Cyclingnews | A Web 1.0 Success Story
Every cycling fan knows of cyclingnews and most of you reading probably visit it every day. Since the mid-90’s cyclingnews has been the largest cycling website in the world for news, results and analysis and the team continues to do and extraordinary job.
Many of you who have been around cycling for a long time probably remember Professor Bill Mitchell who in 1995 created “Bill’s Cycling Racing Results and News”. By the late ’90’s cyclingnews had experienced huge growth and popularity with Bill’s ability to bring news and results to us, whereas previously it would sometimes take weeks to find out who won Paris Roubaix or Tour of Flanders. Bill was onto something, but it was a lot for one man to handle. He published absolutely everything to do with cycling under some noble ideals:
“News from everywhere is important. That is the ability that the Internet gives us. No space limitations. No copy editors trying to sell a newspaper. No filtering. As much as I could get was my motto. Then the reader can decide what they find useful.”
By 1999 Bill was subject to politics as well as abusive emails after he published a story about Lance Armstrong’s alleged positive drug test.
I also received a lot of antagonism for daring to have an opinion – mostly from US readers. I could not understand why people (only a small minority), who grew up in the so-called land of freedom were so intent on repressing free speech. After all it was your choice to click the link and there was no charge for doing so. But still I received many threatening and nasty E-mails on a regular basis. My employer (the University) was harassed. And lately these nasty types have been trying to encourage my sponsors to stop supporting the site. I guess these types wear white hoods around the place at times too. It made me understand how McCarthyism thrived in the USA. Lucky I live in a free society I thought.
You can read Bill Mitchell’s departing letter here (which I highly recommend you do – it’s very interesting). Bill’s story is something that needs attention of it’s own that I can hopefully write in the future.
In 1999 a gentleman by the name of Gerard Knapp came along and purchased Cyclingnews from Bill. Gerard owned a publishing company in Sydney and was also a keen cyclist. It was at a time where cycling had a much different profile than it does today and a cycling website was a very lone voice. It was a big risk, but Gerard made Cyclingnews into a cycling icon which contributed largely to the popularity of cycling here in Australia.
Gerard decided to sell cyclingnews to the UK’s Future Publishing in 2007. I had the pleasure of speaking with Gerard last Friday to get some insight on what it was like during his eight years of building cyclingnews. Here’s what he had to say:
[CT] Tell me about the beginnings and how you ran into Bill Mitchell.
[Gerard Knapp] I visited cyclingnews on a regular basis. At the time I owned a publishing business (and still do) and we had a few IT magazines and one of the first internet industry magazines in Australia, so I was well aware of the dot com phenomenon.
I was talking with some friends about cyclingnews and got the impression from various people that Bill may be looking to move on and hand the site over to another company. I made a very direct approach to Bill and immediately he invited me up to Newcastle to talk. He told me to bring my bike so we could go for a ride. I think Bill wanted to assess me as a person and a cyclist too. I wasn’t a great cyclist, but I had done the Grafton [to Inverell] and a few races. He could tell that I loved the sport and looked at the type of publisher I was. It turned out that he had already been talking with other companies but seemed that he was most comfortable with me. I told him that if he was prepared to sell I’d like to take it on. I knew there were some great opportunities at the time for global sites serving a niche market. I could combine something I know, publishing, with something I’m passionate about – cycling.
Bill and I reached an agreement and the whole negotiation was painless. He was a pure gentleman. I think I had a total of four hours training and then I was pretty much on my own.
I was back in Sydney that same day after working with with Bill. At 4 or 5am Bill showed me how to grab the results as they were coming in from European races, he showed me how he posted them, and I was pretty much on my own from there on.
That same day I drove back to Syndey and by 2pm that afternoon we were updating new content as it was coming in. So it was a real baptism by fire. At the same time I was the editor of two IT magazines that had monthly deadlines as well. It was character building!
[CT] What was the extent of the operation while Bill ran cyclingnews? How many people were involved?
[GK] It was Bill. Bill was the only one who updated cyclingnews at that time. During that period the traffic was about 30k-50k pageviews per day when it was handed over to me. People knew about it, but it wasn’t huge.
