Rapha roadmap chapter 9: Building an emotional connection with fans
The thousands of fans lining Mont Ventoux, Monte Zoncolan or Alto de l’Angliru represent the immediate connection that professional cycling strikes with its followers. Arenas on roadsides are among the most beautiful, bewitching traits of professional cycling. Protecting that experience and translating it around the world, onto the airwaves and into the cloud is perhaps the greatest opportunity the sport has for meaningful growth. But the connection from participation to fandom often breaks down long before any casual viewer makes the pilgrimage to a grand tour. In chapter 9 of the Rapha Roadmap, we consider the connection to the riders and reform to reach the grassroots. Please send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the structural, material and attitudinal recommendations proposed previously, professional cycling can begin to appeal to more fans worldwide. But this is only the first step. By virtue of becoming more inspirational and accessible, the sport can help to encourage more people to start riding, encouraging more participants to tap into the camaraderie and sense of belonging which the cycling community can nurture.
This must be included as the most enduring aspect of a plan for continuous growth in the sport. If professional cycling can build a greater emotional connection to both new enthusiasts and current cyclists, turning more and more people into active participants, this will in turn build broader interest and acceptance of the professional sport around the world and expand the cycling market.
The sport of cycling must become more accessible if it is to encourage this kind of global participation, lowering the barrier to entry and introducing the activity to younger and more diverse communities. The sport must recognize it lags far behind most others in capturing the imaginations of children beyond its position as the first means of local transportation for many. Lifelong relationships with sport often begin from the earliest ages and the most popular sports have created a cultural significance that sees children exposed to their activity as core milestones in adolescent development.
The familial appeal of sporting celebrities, who are so often listed as childhood heroes as well as world-class athletes, further reinforces the relationship between a fan and their chosen sport. Learning to ride a bike, a childhood achievement with near universal resonance, gifts cycling a similar position within a vast number of cultures around the world.
The professional sport, beyond occasional marketing drives, has historically failed to capitalize on this earliest mode of participation. There is almost no link drawn between one’s first bike, their first ride and the potential stars that make a living from the same activity. If there was, the average age of viewers of the Tour de France might not be so high.
The sport also sits in a unique position as a tool for environmental and social activism and its popularity can directly influence global approaches to climate change and urban infrastructure. Tapping into the broader trend for more environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible living could further boost engagement opportunities for the sport. In turn, the increased overall presence of cycling can help to change how villages, towns and cities plan for cycling in their infrastructure and encourage cycling as part of overall regional economic interests and development, building participation in the activity into the development of urban communities.
New cyclists would also help transform the global cycling economy, with increasing bicycle sales, expanded accessory markets, technology innovations, and diversified apparel tastes. Rather than being a smaller second-rate sport, constrained in an economic corner by the size of its current market and business model, pro cycling can be the spark for greater prosperity for all the companies doing business today.
Join the clubs
The most obvious method for growing the sport’s participation is to improve its existing local communities and to build new ones. Cycling groups or clubs of one sort or another are a global phenomenon – places where like-minded cycling enthusiasts band together to ride, socialize and express their love of the sport. From the outskirts of Johannesburg to the suburbs of Tokyo, the American heartland to the Italian countryside, club cyclists show their passion for the sport every day in group rides, sharing their identity with custom-printed club jerseys.
But the cycling club model has often been one of insiders speaking to insiders – particularly in many of the cycling hotbeds around the world and has evolved almost entirely removed from the professional sport. Rather than actively opening the door to new cycling enthusiasts and helping to connect them to the sport’s identity and characters, many clubs are places where experienced riders only connect with each other.
This has often contributed to a perception that cycling is exclusive, expensive, and elitist, further reinforcing existing perceptions that the elite sport is the same. Newer or less experienced cyclists often feel excluded, or find it intimidating or difficult to break into these sorts of communities. We must create change in the cycling club culture from one of riders seeking other riders to cyclists encouraging more cycling.
There are several ways for existing and new clubs to change this perception and facilitate more meaningful connection to the sport. They could be used to leverage the club model to pull together like-minded fans of professional teams (see the earlier recommendation that more regional teams should start to evolve). Professional teams could encourage this change by dedicating time and funds to help such clubs form, promoting events like mass-start sportif rides, and holding meet-and-greet events with the team’s riders as they travel around the world.
