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December 23, 2016
For this year-end “story behind the story,” we asked our editors to pick their favorite article of 2016 — and to explain what made it their favorite. In some cases, they couldn’t choose just one.
When choosing a favourite among the articles I got to work on this year, narrowing it down was always simply a matter of going to three of the story themes in 2016 I always found dragging me back to the desk after I’d clocked off for the night. Writing about them was exciting, something I couldn’t drag myself away from, because each article among them helped deliver a positive shift in either perceptions of women’s cycling or the reality on the ground.
The first was the tale of two women who showed that gender doesn’t have to stop you from being a contender for the overall win in mixed racing. The possibility of a female winner crept into our consciousness when Australian cyclist Sarah Hammond took the early lead of the 7,080 kilometre Trans Am, and then experienced U.S. long-distance rider Lael Wilcox took the baton to turn possibility into reality. Hammond then backed up her strong endurance-race debut with a win just a couple of months later in the gruelling 2,310 kilometre long Race to the Rock in Australia, just to make sure the message was loud and clear that being a woman shouldn’t preclude you from being considered a threat for the overall in mixed gender endurance racing.
The second theme was the leap taken by Australian-based women’s cycling events onto the world stage in 2016. The nation went from having no UCI categorised women’s races to attract international riders, to sporting two events, and then we also found out that in January we will also step up to a rare live television broadcast at one of the events. Who knows what is in store for Australia in 2018 — Women’s WorldTour perhaps? On top of that, in 2016 we had a new women’s UCI Hour Record set on our shores.
Which brings me to the third story theme.
It was a year where it was hard to feel that being, well… I won’t say old, just not quite so young anymore… was an excuse for not continuing pursuing those personal cycling ambitions. Time and time again we saw those heading toward or over 40 taking the top step of the podium at the very highest level of the sport. It’s hard to forget the Olympic time trial gold of Kristin Armstrong, delivered the day before her 43rd birthday. We also saw the incredible rise of 37 year-old Lisen Hockings who won Australia’s National Road Series in her debut year. And then there was the excitement of watching Bridie O’Donnell set a new UCI Hour Record in January at age 41.
In January 2016, Bridie O’Donnell set a UCI Hour Record at age 41.
A late-starter in the sport of cycling, O’Donnell didn’t walk away when opportunities to continue competing on the world scale were limited. Instead, she made her own opportunities. She committed completely to her hour record attempt, rejecting the option of taking it to a higher-altitude track overseas where conditions would make it easier to deliver a faster time, instead making it an event that would turn the eyes of the world to women’s cycling in Australia. That’s why I simply can’t go past O’Donnell’s hour record success as my favourite story of 2016. She fought hard, not only for her chance to prove herself on the world cycling stage, but was also to have the biggest possible positive impact on the Australian women’s sporting landscape, even if that meant achieving her goal would be that much more difficult.
I didn’t have to think too long about my favourite article for 2016. While sharing the story behind my Baum Corretto easily made it into my top three, and Legend’s Il Re was a very special bike, it was my review of Swift’s Hypervox that was the standout experience for the year.
I enjoy reviewing every bike that comes my way, but there’s no denying that some bikes simply work better for me than others. I normally spend a fair bit of time trying to duplicate my preferred riding position on every bike I review, but I’m also at the mercy of the frame’s geometry. The Hypervox wasn’t a perfect fit, but I was able to get pretty close without a lot of fussing around.
Of course, there was more to the bike than the quality of the fit. A bike is an inanimate object, a tool — to speak of each one having a unique personality may be too poetic. Nevertheless, I clicked with the Hypervox like an old friend, the years fell away, and time on the bike felt like a holiday. That it was an exciting bike no doubted helped; so too were the aggressive lines and vivacious colour scheme.
Another standout for this review was the conversation I was able to have with Neil Gardiner, Swift’s Head of Marketing and Communications. There are lot of engaging and passionate people in the bike industry, and I always enjoy talking to them.
That Neil was forthcoming on the details behind the design and construction of the bike, including providing insight on working with Chinese manufacturers added to the experience. Indeed, I came away feeling like I’d learnt a thing or two, and I think it elevated the review.