I had a publishing company with about 6-8 employees. As soon as I had the keys to cyclingnews I came back from my second visit with Bill in Newcastle and looked around in the office and said “Right. You’re doing this, and you’re doing this…”. No one had every updated a website before and pretty much within an hour of acquring it we had people working on it.
At around the same time an old cycling mate of mine named Jeff Jones had come back from Europe. I said to him, “Hey Jeff, you got much on mate?”. Jeff was a scientist you see [PhD in Chemistry], and since the Howard government cut funding to his research he came on board. He knew some html and a lot about cycling and had a great turn of phrase. Jeff still works on BikeRadar.com ’till this day.
[CT] When you got things up and running and a process established, what were the day to day operations like?
[GK] Well, with the sale of cyclingnews from Bill I inherited his correspondance and friends in various territories. We maintained those and cultivated new ones. Typically we would get up at 4-5am every morning so we could post the results as soon as they came in from Europe, and then we’d continue on from mid-morning (our time) which is when important races would be finishing in America. We’d get those up and do the daily news, and then we could take a bit of a breather. I’d go back to my IT magazine role until that night. Then we’d get back to cyclingnews and put another page of news together, post some diaries or feature content that came in, and so on. We worked like that, pretty much around the clock, for some time.
The IT magazines were doing quite well at the time, so all the money I was making from them would go back into cyclingnews (which was making no money at that time). I had bought cyclingnews right on the cusp of the dot com bubble bursting, so trying to sell online advertising was like trying to sell a dead cat. It was pretty hard. I had to have a real commitment and belief in what I was doing, and I risked a hell of a lot to get it there.
A few years later after stepping back and doing some financial remodelling I realised that this is going to work – we have a business here. It was still losing money but I could see and knew where the tipping point was, and we basically hit that by 2004. But we continued to reinvest in editorial content. By the time the sale to Future, we had over 20 people around the world on full-time or part-time monthly contracts.
[CT] Now that Future Publishing has taken on cyclingnews, do you see them as as staying true to the ideals and attitude that Bill and yourself laid down?
[GK] Everyone has their own take on it but I’d say by in large they have. It’s a much larger company now and they have their own way of working. The site had to be accomodated into their own content management system framework and design. It is still a cycling news and results service and provides the full results for pretty much every UCI race around the world. They don’t do things like local results like we used to, they don’t go down as deep as we used to. They don’t sponsor teams like we did. Generally they haven’t messed too much with the formula. People around the world want a reliable and up to date, largely impartial service to read about the sport they love. They approach it editorially from the point of view that lets the reader make up their minds for themselves. And that was our approach.
It sounds pretentious, but back in the day I told our crew that I want this to be the Wall Street Journal of cycling. It’s gotta be the Dow Jones, the Index. If people have 15 minutes to go to one site a day, it’s gotta be us. It doesn’t have to look the best, but it’s got to have the most in-depth and thorough information. That was our approach, but we used to have a lot of fun along the way. Our April Fools jokes were legendary back then. Let me tell you, we had some great victims!
[CT] What are some of your fondest memories of back in the day with running cyclingnews?
[GK] Oh, the growth and the support it had from people. There was a time at the Cycling Australia awards where we got this spontaneous round of applause when they mentioned our website. We had a table there with all the staff and they were able to share that appreciation from the Australian racing community.
Working with a mate named Kevin Tabotta is another great memory. He managed a team known as TIS-Cyclingnews. There was this big Launceston criterium and it was Matt Goss’ first ever professional win as a 19yrs old, and second place was Stuart O’Grady. It was awesome, seeing Matt get a leadout from Mark Jamieson and he just blew them away there with TIS-Cyclingnews across his chest. And back then we weren’t making any money, let me tell you. We were taking anything as a good sign and that was a beautiful day. Kev [Tabotta] did an awesome job with that team. I think there were nine of them all decked out in the TIS-Cyclingnews kit and that was a great experinece.
[CT] It sounds like you found it very important to give back to the sport here in Australia.
[GK] Oh yes, definitely. My philosophy was that we had to show that we believed in what we were doing. I felt that if we sponsored some teams and developed riders we were putting back into the sport. That was part of our charter. We wanted cyclingnews to be part of the fabric of cycling in Australia. I was very proud of our involvement there. We worked with some very good people.