Event organizers could capitalize on this more participatory “gran fondo” culture by inviting clubs to compete against each other in these events – perhaps with special prizes for fastest times, most participants, and other challenges. As well as creating physical opportunities for connection, cycling clubs could become a lynchpin for digital engagement between fans, enthusiasts and the professional sport (discussed in further detail below). Building on experiments outlined above with Zwift talent spotting and team-led content creation, a modern cycling club could provide a digital structure for fan and participant interaction with elite athletes, from shared professional training plans to e-rides, exclusive made-for-member content and more.
Another approach would be to invest in existing clubs, encouraging more outreach and inclusion of new riders in their communities and encouraging explicit links with local teams. New professional cycling teams could also be encouraged to divert some of their sponsorship earnings and licensing revenues to helping build clubs which promote young rider development programs, in turn benefitting from the creation of an owned engaged audience within an active cycling club. Funds can be shared with clubs to stage weekly enthusiast “come as you are” rides to encourage new participants.
Just as importantly, funds could be made available for junior and women’s development programs, to help encourage and inspire new participants. Professional teams might also have a league-mandated responsibility to hold structured clinics with their clubs, occasionally sending out their pro riders to demonstrate tactics, safe riding or simply to spend time with younger riders to further their love of cycling.
Whether the cycling club is a new or an existing entity in a local community, the possibility of stronger funding for amateur development programs would boost the entire sport. These programs (perhaps funded in part by a professional team or event organizers) could create an unbroken rider development path, from a grassroots regional club to the very top level of pro cycling, mirroring the feeder programs that are already well established in other sports.
Critically, it can provide investment which helps underprivileged participants offset the often high expenses of obtaining a racing bike, and having the right equipment to start their competitive journey. The path into professional cycling is often unclear and many of the experts interviewed for this work said finding a manageable, sustainable route to develop within the sport was a major barrier to progression.
Talent development strategies vary from country to country, often dictated by sporting and funding priorities within regional bodies or government departments, with the growth of British Cycling in the 1990s and 2000s providing the most compelling case study in recent years (see “the rise of British cycling” on page 107). In attempting to build a sustainable future for the sport, it may be necessary to develop a more sophisticated global approach to talent development in the sport, and not just for the racers.
There is significant human collateral in the process of finding elite competitors in any sport; for every single professional sports contract signed there are hundreds if not thousands of would-be athletes left disheartened and often disengaged. Efforts to build ongoing participation in the sport could see the development of an alternate talent pathway within cycling clubs, connected to professional teams, that educates and encourages new fans to pursue involvement in the sport at every level – in riding, organization, promotion, governance and more. The numbers involved may be small, but there is a major chance to promote the sport beyond as a lifelong pursuit rather than a social activity, and create a beacon for progressive engagement between enthusiasts and elite sport.
On the other hand, other local cycling clubs can play the role of enhancing the experiences of enthusiasts who simply love riding their bikes, but who have no particular interest in trying to become a competitive racer or pursue any type of career within the sport. A well-developed club model which is increasingly integrated with the professional side of the sport can also provide sponsors or partner companies with opportunities to get involved in the sport at a local level. This would help to diversify investment in the amateur and club structure of the sport, and help to fund activities including non-racing, inter-club competitions and joint events to improve cycling safety and cycling infrastructure improvements in those sponsors’ key business regions.
The rise of British cycling
The history of cycling federations in the UK has a surprisingly cloak-and-dagger air – the National Cyclists’ Union banned racing on the road in the early 1890s, leading to a succession of rebel groups who raced at dawn on codenamed courses, or sent cadres of riders off to the continent for their racing fix. The schism lasted until 1959, when the British Cycling Federation (later renamed British Cycling) was formed from a merger of other bodies.
The British Government changed its approach to funding for sports in 1997. Money from the National Lottery was to be awarded to sports based on their potential for Olympic medals, and British Cycling was uniquely successful in benefiting from the new funding scheme, and of complementing this focus on elite achievement with a boom in grassroots participation.
