BRIANÇON, France (VN) — The 2017 Tour de France may someday be remembered less for the battle between Chris Froome, Romain Bardet, and Rigoberto Urán, and more for the victories of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Throughout this Tour, the race’s most contentious moments — and there have been many — have taken a new life on social media. Fans have flooded Twitter and Facebook with slow-motion video clips and GIFs of the controversial moments. They have also used social platforms to praise and attack riders and team staff involved in the disputes.
In some instances, the social chatter reached into the race like an invisible hand. Some riders and staff now avoid contentious situations for fear of the online repercussions. Others use social platforms to actively fan the flames of debate in hopes that the online masses can help enact change.
“It feels like social media gets bigger every year here,” said Jack Bauer of team Quick-Step Floors. “Especially when there are incidents in the race that polarize opinions.”
Sagan’s ouster and the fallout
The Tour’s first scandal erupted on stage 4 when the UCI jury disqualified Peter Sagan. The world champion crashed with Mark Cavendish in the sprint finish. Initial video appeared to show Sagan elbow Cavendish into the barriers.
In the wake of the crash — which knocked Cavendish out of the race with a fractured scapula — Twitter exploded with debate. Was Sagan to blame? Was Cavendish at fault?
Ralph Scherzer, who oversees Bora-Hansgrohe’s social media, said the team’s social accounts received thousands of negative and accusative comments about Sagan’s elbows in the minutes after the finish. An hour later, however, Tour broadcasters and fans posted slow-motion video of the incident online, which went viral. A new storyline emerged: Perhaps Cavendish’s handlebars knocked Sagan’s elbow forward.
Scherzer said the Twitter comments toward the team immediately shifted from outrage to support.
“The first one and a half hours was really not that good because everybody thought it was Peter’s mistake after seeing the first pictures from the front,” Scherzer said. “When the other point of views popped up, people saw something different. Within two hours, most of the comments were to support us.”
It was a much different story with Cavendish and his Dimension Data team, which filed a complaint with the race after the crash. Team director Roger Hammond tweeted that he believed Sagan should be ousted.
“Causes a big crash at 1.5 to go, elbows fellow competitor in the head 300 meters … can only result in one decision.”
The tweet quickly circulated online, generating a wave of negative feedback. Sagan, the peloton’s most popular rider, has 718,000 followers on Twitter and 1 million on Facebook. Hammond eventually closed his Twitter account for the remainder of the race. Dimension Data’s public relations team banned him from commenting on the matter.
“We use our social channels to promote our charity work around the bicycle,” a team representative said.
Cavendish also felt the backlash. The day after the crash, Cavendish posted a video on his social Twitter account to address the crash. He asked fans to stop harassing his family on social media.
“Vile and threatening comments on social media to myself and my family isn’t deserved,” Cavendish said in a video. “I ask you all to respect that please not send threatening or abusive language to myself and my family.”
As the race continued, riders seemed wary of attracting any attention online. German sprinter André Greipel went on Twitter to apologize for being critical of Sagan on a television broadcast.
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When the race’s next incident occurred —Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni punched Bauer during stage 10 — both riders simply stayed quiet. Bauer did not even acknowledge the incident at the stage finish, or mention it online. When video surfaced of the punch, Bauer simply told reporters it “was part of cycling.”
Days later, Bauer said he kept quiet because he was wary of generating yet another massive controversy.
“If you want to know what I think, people can talk to me in person because I don’t broadcast it online,” Bauer said. “I think [social media] very often blows these things out of proportion.”
Tweets vs. the UCI
After Sagan’s expulsion, Scherzer said fans reached out via Facebook and Twitter to try and exonerate the sprinter. A group of physics students told him they could prove Sagan’s innocence with a mathematic analysis the video clips. Others sent in clips that were slowed down and zoomed in on the point of contact.
Scherzer made a strategic decision not to share any of the content across the team’s social channels. He tweeted out news of Sagan’s expulsion and the team’s failed appeal to the CAS, but did not challenge the ruling via a statement.
“We didn’t want to influence the official part of the race — we wanted people to make their own decision,” Scherzer said. “It’s not in our attitude to get the public involved.”
One week later, the Cannondale-Drapac team adopted a much different strategy after the UCI docked Rigoberto Urán 20 seconds for taking a water bottle several kilometers from the finish line. The UCI jury penalized Urán, Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data), and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo). However it did not penalize French rider Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), the eventual stage winner, who also took a swig of water.
After complaining to the UCI, Cannondale-Drapac team boss Jonathan Vaughters took his grievances to social media. He tweeted his displeasure with the ruling and then posted a video to Instagram showing Bardet taking a drink. He tweeted that the inconsistent ruling was due to “incompetence.”
“I absolutely used Twitter to leverage every bit of support I could to change the situation,” Vaughters said. “We played the official channels as best we could, and when we were shut down, we did it.”
Vaughters then live-tweeted his interaction with the UCI jury, going so far as to inform his followers that the UCI representatives had not responded to his calls and texts. When he did contact the UCI, he tweeted out news from the phone conversation. He said that the person who had conducted the feed was not a team employee, but rather a fan in a team shirt.
In each of the tweets, Vaughters linked to the official UCI twitter feed. Fans retweeted the posts thousands of times.
“It was a point-by-point strategy to put lots of pressure on the commissars to reconsider,” Vaughters said. “Every now and then you need to turn on the switch, and I thought there was a genuine injustice.”
The day after the ruling, the UCI jury reversed its decision and removed the time penalties for all riders. A UCI representative said that the social media pressure did not influence the decision. In a statement, the UCI said, “As with all sports, cycling fans often have very strong and passionate opinions. Like any governing body, we do of course listen to our fans.”
A statement provided by Tour de France owner ASO said that it also does not “react to team or fan commentaries” on social media. ASO employs four staffers to monitor its social channels for comments from riders and teams. They then decide whether to repeat the sentiments online.
Vaughters believes his tweets influenced the UCI’s decision. In a text conversation with a UCI official, Vaughters said the official was weary of the negative online feedback the water-bottle incident had generated.
No matter if his vocal online presence worked or not, Vaughters said the ordeal speaks to a new potential strategy for teams.
“I don’t think it is something you can do too often — maybe once every two years or so,” Vaugthers said. “Social media is supposed to be a place to be goofy and make fart jokes.”