How Instagram conquered the pro peloton

For many pro cyclists and their teams, Instagram is a key outlet to share their daily stories with fans.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (VN) — His face coated in dust following the windswept stage 2 of the UAE Tour, Michal Kwiatkowski slumped in his Team Sky van and prepared for the long drive through Abu Dhabi’s rush hour traffic.

Within a few minutes, an image appeared on Kwiatkowski’s Instagram account. The picture was from photo agency Getty Images, and it showed Kwiatkowski attacking into an echelon during the stage. The caption read: “Abu Dhabi crosswind challenge” alongside an emoticon of a tornado.

How did the image get posted to his Instagram so quickly?

“I have a guy who helps me with Instagram,” Kwiatkowski told VeloNews. “I don’t always have time to be searching for pictures and stuff like that. I want to give people updates, still.”

Kwiatkowski’s focus on Instagram is hardly an anomaly. In recent years Instagram has become the pro peloton’s preferred social media platform. Peter Sagan now has 1.4 million followers on the platform, compared to 1.1 million on Facebook and 850,000 on Twitter. One million people follow Nairo Quintana on Instagram, and 900,000 follow Chris Froome.

“Instagram seems to be more popular, and it is fun,” said Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo (@baukemollema). “Twitter has been more negative the last few years. I have more [followers] on Facebook but the algorithm doesn’t show your message to all of your fans.”

On Instagram, riders post photos and videos for their tens of thousands of worldwide followers to see. As any casual Instagram user knows, the key to growing one’s social following is to provide a steady stream of updates. Yet some pro riders lack the time, energy, or desire to post images every day, or after every hard, windy race.

Kwiatkowski (@kwiato), who has 250,000 Instagram followers, said he often relies on his social media associate to update his account during major races. How does it work? After a stage, the two communicate via the text platform WhatsApp. They mutually select which images to post, and what to text to write.

“The feelings that I’m sharing with them is mine, the words [are] mine, I’m just not putting everything together,” Kwiatkowski said. “I would say most of the time it is me [posting]. When it is busy this is how I can speed the message.”

Kwiatkowski’s system is indicative of the increasing resources that pro riders and even business managers are putting toward Instagram. Rider agent Dries Smets of Squadra Sports Management said he maintains a relationship with a content company that will help manage social media accounts for his riders, should they request help. Like Kwiatkowski, Smets’s riders connect with the content managers through WhatsApp to decide on images and captions.

Teams put major resources into this effort too. Most teams either subscribe to photo agencies like Getty Images, or pay professional photographers to snap photos of their riders during the race. After each stage, team communications managers pool these images on a central server or Dropbox folder. Riders can access and post these images to social media as they please.

A Team Sky representative said the squad employs a full-time manager in Manchester who coordinates its Instagram account, which has 750,000 followers. The team’s PR officials take turns updating the video “stories” at the races, while the Manchester staffer handles the photos. Fitzalan Crowe, communications manager for Team Novo Nordisk, said her team has an employee based in Atlanta who does a similar job across all of the squad’s social media handles. Of the three major social media platforms, Instagram has a specific focus, she said.

“Cycling fans want to see photos of the bikes and of the riders and to really geek out on that stuff,” Crowe said. “Facebook is much more focused on the diabetes community to provide content explaining what to do.”

An unofficial poll of riders found that most of them still update their social media accounts themselves. And different riders follow different strategies for what and when to post. Kwiatkowski said he rarely, if ever, uses his Instagram to promote sponsor messages. Tony Gallopin said he never posts images of his personal life. Irish sprinter Sam Bennett (@sammyben) said he occasionally posts images of himself and his girlfriend, however, he’s learned that fans want to see racing photos.

“They want insight into the sport and they want to see something they haven’t seen before,” Bennett said. “When I post photos of my fiancee and me on holiday, the number [of followers] actually decreases.”

The one opinion expressed by all riders was to never respond to negative comments from fans. And all of the riders who spoke to VeloNews said that they have, at some point, been the target of negative comments. Bennett said he blocked comments on his Instagram altogether when he first opened his account.

“I could have 50 good comments and one bad one, and that one bad one would get to me,” Bennett said. “I think I’ve matured since then. You never want to find yourself battling with keyboard warriors.”

Xylon Van Eyck, a communications consultant, said he advises riders to maintain a sense of humor on Instagram and to not take themselves too seriously. The goal of all riders should be to present an honest and authentic image of themselves. And that poses a challenge for those riders who use outside consultants to manage their accounts.

“If they do get help, it’s important for the social media management team and the rider to be in constant communication so the posts are as authentic as possible and it’s not the person doing the posting whose personality comes across,” Van Eyck said.

Indeed, Kwiatkowski said he places extra attention on making sure the captions feel like they are his voice, and not the voice of his helper. And the videos he posts to the “stories” section of Instagram always come from him, and not his consultant.

Still, some riders wonder about the purpose of social media, if the media comes from someone else. When asked if a third party managed his Instagram account, Australian rider Adam Hansen (@hansenadam) shook his head in disbelief.

“I think that takes the fun out of it,” Hansen said.