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.

Aural pleasures of the Velocast

I’m a firm believer is the old adage that you get what you pay for. Except when you’re out shoplifting, of course. But generally speaking, if something’s cheap there’s a reason for that. Either it’s shit, or it’s OK but was made by some poor sap working for a pittance. Or, as in the case with this blog, it’s cheap (free) because it’s thrown together by some sap stupid enough to do stuff for free. What can I say…I love the sound of my own voice. You’re welcome.

Anyway, I love cycling. I consume cycling mags, books, films, websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, podcasts and all things cycling related. Sometimes I even stop wasting my time with all this shit and actually go out on my bike (usually to the Rapha cafe where I spend £19.70 on a flapjack and a extra-shot low-foam luke-warm double-decaf skinny soy cappuccino while watching re-runs of the Spring Classics on Eurosport). Sometimes I look at base layers made from New Zealand Merino wool infused with Manuka honey that cost more than my entire “civvie” wardrobe.

So much do I love cycling that I have been tempted into something quite extraordinary…I’ve actually paid to subscribe to a cycling podcast. It’s the first (and probably only) time I have ventured behind a paywall. Not even the many and varied delights of crazypeegirls.com (only $19.99 a month) has persuaded me to actually stump up money for stuff that I can usually get for free elsewhere. The thing is, though, sometimes you come across something that is so obviously worth the money that it becomes a no-brainer to stump up the dosh. Velocast is one such no-brainer.

I’ve been listening to the Velocast for years…way back when presenters Scott O’Raw had hair and John Galloway was a postman. Nowadays they seem to do the Velocast pretty much full-time and it really is an excellent podcast. Or collection of podcasts, because they do a regular weekly podcast about racing, a weekly podcast about the history of racing (This Week in Cycling History, co-hosted by Cillian Kelly), an occasional book review show (also co-hosted by Cillian Kelly), and then daily shows from the Spring Classics and the Grand Tours. There’s a shit-load of content there, and it’s very well done. These guys clearly know their stuff, they’re amusing and passionate about the sport, and I’m quite happy to spend my money (I think it was about £65 for the early-bird special) on it. They also put up free shows from time to time to lure in fresh subscribers, and there are a few of them on their website, too.

This week’s This Week in Cycling History is 50 minutes of John and Cillian talking about olden day stuff. I’m fascinated by the history of our sport and love learning about the characters and exploits of yesteryear…it’s a bit like a podcast version of Rouleur (the Rouleur podcast is more about promoting the latest issue) but more lighthearted and without the bonkers photography or the artistic use of negative space. There is a format to TWiCH…Cillian recounts a story of yesteryear lunacy, he and John chat about it (and related things) for a while, Cillian recounts another tale of olden-day madness, he and John chat about it (and related things) for a while. Wrap it up, same again next week. And it’s great. I absolutely love it. It’s funny, it’s interesting, it’s empathetic, and it’s one of the highlights of my cycling week. And Cillian is the sort of uber-nerd bike racing geek that makes you feel you could enjoy an evening in the pub together while feeling ever so slightly sorry for his wife. His encyclopedic knowledge of road racing is absolutely extraordinary.

In this episode we get to hear about Jean Marie Leblanc being fined for stopping for a picnic on a stage of the 1970 Tour, the men behind the TdF organisation, and the story of possibly the ultimate all-round racer — Adri van der Poel, who was phenomenally successful in road and cyclocross in the 1980s. Perhaps the best stuff is about the trading of race wins between Sean Kelly and van der Poel, and the fact that the organisers of Lombardia in 1986 were so adamant that an Italian should win Lombardia that the race director used his car to drive Sean Kelly off the road (Kelly got back on, rejoined the leaders, and knowing he wouldn’t be allowed to win it agreed a cash fee for not contesting it). Van der Poel also got popped for doping , a charge he denied by claiming he had eaten a racing pigeon that had been doped!

It’s all good, interesting stuff and I always feel at the end of the show that my cycling experience is being enriched by TWiCH.

Don’t call me G!

They really should have tried harder. The ubiquitous Richard Moore and Lionel Birnie, hosts of the Telegraph Cycling Podcast, have let us all down. They interviewed Geraint Thomas (Welsh racer bloke) in a fairly quiet, acoustically-suitable room without interruption, or even Lionel’s trademark heavy-breathing too close to the mic. No washing up, no DIY, just a professional sit-down with one of Britain’s most popular riders.