In 1998, British Cycling (BC) developed a ‘playground to podium’ system of talent development. A nationwide talent identification program visited schools up and down the country, serving to improve awareness of cycling among young people, and identifying talented young riders who were invited to join regional development teams. A who’s who of British racers passed through the ‘Talent Teams’, including multiple Olympic medalists Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, and they are still the main feeder of riders into BC’s Olympic Development Program.
BC also invested heavily in infrastructure. The Manchester Velodrome is the jewel in the British Cycling crown, but it is augmented by a number of other racing tracks and velodromes up and down the country. These facilities are a boon to amateur cycling clubs in Britain, as well as training grounds for elite talent.
One result of BC’s talent identification efforts and infrastructure investment is that they were poised for any uptick in national interest in the sport, and capable of translating this interest into improved participation numbers. Since Jason Quealy won Britain’s first gold medal of the Sydney Olympics, British riders have earned another 25 golds – a staggering feat. This accomplishment has been matched by a host of healthy signs from lower down the sport’s pyramid: tens of thousands more women cycling for sport and leisure, 125,000 members of British Cycling, and record numbers of people riding to work.
Develop the youth
Another opportunity for professional cycling over the longer term is to build the foundation for much wider youth participation in the activity by investing in programs which partner with grade schools, high schools, colleges and beyond to encourage cycling as transportation to school or for achieving physical fitness goals. The key is to create a positive atmosphere which presents cycling as a healthy activity, encourages safe riding habits, and opens the door to a lifelong appreciation for the bike.
Particularly in areas like North America, there is a great opportunity to lift the visibility, status and funding of competitive collegiate level cycling. Interviews with the leaders of key outreach programs across cycling disciplines revealed a potential model for growth in this area, with cooperation between experts at the elite level, regional facilitators and local community volunteers. These opportunities for structural outreach, which could see elite cycling linked to youth communities through the infrastructure of education in key target areas, could have a massive impact on growing the sport by regularly challenging assumptions around the safety and appeal of road cycling before they are formed.
That habitual exposure to road cycling as transportation, an activity and a sport could be further capitalized upon by ensuring the sport is exciting and understandable, as well as accessible, in line with the reforms outlined above. Cycling clubs could add further support, or help guide the organization of inter-school cycling competitions – perhaps not racing, but less competitive rivalries like mileage challenges, and the replacement of fundraising via candy sales with bicycle charity rides. In some regions, there is the opportunity to form school-level introductory racing events or add new investment into existing school racing leagues.
Road cycling will only strengthen its future if an international youth program is built, learning from the feeder programs of almost every reputable ball and track sport.
Mountain biking and young riders
The sport’s youth development and participation programs are lagging behind mountain biking, which through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) in the US and similar programs in Europe helps schools and colleges introduce off-road cycling into the daily lives of their students. The future of its cousin on the road can build on that, encouraging participation with major global tournaments and recognized feeder channels into the sport’s elite.
NICA, which began in one US high school in 1998, was originally intended to be a road cycling youth program. Demand from the target students forced those involved to shift focus to mountain biking and by 2003 the organization has its first community league attracting 250 students in northern California. NICA’s leadership expanded the organization into schools in southern California and Colorado, and continued to add locations until they had a footprint in 19 states by 2017.
There are an estimated 14,000 active students riding bikes in NICA programs around the US, supported by a network of up to 6,000 trained adult instructors. There were around 130 NICA branded events in the last year, including camps and training sessions, and they have seen strong double-digit growth year-on-year for the last four years.
The organization claims some anecdotal evidence that riders graduate into road cycling after leaving the NICA program and there is an obvious opportunity to engage better with this audience. The model, of equipping community leaders with the tools needed to facilitate youth participation, is similarly applicable to road cycling and ought to be explored at elite ranks as well as amongst broader stakeholders.
Crash the party
There are a handful of new format cycling and entertainment events that have sought to bring the sport to new audiences. As mentioned above, evening racing events have been held in the downtown areas of major cities to attract interest in and support for cycling from urban communities and digitally-connected e-rides have been hosted to unite riders on home trainers around the world. Other stakeholders in cycling, as well as businesses outside of cycling, must be encouraged to promote these types of new events, which can bring the spectacle of racing and participation in riding to new fans in new regions by promoting and partnering with totally different entertainment propositions.
