Words Tom Southam
Images Chris Auld

The fact that I work in the entertainment business is nothing new.

We’d be going over very old ground if I wrote about how the athletic feats of cyclists through the ages has actually (apart from in the eyes of a very small and dedicated audience) amounted to not much more than the advertising of electrical goods, flooring, UPVC windows and supermarkets.

However, it feels like recently sports, in general, have moved even further into the realms of entertainment. I’m talking about the Netflix effect, a.k.a Netflixification.

There is no shortage of cycling coverage on the popular streaming platform, especially these days. But the way that cycling’s big Netflix show, ‘Tour de France Unchained’ is designed, and made (very well) is totally new ground.

There have been cameras everywhere at the Tour for years now. But apart from the Backstage Pass videos that Dan Jones produced for Orica, the ‘behind the scenes’ content supplied by teams was always rather bland. It was made quickly, with low production values, and suffered from the sterility that comes from making films that are really just adverts.

Then along came Box to Box Films, the company which opened up the world of F1 with the Drive to Survive series; hungry to do the same thing with cycling.

If we are honest, Drive to Survive works because the drivers (being the offspring of gazillionaires) don’t care what they say about other people on film – for example; their teammates.

‘They hate each other!’

It’s a show, it’s box office, it’s entertainment… the boss’s wife is a Spice Girl and he takes a helicopter to work. That sort of stuff.

In short, out with sport being the singular focus, in with semi-reality TV. Before cycling would know it, what happened on the road would become the (often gory) backdrop of the narrative for the few chosen characters in each team. And this is where it starts to get interesting for cycling, because there has never really been a story that ran on top of the race that wasn’t being told by just one team at a time. Now there is a plotline about the characters in the race, their rivalries, hopes, disappointments – and so on.

When the first season was filmed at the Tour in 2022, it all felt pretty easy. Each of the eight teams in the show has a small crew of three people embedded during the Tour. These guys are all interesting and hard working television people whose job it is not to be noticed, so you don’t.

But, surely and steadily, everything starts to add up to the plot of a Netflix show. The races in the build up, the selection processes, the pre-race strategy meetings, where management will either look like geniuses or have their best-laid plans thwarted when the show finally airs.

It’s a playful thought, but I do wonder when the show will take precedence over the pure sporting element of the race? It will happen, of course.

There will come a time when reality TV takes over from reality, and a decision is influenced by the desire to grip an audience rather than simply get someone on a bicycle to cross a line first.

I mean, how boring would that be – right? If you just won.

But hey, maybe that isn’t the worst thing in the world either. In 2023, there is no dressing room, no training ground or management meeting that isn’t being filmed for a sports documentary somewhere. Cycling needs to be in the game, and it has more drama and excitement than a lot of other sports. It’s rich and varied and damned exciting.

Netflixification is no doubt where we are at, and it is also where we need to go. We can but buckle up… I guess.