And it was moderately interesting stuff, if you like this sort of thing. Personally, I find rider interviews pretty dull because, apart from Cav, all the riders these days are media-friendly, sound-bite-enabled, squeaky-clean (heh!) sportspeople who are super grateful to their team, super happy to be riding super full-gas in this super beautiful country with its super-enthusiastic fans (where am I, again?). I love Cav, especially when he’s a bit pissy, because he looks like he might, at any moment, just shove the journalist’s dictafone up his arse (the journalist’s arse, not Cav’s…that would just be wrong).

So G (who doesn’t like being called G except by his friends) plugs his book “The World of Cycling According to G” (don’t call him G!), and burbles on for 45 minutes or so about…um…stuff. Racing, mostly. And Team Sky. He seems like a thoroughly nice bloke, and Richard and Lionel clearly like him (probably hoping to ghost his next book), but 20 minutes would probably have done it. After 35 minutes my mind is wandering and I’m really hoping that a Mariachi band will burst in and give a rousing rendition of Hymns and Arias, Mariachi-style, while G (stop calling him G!) recites Under Milkwood in Welsh. Sadly, they didn’t. My advice, when you get bored, fast-forward to 44′ 40″ for the quick questions.

Alberto on washing-up duties

Ping! The latest Cyclingnews Podcast drops into my podcatcher. The show-notes tell me that I’m in for a rare treat…an exclusive interview with Alberto Contador talking about the Giro win. Oh joy. And an interview with Chris Froome talking about winning the Tour. I can hardly wait.

You see, it’s all about “content churn”, the endless 24-hour news cycle that bombards us with content, if not actual news. The Publisher told them they had to produce a podcast — everyone else has got one, so we need one. Of course there are no extra resources available, so the churnalists have to throw something together, on top of producing content for the site and the print edition. We churnalists can’t worry about the quality, no time for that, it’s all about the quantity. Churn churn churn. More hits, more clicks, more downloads, more advertising revenue. Anyway, it’s digital innit…here today, gone tomorrow.

And rider interviews are perfect for this. Sit them down in front of a microphone, offer them the opportunity to big-up their team, thank their sponsors and offer up the usual platitudes, and everybody is happy. The churnalists aren’t going to rock the boat by asking anything tricky, because look what happened during the Armstrong era…the dreaded black book (a black-list of journalists Armstrong would not talk to). No access is bad news for churnalists, so keep it bland, let them waffle, and there’s 10 minutes filled, right there.

So back to episode 11 of the Cyclingnews Podcast, where Daniel Benson, Ed Pickering and Patrick Fletcher kick off with a chat about starting the Giro in Japan (silly, but fun for all the journalists out there on expenses), cycling brothers, how we all love an unrepentant doper (Rebellin) simply because he refuses to go away, and TUEs. All of which is quite interesting stuff. Then there’s a plug for Pro Cycling mag, along with the astonishing (and thoroughly shameful) admission that this latest issue is only the second time they’ve put a solo female cyclist on the cover. Really? WTF have they been doing there? Welcome to the 21st Century, boys.

After 20 minutes of moderately interesting chat we have the Chris Froome interview. So fast-forward from 20’45” to 28’35” because there is nothing new here. It can be summed up thusly: I won the tour, some people booed me, other people didn’t, some people thought I was doping, other people didn’t, I don’t dope, one day I’ll release my biological data (once the Sky boffins have confirmed that it won’t damage me in any way).

This is followed by some interesting chat about Alberto’s legacy and an exclusive interview with Alberto Contador at their recent training camp, where he appears to have been tasked with doing the washing up at the end of lunch. This is podcasting gold! Seriously. Clatter, clank, mumble, clink, Giro, splosh, mumble, clunk, attack heeem, clatter, clink, Mortirolo weeen, tinkle, clank, Astana, splish, clonk, clank, jingle, splish, mumble.

Next week they will (probably) be interviewing Vincenzo Nibali while he puts up some shelves round at his Gran’s house, and chatting to Dave Brailsford while he does some Hoovering. This is the way forward for interviews, I’m sure of it. I only wish Jon Snow had interviewed Seb Coe while Coe was down the bank transferring his money to the Caymen Islands.