Put your phone down: How taking photos can ruin the enjoyment of cycling

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“I consciously said, when the leading groups come – the lead group and the yellow jersey group – I’m not going to bother with my phone.”

Australian Ryan Howells had driven from his home in Barcelona, and ridden up the Col du Tourmalet with a group of friends to watch the Tour de France’s Pyrenean climax. His rationale for not taking pictures as the race swept by was simple: “If you get your phone out and try to take photos, you miss the whole experience.”

According to one estimate, humans took 1.2 trillion photographs last year. In a time when we can quantify our experiences through the number of likes, comments and shares they get on social media, where “Strava or it didn’t happen” sort-of-is and sort-of-isn’t a joke, is it possible to simply appreciate a bike race, or a ride, without actually documenting it?

The answer is yes, of course, and it could be good for you.

“Where it [documenting everything] becomes problematic, is when people have a ‘sharing goal’ in mind,” says New York University professor of marketing Alix Barasch.

Professor Barasch’s work focuses on how technology and social media can change consumer experiences, and she says she set out to answer two key questions: “How does holding up a camera, looking through a lens … change your experience? And in addition to that, what is the reason you’re taking those photos?”

Professor Barasch says that intent is critical. And bad news if you’re fixated on capturing something ‘Insta-worthy’.

“When people are thinking about getting the best photo for Instagram or Facebook, to get likes, to think about how they’ll be evaluated … this creates anxiety, fear of getting the perfect image.”

And she says that anxiety is heightened at short-lived events – like watching a bike race, for example.

“You’re undermining the experience,” she says.

Professor Barasch says that people bent on sharing are likely to take multiple photos of the same thing, in a bid to capture the ‘perfect moment’ – something which means you spend even less time seeing it live.

And the same thing applies if you’re out on a ride and desperate to snap that perfect combination of road, rider and sunrise.

“If you’re looking at it through the lens of a camera, especially if you’re thinking about sharing it … [it] basically puts a barrier between you and that special moment.”

Hardly the kind of memory most of us would crave.

But more than a few pros probably wouldn’t mind the idea of some sort of barrier. Because not only does the sharing mentality diminish fans’ enjoyment, it materially increases the riders’ risk too.

Clips of Vincenzo Nibali’s Alpe d’Huez crash, in which he sustained a broken vertebrae, suggest he was likely felled by a spectator’s camera strap. While that appeared accidental, a YouTube clip, entitled ‘Running with Sagan’ is one fan’s proud chronicle (from multiple angles) of that time he got close enough with a selfie stick to capture himself alongside the world champion.

Comments on the ‘Running with Sagan’ clip denounce the poster, Sebastian Schjerve, describing him as an ‘idiot,’ a ‘cretin,’ and lecture him ‘not to interfere.’

Vlogger Sebastian Schjerve runs alongside Peter Sagan at the 2018 Tour de France.
In recent years the Tour de France has stepped up moves to separate riders and fans. Romain Bardet has fronted French campaigns urging fans to respect the riders. Fan behaviour, and attitudes towards Team Sky in particular, were a major issue at this year’s Tour.

“Boo all you want, but don’t interfere with the riders,” Geraint Thomas said, lamenting Nibali’s Alpe d’Huez misfortune. Thankfully, the Italian’s recovery has him on track for a tilt at the Vuelta a España.

Vuelta organiser UniPublic has told CyclingTips its safety campaign spans a number of messages asking fans to behave appropriately by the side of the road, including urging them to “avoid selfies with the cyclists”.

“Avoid selfies with the cyclists” reads the last of three warnings on this safety poster for the 2018 Vuelta.

But for those hell-bent on achieving social media fame, perhaps this is one instance where mob outrage could be harnessed positively?

While Ryan Howells was busy enjoying the moment of the lead group’s passage, one friend did video the passage of Geraint Thomas and his main rivals (see below). The clip showed Ryan waving a Welsh flag, but stepping back well before the riders passed.

Howells, who has Welsh family, joked that the fear of potentially ruining Thomas’ chance at glory kept him cautious.

“Imagine if you were waving that flag and you got it stuck in Geraint’s spokes and he went over the handlebars, and you were that dude?!”, he said. “I saw them coming up and I just thought, ‘I don’t want to be that guy.'”


As for living in the moment, even the social media companies whose revenues and growth depend on people’s attention are now recongising that overuse is bad for both the user and the company.

In San Francisco last week, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger was explaining new controls to mute the app, and to show people how much time they were spending scrolling through it.

“It would be a totally fine outcome,” Krieger said, referring to the possibility of people curbing their usage.

The funny thing is, psychologists like Alix Barasch say we all know this already, but many of us just can’t help ourselves.

“Most people will tell you their priority is living in the moment, experiencing the event as it happens,” she says, while explaining that very often those same people are taking photos instead.

But there is a different kind of of photography, and memory, that Alix Barasch says is healthy, and that can improve our memories – the candid type. You and your friends, out on the bike. Or enjoying the roadside atmosphere so unique to bike racing.

“Two hours before the tour arrived, we got some great photos,” says Ryan. “The photos of everyone cycling there, hanging out with some cool French people who gave us beers, and on top of the climbs.

“They’re really nice photos to take back.”

About the author

James Bennett is a cycling mad video-journalist who has covered everything from sheep shearing to several Tours de France. He recently completed a posting to India as ABC Australia’s South Asia correspondent, and can currently be found riding up and down San Francisco’s hills. He’s on Twitter: @James_L_Bennett.

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