Is GCN really all it seems?

Have you seen GCN? Of course you have. Unless, of course, you’re over 50 years old, in which case you don’t really know what YouTube is, let alone GCN. For readers of “a certain age”, GCN is the Global Cycling Network and it’s a sort of TV show on-demand on YouTube. It’s a mix of pro-cycling and road-cycling content, aimed very much at the roadie audience. It has an impressive 620,000 subscribers.

And it’s great. They produce one segment a day, usually between five and ten minutes in length, as well as a regular weekly show and a catch-up show. Presented by Matt Stephens (ex-pro), Daniel Lloyd (ex-pro) and Simon Richardson (ex-pro), the style is lighthearted but informed, and there’s a certain amount of banter between the lads. Some of it’s even quite funny.

The content is a 50-50 mix of stuff from pro-racing and stuff from road cycling. This week I have been watching:

  • A short piece (3′ 36″) about Sven Nys’ cyclocross bike
  • A longer piece (5′ 30″) about the Top 10 domestiques of 2015
  • Nearly five minutes on how to adjust your QR skewers (yes, really!)
  • 2015 show highlights package (5′ 10″)
  • A segment about the Garmin Varia radar system (3′ 36″)
  • A five-minute Cav v Cipollini sprinter discussion
  • Foul weather cycling tips (6′ 17″)
  • A six-minute segment on foul weather cycling mistakes
  • A 16-minute weekly show

That’s just four or five days’ worth, so this is a pretty prolific outfit. Mercifully they steer clear of lengthy pro rider interviews, preferring instead the brief soundbite from reporters on the ground. And this is where GCN really comes into its own, because all three presenters are respected within the peloton and get access and insights that regular cycling journalists don’t always manage.

In terms of content for the recreational rider, GCN is a mixed bag. Mostly it’s pretty good, but sometimes you just think WTF? Five minutes on how to adjust your QR skewers? Really? I sat there mesmerised. I don’t know what I was waiting for, but I was definitely waiting for something. But the only thing that happened was that Dan Lloyd explained how QR skewers work, something even my kids mastered by the time they were 10. And 32,000 people watched this. I know! I can only assume that, like me, they were waiting for something to happen. Or we’re all so insecure that we need reassurance even about the little things.

The Cav versus Cipo piece could have been good, but without any race footage (just photos) it rather lacked impact. It’s the same with the Top 10 Domestiques segment…these need footage from races to really feel immersive. The wet weather riding segments are both pretty good, offering some decent and timely advice. They tend to pitch these things more towards the newbie rider than the wizened old gits such as me, but that’s fine…even us wizened old gits need reminding from time to time (have you taken your meds? Do up your flies. You seem to have spilled something down your shirt. That kind of thing).

Being on YouTube, you do occasionally get an advert before the segment you want to watch, but you get that in a lot of places and it’s an inevitable consequence of watching free stuff on the internet. So GCN feels like it’s ad-free and offering impartial advice. But it’s not quite that simple. GCN is produced by Shift Active Media, a company formed by a breakaway group from Future Publishing (they used to publish a lot of cycling magazines before they sold them to Immediate). As well as GCN, Shift also has clients in the cycling world for whom they produce ad and media campaigns. You can see their client list in the photo above.

One of the really interesting things is that the people behind GCN seem to have seen the writing on the wall with regard magazine publishing. They bailed out of Future Publishing and stepped into online content and commercial media campaigns, using their extensive contacts within the cycling world. With people like Velon, RCS and British Cycling on board, Shift Active Media are clearly heading in the right direction.

And although GCN acknowledges their “sponsors” beneath their videos, and doesn’t overtly plug Shift Active Media clients, there is an awful lot of product placement for Kask helmets, Santini clothing, Scott and Canyon bikes, Garmin electronics, etc. The Garmin placement is particularly noticeable when they’re doing pieces about sat-navs or action cameras, and there’s a none-too-subtle piece about Garmin’s bizarre new radar system this week.

With such huge viewing figures, these companies are getting fantastic exposure. A recent piece about multitools was five and a half minutes of good advice, but it was also a five and a half minute advert for Topeak. There was no attempt to look at or use any other manufacturer’s products, it was just a big old plug for Topeak that was seen by 45,000 people.

Despite the product placement going on, I really enjoy GCN. I catch up with it about once a week, enjoy most of what they do, and try and remind myself that “other products and services are available”. Mostly the humour works quite well, but the banter occasionally feels a little contrived. If you don’t follow Matt Stephens’ alter-ego (Kenny van Vlaminck) on Twitter, you really should.

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