There are a lot of cycling-related podcasts out there. A search for “cycling” in iTunes generates one hundred examples. Some are less connected to the sport than others, and the further down you scroll the less confident one becomes in the results. “Mind Pump,” anyone?
Our own is further down the listings than we might like (but who knows how these algorithms really work, eh?)
Right at the top, however, is the belt-wearing, heavyweight champion of them all, and the only one that contains the definite article: The Cycling Podcast.
Born in 2013, The Cycling Podcast was the brainchild of three experienced journalists, Lionel Birnie, Richard Moore and Daniel Friebe. Every week for more than six years – with the odd interruption – they have got together to discuss the latest goings-on, gossip and, of course, racing from the professional peloton. During the Grand Tours this frequency increases to daily doses of discussion of each stage, recorded on location at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta.
In the interests of full disclosure, I ought to mention that the Cycling Podcast provided me with my first pieces of paid work in cycling and were instrumental in my getting a job at Rouleur. Long before that, however, I was a dedicated listener, having found them, as many, in just the way I described above. It was a much less crowded field back then.
“It’s amazing that we had that name and were trying to think of a better one for quite a long time,” says Lionel. “We spent a couple of weeks thinking there’s got to be something better than that.”
I’ve grabbed Lionel and Richard for a chat shortly before they’re due on stage at the Rouleur Classic, along with veteran French journalist and the Podcast’s supersub Francois Thomazeau, to present their “Alternative Cycling Hall of Fame”. It will serve as something of a prologue to what their calling their own Grand Tour. For as well as several spin-offs, and a collaborative diary of the season, The Cycling Podcast has spawned a stage show. In what has become an annual event, the core trio and a rotating cast of guests spend some of the less race-intensive period of the season crossing the country (and the Irish sea) to “perform” the podcast to their loyal followers.
Could they have imagined when they started out, with little more technology at their disposal than an iPhone, that they’d one day be doing it in front of packed audiences in grand venues such as Harrogate’s resplendent Theatre Royal, where they were during the World Championships?
“I know it was Lionel’s masterplan,” jokes Richard, “but no, absolutely not. When you do events like in Harrogate, in this beautiful Victorian theatre… Just even having the view of it from the stage feels like a real privilege, and then to see lots of people sitting in the audience… It’s stunning, really.”
They obviously recognise that what they do works, and that there’s an audience for it, but they also seem aware that the subject matter, cycling, and their expertise, although important, is not what gets people out on a cold November night.
“I think that they come to see who we are,” says Lionel.
Richard agrees: “If you read a book, or listen to a podcast, you develop a relationship with the author or the podcasters. If I read a book that I love, and I go and see an event with someone who’s written it talking about it, it just opens up a new way of understanding it, or thinking about it. You get to see behind the curtain a little bit, and I think that’s part of the appeal.”
Each member of the podcast “family” has their own distinct voice and personality, the way they come together, the banter – in the original sense of the word – between people who are clearly good friends, all adds to podcast’s charm.
“I don’t think that we set out to create the dynamic between the three of us in the regular podcast,” says Lionel, “and the people that have come in and joined the team: Francois [Thomazeau], Orla [Chennaoui], Rose [Manley] on the Cycling Podcast Feminin.”
And it’s that “dynamic” that converts their digital audience into bums on seats. Especially in the off-season when there really isn’t much cycling to talk about.
It’s not simply a matter of turning up and doing the podcast live, however. One difference is that the podcast can be edited and cleaned up. “If you say something that doesn’t work, or you go off down a blind alley, you can always cut that out. And you also don’t hear the non-reaction from the audience if you say something that falls flat. I’ve only got to put up with Richard and Daniel kind of…” “Laughing,” Richard interjects. “Not laughing,” corrects Lionel.
With the audience in front of them, the live show is inevitably more of a performance than its recorded sibling, with more prepared elements, such as rehearsed readings from the book. It’s something that’s ever evolving and improving.
“You learn the bits that work well,” says Richard. “The bits that people like and find funny, and so you get much better at delivering it. Pausing at the right moments… You’re anticipating how the audience is going to respond.”
And despite earlier utterances that the sport itself is somewhat peripheral, it’s still at the core of what they do. “At the end of the day people are coming to hear about cycling, so if all else fails we can at least talk quite authentically about cycling for an hour and a half,” says Lionel.
Richard agrees: “Cycling is the vehicle that takes us to these places, that gets us to experience the local cuisine, wine, the place itself. It all relates back to cycling in some way or another.”
And despite having spent decades between them in the sport, their enthusiasm for cycling is evidently as alive as ever.
“I love it,” says Richard. “Having an excuse to watch every single race is fantastic. There’s the odd race that I don’t really enjoy but your weekday, Belgian races in the spring, I love watching them. If there’s a bike race on I’ll have it on in the background… I think the more you know about something the more interested you tend to be in it. The deeper you get into it, if you’re watching a race, and the more riders that you know the more interested and more invested you’re going to be in it.”
Even Daniel, who can at times come across as something of a jaded teenager?
“That’s just Daniel, I think,” replies Richard. “The fact is, when we record the podcast with Daniel, he’s always got something that he’s curious about and interested in. He’s always got some kind of gossip or rumour. So he might say that his enthusiasm and passion ebbs and flows, but actually to me the tap always seems to be on in that sense.”
There is also a degree of performance in the podcast itself. “I do feel I’m trying to press Daniel’s buttons at any given opportunity,” Lionel admits. “Just [by] playing an exaggerated version of all the things Daniel doesn’t like.”
Richard is, he says, a different version of himself when presenting the regular podcast compared to the Cycling Podcast Feminin, which he does with Orla Chennaoui and Rose Manley and who, none will mind my saying, both have somewhat bubblier personalities than their male counterparts:
“With Daniel and Lionel, I feel like I’m the one that has to provide the energy and then when I do it with Orla and Rose I’m the one who is being the anchor, the handbrake to the runaway excitement.”
Lionel leans towards my recorder: “That was *anchor* by the way.”
Given all the other cycling podcasts that keep springing up, I wonder do they ever feel threatened by the competition? It’s a “no” from Lionel.
“What I like about the landscape is everyone’s doing it slightly differently, and so I feel like we’re all, in a way quietly helping each other… I think there’s room for everyone.”
As probably the most popular one around, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
The Cycling Podcast Grand Tour continues until November 30th. You can find all the dates and venue and get tickets via TheCyclingPodcast.com.