Monday, 20 February 2012

BMC - the pressure is building

The World Tour circus has been ongoing for one and a half months now, travelling from Down Under to Asia and the Middle East. The riders have enjoyed some nice weather and been riding with their new kit, some with their new team for the very first time. Some teams have been winning "every race" (as I wrote here) while others have yet to open the champagne.

Worried yet?

Photo downloaded here.

Winning is contagious
Yesterday I talked to Mads Kaggestad, former Credit Agricole, on twitter. He mentioned that the pressure is now on for the big teams who have yet to win. I support this fully.
Of course, the riders on teams that haven't won anything yet will shrug the shoulders, look distant and say that "the season is still young" or that "the goals are the classics" and so forth. But, beneath all that, I suppose there is a tiny piece of uncertainty building. Nothing big, nothing you'll loose sleep over. Yet.

Thing is, big teams have big riders. Big riders get the support, meaning that "less experienced riders need to seize the possibilities", as Kaggestad said. So far they have not, meaning that the team's stars need to step up to do the job and win. After all, that is what they are paid to do.

Take BMC, having last years WC, tour winner, and rider of the year. The pressure on these guys is intense. Luckily, the three of them have been in the spotlight before and are familiar with pressure and how to deal with it. Have in mind, being mentally strong has nothing to do with being emotionless or "switched off", it is how you deal with pressure.

There are many things one can do to deal with this, in my work I see this all of the time. Getting on the offensive and in that "zone" is critical, over-analyzing the preparations, the training and the team, are just some examples of how not to do it. Hopefully, staff and riders have been in situations like this before and have a strategy to cope with it or race coaches who are trained to work on these matters. Let's not forget another fact in favour of the stars; having adjusted your form during the better part of a decade helps too.

The season has been on-going for nearly two months now. Teams like OP-QS, Lotto, Sky and LIQ have all nailed a victory or three each, bringing the riders' shoulders down and creating smiles all around. Meanwhile, other big teams, like BMC has yet to prove themselves. This may lead to pressure building, both within the team, from sponsors and from fans. Will discipline remain? Who has the mental strength to perform? Only time will tell. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Three teams are flourishing so far - why?

The road season is back on track with season openings on far warmer latitude than I'm familiar with this early. Tour Down Under kickstarted it, while we now have the riders enjoying six-star hotels in Qatar and Oman. That said, racing took off in Portugal today too, with the Volta ao Algarve.

It pays to be a winner

Photo by Karim Jaffar/Afp, downloaded here.
 So far this season has been dominated by the two Belgian teams Omega Pharma - Quick Step (OP-QS) and Lotto-Belisol (Lotto), with Italian team Liqigas-Cannondale (LIQ) as the third team that made the headlines so far. It is a mix of both young and experienced riders who have claimed the podium. I like the fact that several young ones have developed further. LIQ riders Oss, Viviani and of course Sagan, have all raised the bar to a level few have been able to follow so far. The experienced Greg "Hendy" Henderson has taken charge of the lead-out train in Lotto, given Greipel the lead-out he was missing last year. Boonen is back looking as strong as ever, while teammate youngster Andy Fenn won in Mallorca.

Easy come easy goes
It is difficult to predict the future, if not impossible, but lets take a closer look at OP-QS. The merger last year when Marc Couke, the CEO of Omega Pharma, promised to keep the money in a Belgian team, has so far proved the critics wrong. Patrick Lefevere can smile all way to the team car with Couke's rumoured €4,5 mill tied into the team. Together with the sale of the majority stake to Czech businessman Zdenek Bakala, the finances seems to be working well.

The team has a great roster, including some riders from HTC who needed a contract found a spot in the belgian team. Not that those rider neccessarily is better than the others, but there is something that comes along for free, in a positive way when recruiting riders from the best team in decades; winning culture. Reporter Geir Økland, who reported for Norwegian TV2 in Qatar, spoke to DS Peeters to get the team's recipe for success, these are the key points:
  • The team is stronger than last year (riders)
  • Better mentality among the riders
  • "hungry" new riders on the team keep the pressure up during training
  • More chiropractors and physios have kept the injuries low
In addition to this, Brian Holm has arrived as DS. He played a vital part at HTC, where they cultivated the scientific approach that increased both the individual development of each rider as well as building the team super strong.

It is too early to say if the playing field will be leveled out, but for the other teams I do hope it. For what is worth, I believe these teams has been given an indication that their plan during the short winter has worked well. They are heading into the spring season with their head held high. But, now every rider has done the difficult, hard work, from now on it's all about racing to fitness. The season is still young.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Giro unveil the story behind their social media strategy and their secrets

Marco Gobbi Pansana

PDR: Thanks for the opportunity Marco Gobbi Pansana, I appreciate you taking the time for this interview. Could you start by introducing yourself to the readers, where do you come from and how did you get to where you are now?

