Cycling is a sport steeped in tradition. From races that have spanned decades, to unspoken rules in the peloton, to countless legendary tales of epic wins and heartbreaking losses, the sport’s history is rich. In many ways, this is what makes it special – these stories have kept fans engaged season after season. However, sometimes so much focus on the sport’s past can end up stilting its future, and a reluctance to change means that as the world moves on, cycling is at risk of being left behind. Bas Tietema, a YouTuber turned cycling team manager, is on a mission to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“The culture and most of the teams is to set up a roster and try to win races. They then think that because they are winning races, they will get fans and sponsors attracted to the team,” Tietema says. “I think that’s how it was back in the day when newspapers and TV stations were the key point of media value. Nowadays, the world has transformed quite a lot, especially on social media platforms. You see it in Formula One with Netflix, new media platforms are coming into the sport.
“I still don’t get why sports directors say their riders have to be in the break because then they are feasible to sponsors, yet they won’t make their own content around the team which they can control themselves, saying whatever they want to their own fans. They don’t invest in that part of their organisation. If they get one million euros, they are signing more riders, but you could instead set up the most incredible media team to make content for a whole year, where people follow the team through good and bad, no matter if you are winning or losing.”
Tietema follows his own advice religiously – creating content has been a key part of the TDT-Unibet team since its inception. It all stems from the 2019 Tour de France, when Tietema and two of his friends made videos handing out pizzas to the peloton in Paris and doing pranks with fans throughout the race, sharing the content on a YouTube channel which has now amassed 175,000 subscribers. The likes of Tadej Pogačar and Wout van Aert eating Domino's pizza led to Tietema’s videos reaching almost half a million people and proved to the Dutchman that he was onto something special in his content creation. Fast forward four years, and Tietema now has his very own ProTeam with a squad of 20 talented riders, a flashy service course in Holland and over 50 staff employed in his organisation.
Tomas Kopecky (left) after his win in Kreiz Breizh, with Jordy Bouts (Image: TDT-Unibet)
The ultimate aim, as Tietema is quick to admit, is getting TDT-Unibet to compete in the Tour de France themselves in 2026. If they can make it happen, it will undoubtedly be a compelling story: the cheeky underdogs who were once handing out pizzas to Tour de France pros are now racing against them. Fundamentally, that’s what TDT-Unibet is all about, creating engaging stories that really mean something to fans. The team’s recently released hour-long documentary, for example, chronicled the 2023 season, depicting a raw and honest account of the ups and downs that come with running a professional cycling team.
“What you see in the film and what we tried to express during the whole year was not only the highs and the sport but also the low moments. They are, in my opinion, more effective engagement as you’re being transparent and touching people,” Tietema says.
It’s true that the film aims to be as honest as possible with its audience, openly discussing the finances required for TDT-Unibet to make the step up to ProTeam level and explaining, in detail, the complexities of the UCI race calendar. This is all with the goal of opening the sport up to as wide an audience as possible.
“The red line through the film is about being the underdog and getting to the biggest podium of the world. We are doing that now in cycling but you could take that message into any other sport like football or basketball,” Tietema explains. “I think that's the key of what we are doing because as you talk about the inside of the sport, the general public doesn’t always find it that interesting. We’re always trying to keep it simple and to the basics. I think that's the reason why people outside of the industry enjoy the journey.”
It’s not only in their approach to media that TDT-Unibet are trying to do things differently, Tietema’s style for scouting riders is far from conventional. He worked with a statistics analysis he met via social media last year to try and discover some untapped talent in the sport by analysing Strava segments and looking at how riders recovered after each race.