Finally, the photos. I work hard to get great photos of every bike I review, but some shots work better than others. The photographers I know are much too critical about their work because the first thing they’ll ever mention are the flaws in any shot. I’m guilty of the same behaviour but in this instance, I find myself forgiving the flaws and truly enjoying the work.
All told then, I had a blast preparing this review. The bike, the photos, and the content were all pleasing and immensely satisfying. Looking back through the review, there’s a stirring, something akin to nostalgia. I don’t really miss the bike, and there’s no overwhelming urge to buy one for myself, but it was a definite highlight for 2016.
We’ve published more than a dozen Roadtripping features on CyclingTips since the series debuted with Roadtripping Norway in October 2013. For almost every installment I’ve had the “privilege” of taking care of production — selecting photos, placing photos, editing the text, finalising the layout, and so on.
I say “privilege” for a couple reasons. Firstly, they’re a lot of work. Once all the photos, the text and the video(s) come in, there’s still roughly a dozen hours required to get it into the form you see it on the site. Secondly, as fun as it is playing with such amazing imagery and creating something special, it’s always hard seeing these adventures take place but never getting to go.
That all changed in September this year when our colleague Leigh Schilling masterminded Roadtripping Bali. It was my first Roadtripping experience and, in the company of Melbourne-based colleagues Leigh, Andy, and Jonathan, I had a cracking time.
The trip was a relatively short one — four days of riding — but we captured some killer content, thanks in no small part to the stellar work of photographer extraordinaire Tim Bardsley-Smith. We all worked together to shoot two videos from the trip: one showing the riding we did, and a behind-the-scenes vlog showing what it was like being there. And then there was the main, photo-driven story feature that we pulled together — my favourite piece of the year.
It’s not a hard-hitting expose or hugely insightful analysis piece — it’s just the story of four blokes doing a bit of riding in an unlikely cycling destination. I was really happy with how it turned out, particularly the story of the brutal Mt. Agung climb. The combination of Tim’s cracking photos, a story I was proud of, and the fact the whole Roadtripping Bali experience took longer to document than anything else I’ve ever worked on, made this a piece I’ll remember for a long time.
“Look here, it’s two brothers from different mothers. You’re on Facebook Live guys. Keep it clean.” Sometimes my mouth engages a little ahead of the brain. But these were the words I found myself hollering as I leant into Mark Cavendish and Adam Blythe, only moments before the flag dropped for the start of this year’s Paris-Roubaix.
Simply put, 2016 has been a whirlwind, it’s passed as fast as a peloton enters that last kilometre on a sprint stage. Time certainly flies when you’re having fun. Travelling the globe, all in the name of following the cycling scene, has offered up countless chances to produce content, but choosing a personal favourite has been a pretty easy task.
With no chance of a retake, the Facebook Live experiment has been a personal pleasure, allowing me to interview (and I use that in the loosest term possible) the riders, plus at the same time see how their characters come out when ambushed with a thrust of a mobile phone in their face. This, along with the concoction of nerves and excitement which are stirred up when broadcasting, are the reason as to why I chose not so much an article but the Facebook Live broadcasts from this year as my standout “story.”
Paris-Roubaix was our testing ground. When high-profile riders such Cavendish quickly understood the format and playing along the light bulb moment came. “This could have some serious legs.”
The Tour was where I felt the format really allowed me to get stuck in and bring something to the site’s followers that I felt hadn’t been accomplished previously — by us or any other news cycling media outlet. During the three weeks, we’d broadcast several times a week, with the aim of keeping the product fresh. Dashing between fans, VIP attendees and team buses, the buzz of grabbing riders, looking for where the action was happening, and tracking down people you’d know would dish up a quality soundbite fired me up every time I switched the phone on to broadcast.
A few faces became regulars, often dragging teammates in on the action. Tour first-timer Shane Archbold delivered gold every time the camera (okay, mobile phone) pointed in his direction. Comments ranged from his pursuit of a lovely Vittel hostess to if he should get his now infamous mullet cut. The stereotype of Germans being cold was blown clean out of the water by both John Degenkolb and Andre Greipel, the latter claiming he was going to release an acoustic album once retired.
One rider I must give a notable mention to is Lotto-Soudal’s Grand Tour demolisher, Adam Hansen. His interaction and involvement with the live audience delivered some standout moments including a 15- minute Q&A session about his time-trial preparation at the Giro, where he answered questions not just about his bike set up but also about his favourite Hubba Bubba chewing gum flavour.