My name is Mark Gobbi Pansana, I was born in 1979 and I’ m the Marketing and Communication Manager of the Giro d’Italia and the other cycling events of RCS Sport.”
”I graduated in 2003 in Public Relations and Marketing at the IULM in Milan. I started work in 2004 a RCS Pubblicità, in the New Brands Sales Marketing office, where I managed special projects, loyalty and frequency programmes, sponsorship and events for the Gazzetta dello Sport brand.”
”From 2006 I moved to RCS Sport, covering several roles and the strategic repositioning of all the brands and events in the RCS Sport portfolio and developing their value and communications via special projects and advertising, side-events and PR.”
”From 2009, I’ve been the head of the Marketing and Communications for cycling.”

PDR: The giro is a big event in Italy and the World for that matters, but what does the Giro d'Italia mean to you personally?
”My first memories of the Giro d’Italia where in the early nineties, cheering for ‘El Diablo’ Claudio Chiappucci, hoping he’d beat more talented riders such as Bugno, Indurain, then Berzin and Rominger. I then discovered ‘il Pirata’ Marco Pantani, who was one of Chiappucci’s domestiques and fell in love with the way he raced: with his heart and full of courage. Few riders have ever excited the fans like he did. I didn’t follow cycling closely for a few years but then got back I to it in 2000 as a student. The first CV I sent out was to try and work for the Giro d’Italia.”
”Today the Giro is a mash-up of logic and passion, of work and personal emotions, of professionalism and enthusiasm. It’s a good relationship that is very rewarding professionally and so I try to give a lot back.”
”The thing I like the most? That my group and I are managing to what many people thought was impossible: after transforming a race into an event, we’ve now changed it from an event into a brand.”

PDR: To be recognised as a brand is a complex journey. I have for a long time admired how the RCS utilize social media, and you have received praise from all over the cycling world because of it. You have been active on twitter all year and you have had campaigns on Facebook. Can you bring us back to how this started, why did it happen like it did and when did it begin in the first place?

Also, who was involved and what was the key to succeed in making this turnover when it comes to social media? What was/is the vision?
Our first ‘revolution’ started in 2006, with an attempt to change our approach to the way we work. The Giro consists of 21 stages, with a lot of racing and a huge effort by the riders. It’s an event that is much more than a race, it’s also a party that involves everyone: the local and national authorities, our partners, and the pro teams and their riders. We build a team around each event and create projects to reach specific targets.”

”The second revolution started in 2009 with the arrival of Michele Aquarone (Read my May 2011 interview with Michele here.) The Giro became a brand that lives and breathes 365 days a year. An event is based on communications done by others, a brand communicates itself. The Giro has built its own brand equity; it’s rediscovered his history and values. It communicates in a certain way and has its own personality. But the Giro isn’t a consumer product or a service, it doesn’t happen every day. So how do we turn these values into concrete actions?”     
”The social media was the answer. First via Facebook and then Twitter and soon on YouTube. The Giro now has its own channels of communication that we can manage directly and cost effectively, that are international and interactive. Finally, without going through intermediaries, we’ve got the chance to speak about the Giro, to keep it constantly alive, to know what our fans think, to play and inform people and share our passion for what call ‘the toughest race in the worlds most beautiful place’.”  
”We decided to use social media openly and honestly. We think it’s the right way to create a relationship with our fans around the world. The Giro isn‘t ‘ours’. It belongs to all the fans because they’re the ones who make it so special: it’s their passion, their interest in it, and their love for it. That’s how we understand what they like about the Giro and so we asked the fans to help us develop the Giro.”
”We were the first organiser in the world to ask the fans to choose the climb that had to be in the 2012 Giro. The Stelvio and the Mortirolo came joint top and so we created a stage with both climbs: it’s the FAN STAGE of the 2012 Giro d’Italia. We also asked the fans about the iconic race leader’s maglia rosa. We asked them to enrich it with their passion and feelings via twitter. We also made the fans the stars of the promotional campaign for the 2012 Giro.”

PDR: Everybody need some inspiration from time to time. I’m curious, where do you look for inspiration?
We’re curious, we surf the net and look for inspiration in and out of sport. We study what Real Madrid and the NFL do and also companies like Coca Cola, Diesel, Nike and Nespresso. We try to be creative, remember Tweet Your Maglia Rosa? We try to be the first to be original, including our symbols which are climbs, maglia rosa, Italy, we share our history and our values.”
PDR: During the 2011 Giro, I think you had at least four people running the Giro d'Italia twitter feed, if I remember correctly. How have you organized the staff?
The 2011 Giro d’Italia was year zero for us from the point of view of the social media. During the event two people focused on managing our Twitter profile with the objective to reveal aspects of the race that aren’t generally seen, either because they’re exclusive or because they’re considered of little interest by the traditional media.
We tried to report what happens behind the scenes, cover the race from the race director’s car or from team cars. The fans loved it. During the so-called ‘off season’ a member of my team manages our social media profile. I can promise you that there will be a lot of new things regarding our social media in 2012. Keep following us.”