[CT] Was it hard to part with cyclingnews?
[GK] In a way it was, but I had to be disconnected to some extent. At the time I felt there was a single person vulnerability about it. I wanted it to go to a good home, and I feel that it has. The new owners had to have a demonstrated understanding of cycling, and Future did that. They already published several high quality cycling magazines. In a way it was hard to sell, but I made the decision, from a business perspective, I got my timing pretty good. I proved that the model worked and created something that didn’t make any money into a profitable business without selling out.
Everybody who worked for me at the time went across to Future and a lot of them are still there with better condiditions than they did under me.
[CT]Are you still involved with cyclingnews in any way?
[GK] No, not anymore. I was a consultant for them for 18 months after the handover…which makes me laugh! I got four hours out of Bill and they got 18 months out of me! I’ve had other opportunities but I’ve taken some time to take stock, get my health back in order, and rediscover my own cycling. I’m proud of what we did and that everyone kept their jobs. It felt like this was a good time to move on.
[CT] What do you see as your monumentous achievements with cyclingnews?
[GK] It was great teamwork. Within a few hours of buying cyclingnews I had a team of people working on it. That was a great testament to the teamwork of these peple around the world. And they looked after each other. We’d time-shift work from region to region around the world so that they’d need to work together and hand-off work to each other. My day to day involvement to make sure that happened smoothly gradually diminished. We had our production schedule and they stuck to it. They were brilliant – all of them. If I can say there was one acheivement, it was having a community of people who loved the sport working together and respect for each others output and input.
Also, the tech coverage was very good. We hired a very good tech editor – a guy named John Stevenson and then James Huang who is still there. John [Stevenson] is still working at Future – he’s the editorial director of Future’s cycling coverage.
The sales team was very good as well. Kristy Scrymgeour (Scrymo) who is now marketing and PR for Highroad came from cyclingnews. She’s been hugely successful (Kristy was also a two-time national TT champion). She was brillant as selling advertising for us.
Another guy named Steve Medcroft – an unbelievable bloke. He’s still there at cyclingnews. Also, Tim Maloney was representing Cyclingnews in Europe, as he lived in Italy and was multilingual, so he could speak to those companies. Jeff [Jones] moved back across to Europe to Ghent in around 2001 and was helped setting himself up in Ghent by a guy you might know of named Scott Sunderland and his wife Sabine. Scott was one of the pros we had a great relationship with and still do now. We eventually got a lease in an apartment in Ghent and that’s where we based ourselves out of in Europe.
[CT] Speaking of Belgium, tell me about the origins of the DFL-Cyclingnews team you had over there.
[GK] I think it was back in 2002 or 2003 we were involved with a team called Team Down Under and there were some Australian’s involvement to get a support structure set up in Belgium for riders who come over. We got involved as a sponsor along with other co-sposnors along the way. Then a British trucking compnay called DFL came aboard in about 2005 and eventually we got up to a Pro Continental status. I can remember seeing the guys walking up onto the podium at the start of Gent-Wevelgem in St Peter’s Square (2007). The leader of the team was Nico Mattan, a highly credentialed Belgian cyclist at the time. Dan Lloyd also raced for them, Matt Bremier, and so on. Way back when the team started Matty Wilson raced for them as well. When Matt hadn’t been properly discovered for the great rider that he is, he found that he could get a ride with these guys and show what he was capable of. He’s done exceedingly well from there.
It continued for some time, and then in 2009 and 2010 the team became Cinelli. That was the last team that Frank Vandenbroucke rode for before he passed away.
What’s going on in your life now after cyclingnews?
I’ve been looking at various investment opportunities. I’ve had some pretty good discussions with people about possibilities, but it’s also exploring myself and whether I’m prepared to commit 100% to something, because I know how I work, and I’m not really a passive person when I have a go at something. I’ve had some time off, ridden my bike a lot, I got to watch the 2009 Giro from beginning to end, got to go to Tour of Flanders last year, and generally some great cycling experiences. It feels awesome being at these things without having to report on them. Now [after cyclingnews] I’ll never lose the novelty of watching them [the riders] go past and all I have to do is open another beer!