Let me guess, you are reading this hoping to escape the tyranny of the digital world: the incessant ping of your mobile phone, the umpteenth Instagram photograph of a sunset, those videos of skateboarding dogs on Facebook that somehow seem to consume half an evening.
Well, it’s hard to avoid. Within a decade, the world has experienced a social media revolution. Social media curates both news and views for us and creates headlines in its own right. Social media can be dynamic – it helped to kickstart the Arab Spring – or merely a distraction. Social media is just one more enticement to stare in zombie-like stupor at a screen. (Congratulations if you’ve steered clear of all this: you are either eminently sensible or have been living under a rock.)
Everything is short – there are more characters in a Grand Tour bunch than the 140 allowed on Twitter – and designed to evoke a reaction. Love it or hate it, laugh or cry, but make sure you comment or retweet it. Oh, for the days when going viral meant a few days in quarantine and a dose of antibiotics.
Social media has infiltrated professional cycling too. According to the Velofacts website, 88 per cent of the WorldTour peloton have Twitter accounts. “After you’re done with a race, everybody is on their phones,” one top racer tells me. The bird is the word: on two wheels, Twitter’s influence soars above that of Facebook and Instagram.
Its intoxicating mix of breaking news and opinions, ranging from friends, strangers, provocateurs and pro cycling figures, is the key attraction. On a good day, Twitter teems with useful tidbits, thoughtful comment and witty conversation. On a bad one, it descends into what feels like an endless shouting match in a pub, where the only drinks on tap – kneejerk opinion, misinformation and hysteria – are flowing freely and there are no bouncers on the door to eject the abusive. Either way, it’s addictive.
When I ask Movistar rider Alex Dowsett whether he knows of any pro cyclists hooked on social media, he says that he used to be one. “I’d go for a family meal and would sit there on my phone. It took me a while to shake it. I’d have to leave it in the car or another room so that I couldn’t physically look at it,” Dowsett, who has 79,000 Twitter followers, says. “It becomes a mindless thing. I’ll catch myself, like ‘what are you doing? You’ve looked at this all once already, nothing’s happened in the last 50 seconds that means you need to check Twitter again.’ It’s amazing how consuming it can be.”
Social media can even affect his training. He uses the example of a long December session: “Now, you can’t just go [to yourself] ‘I’m proud of that five-hour ride at 20mph.’ That ride has to be on Strava because then people can like it and tell you it was really good. Then you’ve got to put it on Instagram and Twitter to show you’re going well because you did some mad numbers for five minutes.
“I follow a bunch of pro bike riders and a bunch follows me … if they are like me, they’d be like ‘Dowsett’s doing efforts, maybe I should be doing more efforts.’ I get drawn into a sense of insecurity that I’m not doing enough.
“Not many people put up their bad days,” he adds. “If you do, you’re accused of being negative. You’ve got to have this positive frame of mind all the time [on social media], which I don’t think anyone actually has. Nobody knows if Chris Froome wakes up one morning and goes ‘I don’t feel like training today. I’ll train really hard tomorrow, but today is just not happening.’ I think it’s important to make it real. Because there’s an element of pro cycling on social media that isn’t quite real … no one puts the shit days up. But the shit days make it real.”
Though the 28-year-old checks Twitter a couple of times a day, he has scaled back his use. “I think as you get older, your priorities change. My sister got engaged recently and you realise how important that sort of stuff is, not what people on Twitter think of you.”
The same goes for Taylor Phinney (145,000 followers). After joining at the dawn of the Twitter boom in October 2008, on the advice of fellow early adopter Lance Armstrong, the young talent was a prolific and popular user for several years: no surprise given his outgoing personality. But he has since regressed.
“Over the last year, I have really been trying to minimise my use of social media,” the quirky American says. “I’ve come back to it in a way where I put out information that is as unfiltered and close to who I am as possible.”
That’s a casquette tip to social media’s innate dishonesty: words and images are calculated, sometimes spinning falsehoods or giving an exaggerated version of a user’s life. “The inherent problem with social media is that it doesn’t leave any more than a superficial imprint on your psyche,” Phinney adds. “I’ve been reading a lot. It helps me retain my sanity. There’s a lot of studies coming out linking social media to depression and high levels of anxiety … I don’t feel the need to exacerbate that too much.”
Alongside Phinney and Dowsett in the 18-29 age category – both the largest demographic of worldwide social media users and the WorldTour peloton – BMC rider Tejay van Garderen shares their sense of wariness.
He has deleted his Twitter accounts twice over the years, first in 2011, principally because he felt he was spending too much time on his phone. Van Garderen returned in mid-2013, he says, on the suggestion of his agent. “I understand some of it can be business strategy, you have to engage with the fans and promote your sponsors,” he says. “But a lot of it really is just a big ego trip. How many comments can I get, how many likes can I get, how many followers can I get? Then you start spewing out a bunch of crap just because you like that, the gratification of the feedback, from strangers who mean nothing to you.
“It also gives people direct access to you, a window into your life,” he says. And that window is never shut. “They can just write nasty comments.”
A browse on Chris Froome’s account during the Tour de France reveals comments ranging from ‘cheat’, ‘becoming more like Lance everyday’ and ‘you are destroying the TDF with your drugs’, to the more creative ‘please get ill or something so it’s not as boring as the rest of the times you have won.’ Eddy Merckx would never have heard the end of it had social media existed in his day.
Social media has become renowned for these vitriolic keyboard warriors. Any professional cyclist with a sizeable following has experienced anti-social media. “Unfortunately, the offensive messages are the ones you remember and focus on,” Alex Dowsett says. “It’s a shame that people are like that. You’re told not to respond – you can’t win … I get one bad comment every so often and it hurts. You get over it, but it can sure as hell ruin your day.