There is, for example, an argument that stakeholders in professional cycling should seek to grow its potential reach by finding opportunities to piggyback racing on more established live entertainment events. The tendency towards the festival-style development of existing bike races, showcased by the likes of Red Hook Crit and at some key Classic events, has already moved the sport in this direction.
The strategy could be even more explicit, with organizers collaborating across cycling disciplines and with other sports and entertainment groups to bring the spectacle of bike racing to new audiences. That plan must be developed to capitalize on potential new fans and new participants by further changing the amateur and racing formats to suit these collaborations, with an emphasis on making events more exciting in a broader entertainment context.
Whether directly through a network of clubs, or through indirect support by a pro cycling league, a toolkit of best practices, planning and how-to instructions could also be developed to allow local entrepreneurs to help stage a well-planned, safe, and exciting race. In collating and sharing logistical experience, the cycling community could better provide investors with a blueprint for bringing the elite spectacle to new audiences.
Races like Red Hook can become more than just fast-paced evening criteriums. They can become lively additions to both recreational and competitive cycling’s landscape, helping to give new enthusiasts their first taste of racing in a supportive community environment. They can also provide experienced competitors with new local races to hone their racing acumen as they strive to become professionals. If properly integrated with the evolving landscape of professional cycling and broader entertainment trends, races like Nocturnes could become a fixture of the amateur or lower-level pro calendar, further building the diversity of the sport.
Connect the dots
Developed sports around the world – baseball, American football, soccer, ice hockey and others – have also sought to create one-stop shops for their fanbases. They have curated meaningful experiences for their new fans with TV channels, websites, apps and publications dedicated solely to their disciplines. The most successful give fans deep insight into their sport, their teams and their players, allowing them to track performance and analysis throughout the year. Their audiences are huge, and engagement considerable.
But they could go further. Cycling could become the first sport in the world to completely integrate the passive action of watching racing and the active participation of riding; the avid racing fan and the first-bike commuter. The sport could learn from the one-stop content hubs of others and radically expand them, revolutionizing its content at the same time as building personal riding into its offering.
As well as integrated race and pro team coverage on and off the bike, cycling media, governors, teams and organizers could collaborate to provide the means to build a community in a professional cycling hub. Riders should be able track their trips, organize their rides, order their kit, build their fantasy leagues, and create their own clubs in the same space that they follow live races, learn about stage results, bet on results, listen to team radios, watch the latest interviews, analyze the best performances and even check the doping records of the sport’s elite.
In an increasingly congested market, where sports and entertainment compete for the same time investment from the same consumers on the same screens of smartphones, tablets and computers, professional cycling must be at once convenient, comprehensible and compelling. Coupling the reforms outlined throughout these pages with a concerted effort to add value to the lives of fans and participants with a distinct and easy-to-use window on professional athletes could have a major bearing on the perception of the sport moving forward.
The future of the sport, of all sport, is in the experience of the next generation through the gates – we should set out our stall to include everything the elite sport has to offer alongside the addictive appeal of riding, integrating the personal and the professional.
By drawing on the elements and recommendations discussed in this research, it is possible to begin to reinvent professional cycling, attract and inspire new participants at the professional, amateur and recreational levels, and bring the sport to a broader audience. By inspiring new participants and fans at the grassroots level, the top level of professional cycling can start to transform its own future. The downward spiral which has so frequently diminished this sport in the past can be reversed; changes and improvements at every level of the sport can combine to create a more exciting, economically robust and growing participatory sport.
This Roadmap seeks to present a plan to advance cycling everywhere – and for everyone. The bicycle is a universal symbol of fitness and freedom, and the professional sport must do more to reflect those principles, to build relationships with people around the world and to encourage them to ride.
Investment in cycling clubs, diversification of outreach programs across the social media landscape, and encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to ride bikes will help to increase the sport’s visibility and participation rate. If we can connect to people who otherwise might not ride regularly, provide incentives which help them to feel included in the cycling culture, and enjoy the sport more as fans and participants, the sport can begin to eradicate many of the constraints which have held it back to date.