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Froome & Friends

If you’re a cycling fan, Wednesday 13 December 2017 was a big day. News of Chris Froome’s Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) for the asthma medication Salbutamol tore through the Cycling media. Across Europe, it made mainstream headlines. Disappointed is an understatement. I was gutted.If you’ve read the introduction and despaired, worry not. This is not an impassioned defence of Chris Froome and Team Sky. They have lawyers to do that for them.

This is, in fact, a question that should be on the mind of anyone that calls themselves a sports fan, focused through cycling’s prism of narcotic notoriety:

How on earth do we actually feel about dopers?

Let’s get the big one out of the way first. Innocent until proven guilty. In sport as in court. You cannot be found guilty until it has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt.

What does this mean for Froome? Salbutamol is not a banned substance. It doesn’t require the infamous Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) woven into the Wiggins inquiry. Froome’s AAF is not a guilty verdict. He has the right to explain why twice the permitted concentration was in his system after Stage 18 of the 2017 Vuelta a España.

If proven a physiological anomaly, Froome should be absolved and his Maillot Rojo should stand. If not, a lengthy ban and the loss of his Vuelta title will tarnish what would doubtless have been an imposing legacy.

So where does this leave him? There may be better ways to illustrate an answer to my question than the Froome example.

Cycling will forevermore be haunted by the spectre of doping. It is therefore right to be cynical. However, we should not yet doom Froome to villainy. His guilt has not been proven, though public opinion may have condemned him already.

The contrast with how Sir Mo Farah CBE is perceived is stark. One of the country’s most celebrated athletes, he is also inextricably linked with Alberto Salazar. In May 2017, an employee at Nike’s world-(in)famous Oregon Project made accusations that Dr Jeffrey Brown (a doctor working with Salazar at the time) deliberately falsified medical records before sharing them with the United States Anti-Doping Agency USADA.

The accusations, specifically with regards to performance-boosting quantities of the amino acid L-carnitine, were damning. They’re not too dissimilar to those levelled at Froome. Yet Sir Mo is revered still. He was voted Sports Personality of the Year 2017.

There must be more to it than cycling’s chequered past.

Athletics is far from clean. Icarus, Bryan Fogel and Grigory Rodchenkov’s exposé of the Russian state-sponsored doping programme was nominated for an Academy Award. And Sochi 2014 is fresher in the memory than Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France in 2010.

Froome should be the quintessential British sporting icon. Not for him the celebrated British Cycling Academy pathway. Instead, an incomparable work ethic has taken him from humble beginnings in Kenya to four Tour de France titles. The archetypal underdog, a quietly-spoken and modest demeanour is at odds with a supreme athleticism and competitive ruthlessness.

Many point to his birthplace in the heart of Africa. They point to his residence outside the UK. They say he focuses only on marquee events. They complain he has the strongest team, the latest equipment, the best coaching. All this before the doping allegations.

Is that Froome or Farah? For the above could be said of both.

Yet Farah basks in the reflected glow of public affection afforded by his four Olympic gold medals. Perhaps better than any other he has used his Olympic success to nurture a persona adored by sports fans.

That may be the point. Is Froome’s greatest fault that, despite his mastery of his sport, the Tour de France bears no comparison with the Olympics? Olympic success is like no other, and Farah will forever be associated with the Games.

Have his four medals made Mo emblematic of the Olympic ideals? If so, have then Froome’s four Tour titles made him the embodiment of cycling’s pharmaceutical reputation? Is this why he is vilified as Farah is knighted?

What of those pantomime villains, the proven cheats? This should be easy. Yet, again, it isn’t. Yet, again, cycling and athletics are the two sports that best illustrate the discrepancy.

The same Vuelta at which Froome recorded his AAF was Alberto Contador’s last. Arguably his generation’s greatest Grand Tour rider, El Pistolero retired in style. He won the penultimate stage atop the ferociously steep Alto de l’Angliru. The next day he pedalled into Madrid ahead of the peloton, enjoying a hero’s welcome alone.

A fairy-tale ending for a man who was banned from the sport for two years after testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol (a powerful corticosteroid) at the 2010 Tour. Contador fought the ban, claiming he’d unknowingly eaten a contaminated steak. Whilst it was wild boar for Tyson Fury, for Contador it was beef.

His case ended up in Lausanne, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In 2012 he was given a back-dated two-year ban from the sport and was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles.

In other words, he was proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Remember that?

The double-standard is different this time. In this case, it’s Justin Gatlin that provides the insidious foil to Contador the flawed hero. In fact, Gatlin is possibly the most unpopular man in sport.