But the most memorable “Hansen moment” came in the Tour on stage 5 in Limoges. Adam grabbed me, arm on my back, talking to me as if we were in some deep team discussion, pretending that I was one of his helpers. He rolled along escorting me past security. Ushering me straight onto the start line. Before I knew it I was engulfed in the peloton, with no other journalists around I raised the phone switched on Facebook and started squeezing myself in between the 180 riders, grabbing whomever was at hand. Chris Froome chatted little, Peter Sagan even less. But others spoke as if I was supposed to be there, either making fun of friends on rival teams or telling the audience about the upcoming stage and their nerves (or lack of them).
I’m lucky in my job with that I get to experience so much of the cycling world. It’s a job that I truly love, one where I try never to forget how privileged I am to be doing it. I’ve found that it’s when doing Facebook Live that the interaction, immediate connection,and being the so called middle man between viewer and race experience has given me a thrill that I hope the viewers find just as exciting and compelling as I do while doing it. It’s these feelings that I know I’ll take into the 2017 season.
In a media landscape increasingly dominated by quick-and-dirty editorial clickbait, it’s quite the luxury to be able to espouse at length about subjects that aren’t dictated by Google search results. That CyclingTips also has an audience willing to actually engage with that content is an even greater rarity.
I’ve long held a modest fascination for companies and people that do things properly simply for the sake of doing so. What results isn’t usually the most economical, but the virtues oftentimes last for ages, whereas the norm is (sadly) sometimes just a season or two. Case in point is Spurcycle, a tiny company in the San Francisco Bay area that got its start with a curiously expensive bicycle bell.
I honestly hadn’t thought much about it when it first debuted on Kickstarter in 2013; it was pretty, but how good could it really be, right? It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a shockingly exact copy on Amazon that I started digging further — and didn’t like what I saw.
Spurcycle’s bell is about as artisanal a product as it gets in the bicycle industry, with traditionally made components sourced from throughout the United States and assembled by hand in California. Every bit feels substantial and well-crafted, and the bell itself is reassuringly sturdy and heavy. It oozes quality.
When the Rock Brothers copy I purchased for the article arrived, though, I was appalled at the cheapness of it. It was tinny, flexy, and poorly finished. But what really offended me was the thoroughness of the company’s efforts to capitalize on someone else’s hard work.
As it turns out, that sort of injustice resonated with lots of other people, too. In August, I wrote nearly 2,500 words — a veritable novel as far as web articles are concerned — on the subject, and I was shocked (but pleasantly so) at how well it was received.
In a society where it’s too often just about making a buck and taking care of yourself first and foremost, it was refreshing for me to see people standing up for the little guy.
2016 was my first year with CyclingTips — I started on New Year’s Day — and from a professional and creative standpoint, it was a breath of fresh air.
CyclingTips founder and publisher Wade Wallace hired me with a primary mandate to grow the U.S. audience; to write and commission stories I thought would resonate with the American cycling community. Beyond that, I had complete autonomy. I knew we wouldn’t be moving the needle with simple race reports, commodity news, or straightforward interviews, but rather with informed analysis pieces and compelling features.
With that in mind, there were several articles I worked on this year that I felt really hit the nail on the head.
One of the first I wrote this year was a close look at why the U.S. men had only earned two spots for the Olympic Games road race, out of a potential maximum of five riders. The United States — a country of 320 million people, with two WorldTour teams — would have fewer riders than countries such as Morocco, Iran, Argentina, and Ukraine.
What I found, and why this piece still stands out to me, is that the U.S. had not earned enough in 2015 WorldTour points to qualify any riders, and that the points earned by WorldTour riders in America Tour races such as the Tour of Utah did not count toward the America Tour standings; UCI rules prohibit WorldTour riders from earning Continental Tour points when competing in Continental events. Because of this rule, the highest point earners of the U.S. ranking in the 2015 America Tour were Kiel Reijnen and John Murphy, who in 2015 both rode for the Continental team UnitedHealthcare. Neither man would be selected for the Olympics, but it was because of their results that the U.S. had a second spot. (Taylor Phinney’s 12th place at the 2015 world TT championship had also merited a spot, for reasons that were also opaque, and required dissection.)
