A VERY NECESSARY (R)EVOLUTION
Recently I became a fully paid up, lycra-clad member of the cycling community. And it strikes me that there might not be another sport so out of touch with my generation.

Using the sport’s own parlance, cycling is getting dropped. Participation isn’t the problem – British Cycling report a 1.7m increase in regular cyclists since 2008. No, I think there is a more fundamental problem.

There is no emotional investment in the sport. The Brompton bike commuter, Box Hill weekend warrior or Richmond Park Strava guru have no connection to the professional elite.

Let’s address the elephant in the room immediately. I don’t think this is because of cycling’s well-documented history of doping scandals, although the ongoing Jiffy bag saga doesn’t help much.

Perhaps the biggest issue is how the sport is broadcast, particularly the prestigious Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España).

Mainstream sports now accommodate our dwindling attention spans by producing high-quality, high-value highlights, real-time highlights content. Highly watchable, easily shareable and in/on-demand.

Cassandra say that younger audiences are more likely to follow sport via social media (68%) than watch it live on TV (50%).

By contrast, I could watch this year’s Giro D’Italia in one of three ways:
1. Spending up to six hours that I don’t have (I work in an agency for God’s sake) watching the live broadcast on a pay TV channel I don’t have a subscription to (Eurosport)

2. Waiting for 22:00 when I could watch Jonathan Edwards host the hour-long highlights package on Quest (a channel I’d never heard of before)

3. Watching a five-minute highlights package that doesn’t even have commentary on the Cycling Weekly website

Radical innovation isn’t necessary, but cycling needs to at least be brought up to the standards being set. Broadcasters will point to stage-racing as ill-suited for on-demand coverage. Six hours, with the peloton in formation for most of it, is a long time to wait for the excitement of a bunch sprint to the finish.

To be fair to cycling, this isn’t a problem unique to them. The IOC – custodian of the greatest sporting event on the planet – is struggling to reach younger audiences. Golf is suffering the same affliction.

Enter Velon – a collection of World Tour teams including Team Sky that have acknowledged this and reacted with the Hammer Series.
Three race disciplines over three days (the Hammer Climb, Hammer Sprint, and Hammer Chase) have distilled the most exciting elements of the sport into one event. It has the potential to become the next Twenty20.

This simple, short format produced some frantic racing at the inaugural Hammer Sportzone Limburg. Team Sky claimed the victory during the final event, edging out rival Team Sunweb by a matter of metres.

The riders’ suffering on crossing the line is plain. Velon have found a way to give this meaning, sharing rider data (power, cadence, heart rate and speed) across their website, app, and social channels. Onboard GoPro footage should be the crowning glory of the riders’ newfound connection with their fans.But it isn’t. Not for me.The crucial missing ingredient is storytelling. For too long the cycling narrative has been nothing but negative. Lance Armstrong and his infamous US Postal team have done significant damage, but there has been no attempt to recover.

There are stories to be told as well. Mark Cavendish is a former World Champion. He is 4 Tour de France stage wins behind the legendary Eddy Merckx’ total of 34.

We’ll have to wait until next year to see if he goes past it after retiring due to injuries sustained from a crash caused by talismanic World Champion Peter Sagan.

However. His riding style has also courted controversy. He has been accused of brashness, even arrogance ("when journalists at the Tour de France ask me if I am the best sprinter, I answer yes”). He is married to a former glamour model.

He is as charismatic as he is talented. But we don’t hear about any of this.

We have been spoiled by the ongoing success of British Cycling and British cyclists and so their stories have been lost amongst the medals and les maillots jaunes whilst we root for the underdog.

The rise of boxing, in tandem with the rise of Anthony Joshua, is testament to the power of storytelling. What was once a minority sport has been made mainstream by the man that still lives in a council flat with his mum.

It is an interesting idea that a brand could come in and play the role of storyteller; becoming endemic to the sport, creating the missing connection and increasing fans’ emotional investment in the sport and riders.

Crucially, however, it must be the right brand. Values must align and stories must be complementary. Something to cut through the cluster of B2B logos currently plastered across the riders’ kit would be a welcome relief as well.

Don’t waste the Hammer Series. Work with an innovative broadcaster; a partnership with Vice would be a real break with tradition. Peel back the curtain, work with influencers as well as athletes. Bring the reams of data to life and we will take notice.

Velon have a huge role to play in cycling’s millennial makeover. They should be saluted and applauded for the role they have already played. But storytelling is the final, crucial missing ingredient in interesting a notoriously disinterested audience.

Get the stories right and the sport will be rewarded with the attention long denied it. Build it and we will come.

- 1 Comment
  1. Mark Coyle says:

    Good piece and thanks for your encouraging words. Our distribution strategy was focused on maximum reach and engagement and the live streams on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had 2.2 million views. Add in watch again and on demand clips until the end of June and the figure rises to 3.2 million. Very positive for a first event.

    Reply

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