“There are a lot of people that support you, 99 per cent more love than there is hate. It’s very easy to lose sight of that.”
Social media has also altered how professional cyclists interact with one another. “You’ll catch one team where six of their eight guys have their phone out over dinner. We have to socially control each other’s use,” Orica-Scott’s Mat Hayman says.
The 39-year-old turned pro in 2000 with Rabobank and remembers the innocent days of writing letters home to Australia or playing cards with team-mates.
Hayman acknowledges social media is “a bubble”, but sees its importance: “We struggle making sure we have teams and sponsors. Social media is important; every team now has to have a social media person on their staff. You don’t want to be waiting for results or the next day’s newspaper to find out what happened. If we can get a new generation following the sport, that’s a major thing.”
The big three – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – are cheap ways for WorldTour squads to plug sponsors and spread their own news, PR and marketing globally. But social media is never silent, which means that riders are potentially never off the clock. “I could go in the park wearing some T-shirt and if [a photo] gets posted online and it’s not sponsor-correct – even if I’m not on my bike, not at a race, not even representing BMC at that moment, it’s still like ‘what are you doing wearing that?’” Van Garderen says.
In-house squad rules on social media use vary; BMC Racing Team has a policy that forbids posting anything one hour before or after a race. But, as Van Garderen adds: “Of course, nobody ever follows that rule, because when are you most heated and probably not thinking most clearly?”
During the 2017 Volta a Catalunya’s race-opening TTT, an impulsive tweet landed him in hot water. Movistar rider José Joaquin Rojas was pictured on TV, pushing a team-mate back into the paceline – against the regulations. The Spanish squad went on to win the race, narrowly edging out BMC.
“This is a TTT, it’s not [Viet]’nam, there are rules,” Van Garderen tweeted after the race’s conclusion, paraphrasing one of the most famous lines from The Big Lebowski. But after commissaires demoted Movistar, sections of Twitter started attacking him. “It didn’t hurt my feelings, maybe it pissed me off a little bit. I was like ‘that’s it, I’m done [with Twitter].’” Van Garderen feels his message had no impact on Movistar’s penalty, suggesting that several team managers had officially contested the result with race officials.
Days later, back in the real world, he says he discussed the issue with the Movistar riders and shook hands with Rojas. “Things get heated enough in bike races and we have enough reason to hate each other with all the battling we do. We don’t need to add extra fuel to that fire,” he reflects.
Van Garderen has not returned to Twitter since. “I’m not doing this rip on social media,” he says. “I just think it hasn’t been the best thing for me … There’s certainly a lot of positive things. I love following [American footballer] Von Miller, [basketball players] Steph Curry and LeBron James, they put out some really cool content.”
Many of these superstars have their own content editors and command five-figure fees for a social media product endorsement. Enriching for them, but not necessarily for their fans: one tennis champion’s recent tweets plugged his equipment sponsor, his Nike shoes and his Kia car. Yawn.
Cycling’s perverse advantage is that it is big enough to have a worldwide following, but sufficiently traditional and backwards that most of the peloton are both tweeting and reading messages without a middleman. That means unvarnished insight direct from the riders, like videos of them dancing in team buses or dusty post-Roubaix portraits. Even at the top, Mark Cavendish – the most followed professional cyclist on Twitter, with 1.39 million – eulogises the Fast Show or comes out with gems like “just spilt a whole cup of coffee over myself. I’m sat on a baby absorption pad and look like I pissed myself.”
It’s a tightrope walk between giving away too little and too much. With little to no media training, the average WorldTour cyclist has to think carefully before posting. Missteps are inevitable and can be damaging. Twitter is a hotbed of revelation: of leaked team kits, unseen juicy race incidents, new tech (all of which can rapidly be picked up by journalists and put into the news cycle) and, most influentially, forthright opinion.
“Mate, make sure next time u (sic) come back to our sport ‘healthy’. Aka. Clean! #biopassport,” former Lotto-Soudal rider Greg Henderson tweeted Fabio Aru during his absence from the 2015 Giro d’Italia due to illness. A lawsuit from the Italian ensued.
On the same platform, Lance Armstrong expressed his contempt with team-mate Alberto Contador in 2009, Peter Kennaugh told Emma Pooley to ‘stop being so self-centred and get over’ the lack of a women’s equivalent of Team Sky, and Oleg Tinkov went on numerous offensive rants. (Incidentally, the UCI – 214,000 Twitter followers – has no rules regarding social media and no figure in professional cycling has ever been penalised for misuse.)
Arguably the most famous Twitter moment in the sport did not come directly from its professional cyclists. During the 2012 Tour de France, Cath Wiggins tweeted: “See Mick Rogers and Richie Porte for examples of genuine, selfless effort and true professionalism.” Chris Froome was notable by his absence. His now-wife Michelle Cound responded: “If you want loyalty, get a Froome dog… a quality I value… although being taken advantage of by others!” That thinly-veiled exchange hinted at the underlying tension concealed by the riders themselves at the time.
On social media, the controversial and antagonistic stays with us longer than the feel-good messages. It’s a shame, as the virtual world can repair wrongs in the real one. In the past, justified outrage from users has helped to nip sexist race posters and offensive marketing in the bud, as seen with the GP E3-Harelbeke and Colnago.
We’re through the looking glass – or rather, the Periscope – now. With its number of worldwide users static and volatile stock movements, Twitter has potentially had its moment. But social media, warts and all, will continue to evolve and remain the permanent thread between the public, sportspeople and the world.
What can you do? Think before you tweet and keep it real. “When I put anything online, I want to either make somebody laugh, make them think or inspire them to do something,” Taylor Phinney says. “Share my own uniqueness and I hope that will allow somebody else to realise that it’s okay to be yourself.”
From issue 17.6 of Rouleur