Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Increasingly driven by the quest for page views and cluttered with clickbait, the cycling media, its fans and the sport deserve better
This is the first time I’ve not worked on the Tour de France for a good few years, so long in fact that I can’t actually remember the last occasion that I didn’t spend at least a day or two on the race. Like a racer who’s been passed over for selection, I’m telling myself that I’m planning a comeback later in the season, ideally at the Vuelta a España, although the reality is that budget cuts at just about all of the main publishing groups that cover the sport mean that this possibility is highly unlikely.
The current economic crisis within cycling, which has affected every part of the industry, has been coming for a while, and has prompted me to explore new editorial ventures and means of financial support. La Course en Tête was one of these. While the website hasn’t yet turned into a goldmine, it has achieved what its founders and contributors were hoping for, by keeping us in the shop window and, above all, allowing us to write about issues that were important to us but were increasingly being overlooked by the big media players in cycling. I should add that it also enabled us to engage with bike fans who felt some of that same frustration of content being driven by the size of the audience it reached rather than by the importance or significance of the story.
More recently, my desire to have more control over the content I cover and, if at all possible, my income led me to start the RadioCycling podcast with my colleagues Jeremy Whittle and Chris Marshall-Bell. With absolutely vital backing from our sponsors, Sigma Sports initially and, during the Tour and Tour de France Femmes, Saddle Skedaddle, we’re chasing and reporting on stories that are often overlooked or ignored elsewhere, essentially because they can’t be guaranteed to attract page views and are, therefore, almost completely off the radar of the big cycling websites.
Since RadioCycling’s launch a couple of days before the Giro d’Italia, we’ve broken a good number of stories. These have included the WorldTour rider backed by the Russian army, the long-term plans to extend the Vuelta a España Femenina to a two-week race, the UCI president’s desire to move Liège-Bastogne-Liège from its traditional spring date to the autumn, and the funding crisis that has resulted in British Cycling’s investment in the road stars of the future being drastically cut.
Following the Giro, we also did a special edition of the podcast that examined the effect that the war in Ukraine is having on cycling there. It focused on one of the country’s leading coaches, Oleksandr Kulyk, who was killed six days into the conflict, and his son, Andriy, Ukraine’s national road race champion in 2019.
Andriy Kulyk gave us an extremely moving account of his father’s life as a coach to Olympic champions and his death under a Russian artillery barrage. It was a tale of devastation wrought, but of hope maintained, and also of a desire for the rest of the world to maintain its focus on Ukraine and its people.
Sadly, it’s the kind of story that’s likely to be told by a diminishing number of outlets, and our own statistics for the podcast underlined why. It proved to be the least popular of RadioCycling’s episodes during recent weeks, with our audience down by a third or more. However, rather than regarding these figures as a reason not to travel down the same path again, we view it instead from the opposite point of view. We could see that a large number of bike fans did listen to it – most of them from start to end, such is the statistical detail that’s available to podcasters – and their feedback indicated that they would like to hear more content in a similar mould.
Discussing and producing content for RadioCycling has frequently reminded me of my early days within the professional cycling scene, when I was working as a reporter for Cycling Weekly. At that point in the early/mid-1990s, the internet was unknown to almost everyone and the Comic, as it’s widely known, was the only source of cycling news for most fans. This allowed its staff a good deal of editorial freedom. Obviously, the magazine needed a strong front cover and headlines to boost sales as much as possible, but it also featured much more obscure content and its writers the time to chase this down.
In recent years, however, it’s plain that this breadth of coverage has been diluted, that the focus has switched to clickbait and, dispiritingly, recycling press releases. Almost every time I’m commissioned to report on a bike race these days, I’m instructed to concentrate my editorial output on a handful of teams and riders, those who are guaranteed to generate page views. This essentially means that the audience is deciding what content should be produced, rather than well-informed editorial staff who have an inkling of the stories that are out there. This may suit some fans and undoubtedly plays well with company executives and their shareholders, but it doesn’t necessarily serve the audience or the sport.
My sense has been that fans read La Course en Tête because they do want something different, content that will provoke, question, inform, provide perspective. RadioCycling’s goal is to do the same, and we’re sure that we can achieve this because there are so many fascinating and important stories in this sport that are ripe for telling, while there’s also an audience that’s eager to hear them. Both outlets will be focusing on continuing along this path for the month ahead, the most engrossing of the season.
Tomorrow [Saturday], we’ll all be turning our attention to the Tour, but in the meantime I’d urge you to spend 17 minutes or so listening to the Kulyks’ story. Through the prism of cycling, it offers a timely reminder of the horrific situation Ukraine is in, of the suffering and the resilience of its people, and of the fact that we should maintain our focus on their quest for freedom.