PDR: Sounds good from a fan’s perspective. How do you see the future for social media and cycling in general?
It’s difficult to predict. I wasn’t on Twitter two years ago and didn’t know about Facebook five years ago. The important thing is to be fully up to date on what is happening.”
”Regarding the social media, I think the integration between different platforms, devices and on-off is inevitable. Mobile will change radically. I think it’ll be difficult to identify what isn’t mobile because desktop PCs and laptops as we understand them today, will change rapidly. This means the content will be more interactive and include film, music, books, etc. A few years ago teenagers seemed set to be more and more closed in their own worlds with their PlayStation and IPod. Now socializing has comeback strongly because the way of doing things has changed. I think this concept of community is the ‘fil rouge’ that will set the direction for the development of social media.”     
”Regarding cycling, after a decade of damage caused by doping scandals, a lot of people thought cycling was dead. But the strength of cycling comes from the passion of the fans. If this sport can understand how to promote its best aspects (that it’s free to watch, the possibility to see and touch their heroes and so be part of the event), and use social media to do this, then I think the Giro will continue to develop internationally and grow. But it’s got to change and we can’t invent races that don’t have any sense or have a soul.”
”Cycling has to radically improve its TV and media product. Fans aren’t like they were in the eighties; they expect a lot more. They want to be part of the race and feel involved. They want to know gradients, speed, and biometrics, hear the rider’s voices and perhaps even the smell of their sweat and the smell of the grass of the Dolomites. They want to see the race from a new perspective via onboard cameras on motorbikes, bicycles, etc. Today TV struggles to highlight the race and does virtually nothing for everything that is around it.”

PDR: Thank you so much for your time Marco Gobbi Pansana.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Kermesse - Crits the Belgian way

This article originally appeared on Cyclismas

Cycling has many holy grails. The Tourmalet, Alpes d'Huez, Ventoux, Stelvio, Gavia, Koppenberg, Arenberg to mention a few. I know this probably could be viewed upon as a bit early, but there is something going to happen i Belgium soon that is worth mentioning; the Kermesse season. Lasting twice as long as normal crits, add bad road conditions and you have the recipe for fun, for form build-ups and potential pro contracts as well as carnage. This may be just fun to us, but it is also a possibility to shine for local riders, to be recognised. The Kermesse-season begins in February but if you think that's too early don't be sad, the season lasts until October.
A Belgian kermesse/kermis

Downloaded here.
The Basics
Kermesse is more or less a local race, but is important to differ between the pro Kermesse and the amateur Kermesse. By "pro" they mean continental and higher, but don't jump to conclusions too fast, the pace in there amateur races are incredible fast and you do need an active licence to race. If you don't have a licence by your governing national cycling body or with the UCI, you can get a Belgian one. The licence costs about 12 euros and is basically a Belgian race licence, which you can use for several years. Normally, there is a race fee too, somewhere between 8-10 euros. One funny anecdote is that you pick up your race number at a local café, along beer drinking and smoking Belgians. When (if) finishing the race, you deliver the race number back at the same café getting 5-6 euros back. How is that for some fun? Almost free. The name Kermesse also mean "festival" and sometimes there is a festvial to celebrate cycling where the actual race takes place.

As mentioned, the Kermesse is almost twice as long as regular crits, between 90-140 km. The circuit they race is somewhere between 5-12 km, often about 100 riders on the start line. Some kermesse races see up towards 200 riders participating.
In February the Kermesse races take place on Saturdays and Sundays, but later in the season, you can pretty much ride every day of the week. 4-5 races in the weekend only makes it difficult to choose the right one. People gather in the streets, surrounding team cars and line the fences cheering for their favourite. Still surprised the Belgians are crazy when it comes to cycling?

Tips & tricks
Most of the races begin at 1400, but registrations are open two hours before that and closes 15 minutes prior to the race. That info can be found at Wielerbond Vlaanderen. The road conditions are known to vary so if you bring your Zipp 404, be prepared to walk out there without one. Could also be an idea to bring pins yourself as there will be lack of pins as the riders pick up their race number. If you DNF for some reason, do not go home before the race is officially off. It could be your number is picked for a contrôle anti-dopage and no-show on that is the same as testing positive.

Now you are thinking that the riders participating in these races are local heroes and crazy Belgians only, but that is not true. many pros use these races to build form towards important races. Last year, both Edvald Boasson Hagen and Kurt Asle Arvesen of Team Sky used several Kermesse races to build speed in front of the Worlds. As did many others so this is quality racing, let there be no doubt about that. To some, a crazy Belgian crit isn’t a holy grail, but to me, the kermesse carry the essence of cycling.

Kermesse races are fast and dynamic, and can be described as an experience rather than just a race. Expect continuous attacks, cobbles and locals all mixed into a flurry.

Morten Jahr's blog - a Norwegian paralympics participant