“We don't have the budget to set up a whole scouting team, so we were tracking a lot of data on Strava. Not just raw data, like when someone is doing a test and they are one hundred percent, but also looking at what happens after someone burns a certain amount of kilojoules during a race, are they still able to push the same numbers? We found riders with a good physical level and then spoke to them more about who they were as a person and if they would fit with the team,” Tietema explains.TDT-Unibet riders in the breakaway at the Tour of Britain (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Next season, TDT-Unibet will include some riders that very few people would have heard of, but Tietema sees employing young and fresh talent as key to his vision for the team. He argues that paying more money for professional riders who are already established in the peloton isn’t always key to success, while giving a lesser known rider an opportunity can really motivate someone to perform and be an investment in the long term future of the team.
“We are not going to be the ones that are messing with money to get those big riders. We want to create something that's sustainable. Teams that have more money can pay better and get the best riders, but in the end, a sports organisation has two goals: to be sustainable and to achieve good results. Now it seems many teams are only focused on getting results,” he explains.
Despite Tietema’s insistence that performance isn’t the most important part of his organisation, the reality of professional cycling is that UCI points and race results are crucial to a team progressing. He explains that, although much of the focus will remain on content creation, he still expects that TDT-Unibet will be very competitive as a ProTeam next year, arguing that the likes of Zeb Kyffin – who finished sixth in the Tour of Britain this year – has the potential to truly contest for podiums at the highest level.
Selling his vision to traditional sponsors of sports teams, who are used to buying sponsorship based on the success of a team alone, is another challenge that Tietema has had to overcome when finding enough budget for his team to progress to ProTeam level. The 28-year-old is pushing companies to think outside of the box by investing in TDT-Unibet, disrupting the norm and forcing them to look at what they will get from his team through a new lens.
TDT-Unibet team car at the 2023 Tour of Britain (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
“We are growing quite fast in general. That's something that's quite tough for brands to keep up with that speed because four years ago, it was just the three of us going to the Tour de France creating content and now we are a Pro Continental team. When brands speak to us, they have to work out if they are getting something that comes out of their media budget or their sponsorship budget,” Tietema explains. “For them it’s sometimes a bit of an issue about where to place us. What we are doing is still quite new so you have to convince them about how we approach things with the media part.
“I see the value of working with brands to create unique things that people are talking about. Not just an association but getting the most out of it instead of just making logo placements. That’s what we did with Cannondale on our team bikes last year, even with our team cars, we are trying to create something unique instead of just plain visibility. We are selling out media value”
It’s not only sponsors who Tietema feels can reap the benefits of the social media exposure his team offers. He also believes that videos that TDT-Unibet create can shine a spotlight on some of the smaller races on the cycling calendar, bringing more fans to the race for the organisers. This is something he expects to be an asset to the team when it comes to getting wildcard invites for prestigious events next season.
“One of our riders won the Kreiz Breizh stage race last year and with all due respect to winning that race, because it is still really hard, nobody of the 200,000 people watching our videos cares about that race. But because of our media team, we can highlight that race as one of the biggest races of the year. We can show races that are normally not even on screen,” Tietema says. “For next year, the reason why we probably will receive wildcards is not because we have big cycling stars that have won the biggest races in the world, but because we have something unique with our media aspect and fans.”
To make it to the start line of the Tour de France in just two years' time is a huge goal, and one that many who have been in the sport a long time would shake their heads at. Creating a cycling team from a YouTube channel and bringing them to the sport’s biggest event is something that shouldn’t be possible, but those who have followed Tietema’s journey so far will know that doubting him could be foolish. Ever since he entered the cycling world, the Dutchman has been doing things that many would have once deemed impossible, challenging the status quo by bringing a fresh perspective to the sport.
“When we were first announced as a Pro Continental team, everyone was directly talking about results, results, results. What are your performance goals? I think that's something that's a challenge for us. We need to be who we are,” Tietema says.
“We are diving into the highest ranks of the cycling industry where everyone is chasing the win. Of course, we are trying to win, but nobody cares about UCI points. We care about media value. When we held the premiere of our documentary, there were two thousand people coming to a theatre to watch it. Not many other teams could achieve that. Keeping that balance between performance and media value will be a challenge, but I’m proud we are a unique project in cycling.”
Cover image: TDT-Unibet