January has been the most incredible month for women’s cycling, with live streams of races on every weekend, from road, cyclocross and track, and it follows an amazing 2015, with more to watch than ever. For the last two summers I’ve been able to watch live road races on six weekends in a row, and the 2015/6 season gave us two of the three major cyclocross seasons streamed in full. Of course, MTB has been consistently great for years, with the Downhill and Cross Country World Cup finals streamed on Red Bull TV, and it’s fantastic that the other disciplines have been catching up.
Looking specifically at road, there are some races that we’ve consistently been able to watch for years – the Ronde van Drenthe World Cup was the first live road race I ever watched, outside the Olympics, followed by the wonderful GP de Plouay, and the hour-long daily highlights RAI Sport show of the Giro Rosa have been a delight. And then we have more recent additions – lots of race highlights on the UCI Youtube, the hour highlights of the Aviva Women’s Tour, and my favourite story, of how the Crescent Vårgårda Road Race started with “home-made” footage, have radio broadcast on the web, swapping to live feeds every time riders crossed the lap finish-line, then adding another camera on the hill, and from that base, getting streamed on Swedish tv and the internet. And the Tour de San Luis and the Ladies Tour of Qatar, with live daily streams were one-upped last year by the Energiewacht Tour, who showed every stage live in full in 2015 – and bear in mind Drenthe, Vårgårda and EWT are run by volunteers, not by the huge, wealthy, professional race organisers. We’re not in the perfect spot yet, and there’s still a lot to change, but it feels like real change has happened over the last few years.
And for races that aren’t live, I can follow on twitter hashtags, picking up photos and video clips and live information, like at the Bay Crits, or the Australian Road Champs, which I also followed with livetiming. Sometimes following races on twitter actually feels more exciting than watching live, as I’m more invested in them, and get to imagine the action, and talk with other fans, rather than just rely on commentators to give me their view. Combining good tweeting with post-race highlights or reports makes me love races and want everyone else to love them too, and every year races come up with new ways to engage me, and use technology to woo and wow me.
But these changes, while they’re great for the sport, highlight where it feels like races are standing still, or even moving backwards. Last week was the Santos Women’s Tour, and despite the YouTube and Vimeo subscription lists I’m proud of, I couldn’t find even post-race video, except for the odd clips put up by voxwomen and teams like Wiggle High5. OK, not everyone can have videos, but this race was hard to follow in other ways, with no public information about what hashtags to use, and when the race twitter was asked by fans what to use, the didn’t seem to have thought about it, suggesting #TDU, #TDUwomen and #TDUwomens to different people… while some teams used things like #SantosWomensTour of whatever.
I have talked about why races not using hashtags properly bothers me in more detail before, but in brief, it’s such a simple thing to get right, and done well, transforms fans’ experiences – but done badly, ends up with people like me having to flick between 3 or 4 tabs, trying to follow the different hashtags. This year’s UK Cyclocross Championships had the ludicrous situation of the race organisers using #DirtyWeekend, British Cycling using #CrossChamps, and then random #s like #CXNats16 being picked up by fans. The race wasn’t streamed live, so twitter-watching was the only way to follow it, and it gave me a headache, and grimly following to support the riders. It’s so avoidable too – do like the Aviva Women’s Tour and any number of races do, and publish a consistent hashtag early, and announce it everywhere, including in teams’ and media briefing and managers’ meetings.
“But why should they?” you might ask – and here’s where growth in media starts to hurt other races. Back in the day, when there were only 5 or 6 chances to watch live racing, fans would clear their schedules so as not to miss them. And when there wasn’t much media, I’d be happy to patiently hunt down race information, and be ecstatic to find a basic website, or rider blog, and do things to try to make things easier for other fans. But these days it’s different, and even for obsessive cycling types like me, I just don’t need to be grateful for crumbs any more.
I’ve watched about seven or eight cycling races over the last three weeks, and fantastic video highlights from the Aussie National Champs and the Bay Crits, so when it was hard to follow the Santos Women’s Tour, I just gave up, checking the results and maybe a set of photos or two. For years I’ve been able to pick and choose which men’s races to watch, and picked the ones that I especially love, or that look interesting, and ignored swathes of it – and I’m getting close to that with women’s cycling.
And frankly, it’s 2016. It costs nothing to pick a hashtag and ask people to use it, and a quick google explains how to do it, for people who are new to social media. If I look at a race website that’s in English and can’t work out where the information is, or if the race isn’t making it easy for me to follow it on twitter, why should I spend my time tracking it down? If there is a race and the commentary is awful, or, like the 2015 ITT Championships on the BBC, has three male commentators who don’t know much about women’s racing, I’ll VPN into another stream, or, as Dan and I did a few times last year just for fun, use a web app to make our own commentary. I don’t have to read sub-par articles just because they’re there, there’s enough media out there that I can pick and choose on quality and style, and there are so many great cycling videos that if I don’t like how a race/team/brand does it, I don’t need to talk about it, I just don’t watch it. And pretty soon I won’t have time to watch everything, so I’ll get even more selective. And it’s not just me, it’s cycling fans everywhere.
So in 2016, races and teams need to really think about how they’re engaging with fans, and not “to gain visibility” any more, but because if they don’t, they’ll make themselves invisible. I’m not at the stage of ignoring races because they’re difficult to follow, but I’m not going to waste my time publicising races when the organisation isn’t making the effort themselves. It is completely wonderful that we have so much more women’s cycling to watch, and hopefully it will encourage races and teams to up their games and make things easy for fans to follow them too – because if they don’t, they won’t be around for much longer.