when you put 30 riders' followings together’.

The former Qhubeka marketing man cites Ineos and their 880,000 Instagram followers – set against the collective following of 2.2m for their three Tour winners: Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal.

As fans typically connect more to a person than a community – especially in a sport where rooting for one team is rare – teams should always be looking to widen their distribution network through their most valuable assets. 

This is a field that motivates Copeland very much. One takeaway from his social media workshops is that many teams' instructions are limited to hashtag or re-tweeting reminders, such that ‘it's often a very last-minute process’.

Copeland says he would relish the opportunity to give structure to an entire team, with a focused campaign centred on organic posts that fit each rider's identity, successfully transforming them into natural brand ambassadors.

For Copeland, Sagan represents the pinnacle of what social media can achieve. The former triple World Champion is heavily used by all of Bora–Hansgrohe's sponsors without it feeling too contrived.

‘He's an anomaly because he's very natural. He'll pick up his phone, do something silly, and it comes off the cuff. It's not always pre-planned and it fits the whole identity he's building.’

Authenticity, and not giving a Puck

An exception to the rule comes in the women's sport, where the visual nature of a platform like Instagram can play into the hands of some stars before they have hit the big time. In three years at Lotto Soudal, Puck Moonen rarely finished races let alone competed for glory. Yet today the Dutch former medical student boasts almost half-a-million followers on Instagram. She was also named FHM's most beautiful sportswomen in the Netherlands in 2017.

Now at the Chevalmeire team, Moonen recently said she still aspires to be World Champion within four years. However, many see the 24-year-old as more influencer than athlete.

Fellow rider Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, a client of Van Eyck's who rides for the CCC Liv team, told Cyclist she was ‘critical’ of the situation.

‘I'm sure Puck is a lovely person, but it does upset and frustrate me to see female athletes who have exploited their sexuality to gain followings,’ says Moolman Pasio, adding she feels her own efforts ‘to add value to the world’ through her profession have been undermined, albeit at the same time she appreciates that Moonen is merely embarking on a ‘different strategy’ in fan engagement.

The five-time South African champion thinks athletes – female athletes in particular – must choose between two paths when attempting to create a personal brand: the path towards popularity or that towards authenticity. ‘I decided early on that I would be real and authentic rather than try to satisfy everyone.’

While Moolman Pasio doesn’t have a ‘crazy number of followers’ she feels she has gained a lot of respect from within the industry.

‘I believe this will open up opportunities to me in the future – maybe in a smaller capacity but in a more lasting way,’ she says, adding that ‘brands are starting to realise the value of authentic engagement from more reliable ambassadors’. 

Authenticity is clearly a buzzword when it comes to social media. Practically all teams approached for this article spoke of the need for their riders to remain true to themselves on social media, with Mitchelton-Scott's Kirby stressing, ‘We believe in individuality and we're not here to make riders into robots. Fans don't want to see forced content, they want to see honesty and authenticity.’

But the precariousness of cycling's business model has been put on the spotlight during this global pandemic. If riders and teams are essentially selling advertising space, the ultimate challenge of social media is to reconcile the desire to entertain and engage with the need to enhance visibility for those who foot the bill.

Coronavirus has made that balancing act a lot harder, with Mitchelton-Scott and Astana among the raft of teams to have slashed salaries, while Polish shoe brand CCC will pull its funding from their men's team at the end of 2020.

‘Post Covid-19 brands will think twice before stepping into cycling,’ says SEG's Berkhout. ‘Being only a good rider will not be enough anymore. You need to be a brand ambassador as well. Under increasing pressure of their partners, teams will need to make choices in recruitment also based on social profile and reach.’

Sam Bewley had better keep on cooking. 

Social movers and shakers

Chris Froome

Twitter: @chrisfroome - 1.5 million followers 
Instagram: @chrisfroome - 1 million followers

Peter Sagan

Twitter: @petosagan - 930k 
Instagram: @petosagan - 1.6m 
Facebook: 1.1m 
YouTube: 65k

Rigoberto Uran

Twitter: @uranrigoberto - 1.3m
Instagram: @rigobertouran - 1m
Facebook: 18k

Thomas De Gendt

Twitter: @degendtthomas - 75k
Instagram: @degendtthomas - 70.5k

Puck Moonen

Twitter: @puckmoonen - 14.5k
Instagram: @puckmoonen - 460k

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio

Twitter: @ashleighcycling - 13.3k
Instagram: @ashleighcycling - 14.3k

Alex Dowsett

Twitter: @alexdowsett - 90k
Instagram: @alexdowsett - 73.1k
YouTube: 29.5k

Sam Bewley

Twitter: @sambewley - 11.1k
Instagram: @sambewley - 6k
YouTube: 178 

Team Ineos

Twitter: @teamineos - 912k
Instagram: @teamineos - 880k
Facebook: 900k
YouTube: 100k

Mitchelton-Scott

Twitter: @mitcheltonscott - 207k
Instragram: @mitchelton_scott - 298k
Facebook: 231k
YouTube: 98.3k

Astana

Twitter: @astanateam - 199k
Instagram: @proteamastana - 291k
Facebook: 363k
YouTube: 20.9k