While a story like this might sound simple enough, piecing it together involved a comprehensive understanding of UCI Olympic qualification criteria, WorldTour and Continental nation rankings, and USA Cycling’s own discretionary selection criteria. The further I got into it, the more layers I discovered, and the deeper I dug. I wrote this piece in January, but I referred back to it several times throughout the spring and summer leading into the Olympic Games, and I took pride in knowing that no other media outlet would be able to cover the topic more completely than I had. As a journalist, there’s a satisfaction in answering a complicated question, and a pride in knowing that you’ve put your stamp of ownership on a subject.
In March, I edited and published Peter Flax’s excellent deep dive into the mysterious Los Angeles Strava legend Thorfinn-Sassquatch. As I first read it I immediately knew that it was the perfect feature, blending elements of intrigue, doping, Strava KOMs, and even crime. It was one of our best-read stories of the year, and was recently bookended by another fantastic Flax piece, documenting retired pro Phil Gaimon’s quest to break Thorfinn’s Strava KOMS.
The story I was most personally satisfied with in 2016 was the recent long-form feature tracking down former world champion Roland Green. Fifteen years ago, when I first really started paying attention to pro cycling, Green was the best mountain biker alive — world champion, World Cup series champion, sponsored by Trek at the same time as Lance Armstrong was tearing through the Tour de France. Green was on a path to cross over to road racing, guest riding with Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. And then, over a period of two years, he was gone from the sport, never to be heard from again — no sponsor affiliations, no charity events, no trade-show appearances, just gone. It was something I’d wondered about for years. I wanted to find out where he’d gone, and what his reasons were for turning his back on the sport that he’d once dominated. I wasn’t sure I’d actually reach him or not, and I began writing the piece in a similar format to Flax’s Thorfinn-Sassquatch piece.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, like his Thorfinn piece, this story also used the word “mysterious” in the headline. I think, as a writer, unraveling a mystery — and sharing that process with your audience — is uniquely fulfilling. I hope to do more of it in 2017.
Picking just one favourite article of an entire year is a tough ask. I have been touched by so many people I’ve met, awestruck by the places I have ridden and geeked out hard on some of the latest gear. But throughout my journalism career, the personal nature of profile pieces has always been a favourite aspect of the profession for me.
I appreciate the hours of preparations beforehand –the Googling, the diving into stats and the rereading of past articles – as much as the arduous transcribing process afterwards. I love the challenge of making the interview different than any other interviews they have given before; to find just the right questions to not only get the story that you’re hoping to get but to gain their trust and catch a glimpse of that person’s authentic self; and, ultimately, show readers a new side to that person. But more than anything, I am honoured by the one-on-one time with them and the entrustment for me to tell their story.
Every profile piece I contributed to Ella this year was memorable to me, but there a few that stand out: Sanne Cant, Jillian Bearden, Caroline Mani. But choosing just one, I’d say my interview with Marianne Vos back in February was my favourite article of 2016.
The interview was the day after the 2016 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium. I was to meet Vos in ‘S Gravensmoer, The Netherlands, so I drove across the border but not before taking the morning to ride the Amstel Gold Course in Valkenburg on the other side of the country. This is where Vos so memorably won the 2012 UCI Road World Championships. (– And no, my Strava time up the Cauberg came nowhere near hers!)
I had interviewed Vos several times before and I had prepared for this interview for weeks, yet on my drive over I was nervous. This was Vos, the winningest cyclist of all time, and someone who has spent the last decade giving thousands of interviews. What’s more, she was on the brink of making her comeback after having been sidelined with injuries for over an entire year. Her absence was a topic of conversation in the cycling media throughout 2015, and she had been missed by cycling fans around the globe.
Just weeks before the start of the 2016 season, I got to be one of the first to sit down with her and ask her, “Well? When are you coming back?”
Vos was gracious, genuine and frank. We spoke in her native tongue (which made for a lengthy transcribing and translating process!), commiserated about that morning’s windy rides, and relished in the incredible racing we had witnessed in Heusden-Zolder. And once the ice had been broken, we talked about the hard stuff. As a result, the article, gives some good insight into perhaps the toughest year of Vos’ career yet.