He was famously booed during the medal ceremony that saw him crowned 100m World Champion ahead of a retiring Usain Bolt. It’s impossible to argue that this was during small-scale competition either. There is no such thing as small-scale with Bolt in the lane next to you.That was before fresh scandal engulfed Gatlin. He is surely now beyond redemption. An investigation by The Telegraph revealed members of his team, including his coach, offered to supply undercover reporters with performance-enhancing drugs.

So, in answer to my question, how we feel about dopers is simultaneously logical and illogical. Sport is built upon this nebulous passion.

We fickle fans choose our heroes carefully. We select those athletes we think reflect our values and abilities. That’s why it’s possible for some to simultaneously condemn Froome and revere Farah, applaud Contador and boo Gatlin. After all, who would boo themselves?

Transfers – What Can Cycling Learn From Football?

As a long-time professional cycling fan I have always thought that professional cycling teams could and should do much better when announcing new signings. With a lack of well-known personalities who transcend the sport, such as Bradley Wiggins so clearly did, this is never going to reach the heights of last week’s football transfer window; but I think there are still learnings cycling can take from the drama and hype seen in football.You only need to look at the recent announcements of David de La Cruz and Jonathan Castroviejo by Team Sky – the team with the biggest budget in pro cycling and considered to be number one in the world both on and off the bike – to see the low-key nature of previous announcements: a few photos of the rider in their former/current team kit overlaid with their palmares and that’s basically it.

I first realised the reason behind this lack of effort two years ago. For a team with a budget like Team Sky’s, it is in fact first and foremost because of the dates the UCI transfer window opens. The window opens on August 1st every year, although riders are not allowed to officially switch teams before January 1st of the next year, and only then can their new teams start to use them as marketing assets. In the case of David de la Cruz and Jonathan Castroviejo, this means that Team Sky and their partners won’t be able to use the two in any marketing activity before January 1st 2018. To me that that’s absurd.

When you look at football, players are off to their new club as soon as their transfer is completed, which means clubs can make a big noise of their arrival. Take a look at what PSG did for the arrival of Neymar earlier this month: an official photo of him wearing the PSG jersey with his name on it within hours of the announcement by the media, an official presentation at the Parc des Princes in front of a huge crowd (where a few lucky fans and PSG Minis got to celebrate with the man himself), and a huge revamp of the Eiffel Tower under PSG’s colours…

Professional cycling teams should be allowed to do the same. Cycling teams do not benefit from the same budget as football clubs such as PSG, and cycling fans are not expecting their favourite teams to revamp the Eiffel Tower for the signing of a new rider. However, this change is not up to the teams but to the UCI.

A solution to this would be for the UCI to shorten the transfer window to two months, as in football, instead of five months as it is now, and postpone the start to early November. Such a change has the potential to not only make the transfer period far more exciting but also to continue the cycling conversation in the absence of any major races between late October and early March. It would also allow teams to do a lot more around rider announcements, freeing them from contractual constraints, and making the rider transfer conversation the highlight of the off-season.

But moving the transfer window represents quite a significant change for cycling. The UCI cannot and will not amend its rules overnight, and they are certainly not the only ones to blame for the teams’ lack of creativity in announcing new signings. There is a lot teams can do with the current window in place to improve the announcement of new riders; here are three very simple examples:

1. Partner with a graphic designer. It doesn’t require you to have access to the riders and shows creativity and originality. As an example, this year, ASO and the Tour de France partnered with Korean artist Cream Seoul to introduce the general classification contenders and every stage winner. Fun, creative, engaging.

More recently and in football, FC Barcelona’s official partner of play Beko welcomed new signing Ousmane Dembélé with the below visual. Although Beko didn’t benefit from any time with the young French player, this simple design allowed them to quickly react to the new signing on social media.

 

2. Create infographics that tell a bigger and more intimate story about the new rider than just his palmares. Velon teams have access to an ever-growing amount of data that would allow them to tell a different story about their new signings and bring fans closer to their heroes.

A path to follow here would be Team Sky’s, with the series of infographics they created around iconic races two years ago, trying to make their fans understand the scale of the challenge when trying to win a Grand Tour.

3. Tease new signings using several posts over a few hours, revealing one or two facts at a time (mixing performance and personal). That way, teams are starting a conversation with their fans and building up the excitement, instead of rather coldly stating facts. So far, this method has often been used for kit releases or car livery unveils, like the one Ferrari did in Formula One back in February.

Understandably, budgets in professional cycling are still geared towards improving performance, meaning even teams with larger budgets are reluctant to divert budget towards marketing campaigns – as an example, Team Sky are believed to spend 80% of their £25 million budget on performance. Cycling might be a sport famous for performance innovation, but teams cannot continue to ignore their relationship with their fans. If the sport as a whole is committed to attracting and engaging a younger, wider audience, I think they also have to commit to innovating how they communicate major announcements with their fans as well.

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.