Top Professional Road Cyclists With the Highest Social Interactions Among Fans
The Spring Classics offer some of the most exciting racing of the year, and this year certainly did not disappoint. From Philippe Gilbert becoming one step closer to conquering all of cycling’s monuments to the heart-stopping finish of Amstel Gold, this April offered no shortage of thrilling racing. Were these stunning performances enough to propel the winners to the top of the social standings?
Note: All data from Hookit Engagement rankings on May 6th, 2019. Data is updated consistently to reflect live rankings on the Hookit Rankings website.
Spectacular Classics Performances Catapult Riders up the Rankings
After a traumatic crash at last year’s Tour de France, Philippe Gilbert made an impressive comeback in 2019, landing an emotional victory at Paris-Roubaix. While the popular Gilbert has often found himself in the Hookit Top 10, his Paris-Roubaix finish-line photo that was posted across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounted for almost 30% of his monthly interactions, cementing him in second place for April, beat out only by Peter Sagan.
It’s hard to imagine the Spring classics this year without cyclocross world champion Mathieu Van der Poel. He was a major contender in many of the races, and it was hard not to root for him and his never-give-up attitude. His determination paid off at Amstel Gold, where he chased down the leaders in the closing kilometers and then subsequently outsprinted everyone to take the win. Van der Poel was relatively quiet on social media in March, dropping to the bottom of the rankings. However, the excitement around his performances in April drove a lot of engagement on his Twitter and Facebook posts, helping him jump 863 places to surge back into the top 10 in April, despite not having an Instagram Business account.
Beyond likes, comments, and shares, only three cyclists gained more followers than the ever popular Peter Sagan in April: Philippe Gilbert, Mathieu Van der Poel, and Alberto Bettiol. What do they have in common? A win at one of the Spring Classics. Though Bettiol didn’t make the top 10 in terms of interactions, his dramatic win at the Tour of Flanders (which also happened to be his first professional win) led him to see massive double-digit follower growth in April. Such opportunities generate huge levels of exposure for not only these riders, but for their teams and sponsors. Taking advantage of such growth by creating regular authentic and engaging content can help these athletes continue to thrive on social media.
Sagan Still King of Social
After succumbing to sickness early in the year, Peter Sagan appeared to struggle at the beginning of the 2019 season, resulting in a less than stellar Spring campaign. Of course, with landing just off the podium at Milan-San Remo and a fifth place at Paris-Roubaix, his results are nothing to scoff at, but they are far from those of the dominant Sagan we’ve seen in the past. Regardless, his performance on the road doesn’t seem to have affected his reign as the most popular cyclist on social media. With almost three times as many interactions as his closest competitor, Sagan is still very much on the top step of the social media podium. However, over the past few months, his follower growth has been relatively slow and his content has become largely promotional and impersonal compared to much of Sagan’s older content that better captured his unique personality. Will Sagan continue to stay on top?
Consistency is Key
Rounding out the top 3 on the leaderboard is Carlos Verona Quintanilla. The Movistar rider did not have any particularly outstanding results on the road in April and has a relatively small following on social media compared to Sagan and Gilbert, so how did he secure the third step on the podium? He posted almost daily on Instagram, keeping his fans updated and engaged as they follow his racing adventures. This consistency paid off, as he was able to continually rack up likes, comments, and shares little by little each day, driving him up to 3rd place.
Though Paris-Roubaix still does not offer a women’s race, fans were treated to spectacular racing at each of the classics that offered a women’s edition. Some highlights: Anna Van der Breggen snagged her fifth victory at La Flèche Wallonne, while Kasia Niewiadoma held off a hard-chasing Annemiek Van Vleuten to hang on for the win at Amstel Gold. In addition to the thrilling racing, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s Tour of Flanders post-race interview video went viral, highlighting her animated and refreshingly honest recap of the race. Such exposure is critically important at a time where coverage of women’s professional cycling still doesn’t come close to the extensive coverage of men’s racing (both La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège did not offer live television coverage of the women’s race). As a result, racers must take to social media to share their racing experiences with their fans. Who came out on top?
Note: All data from Hookit Engagement rankings on May 13th, 2019. Data is updated consistently to reflect live rankings on the Hookit Rankings website.
World Champion Van der Breggen and Boels-Dolmans Squad On Top
Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans), the current road World Champion, tops our list of riders for April. After missing some road races early in the season to pair up with Annika Langvad to race Cape Epic, van der Breggen quickly returned to the top with a win at La Flèche Wallonne. This was her fifth time winning the race, matching Marianne Vos’ record at the same race. Though van der Breggen is not very active on Twitter or Facebook, she accumulated over 50k interactions and grew her following on Instagram by 10% in April. Van der Breggen’s Boels-Dolmans teammates Chantal Blaak and Annika Langvad also joined her in the Hookit Top 10 for April, only matched by Trek-Segafredo in terms of the number of team riders appearing in the top 10.
Mountain Bikers Make Their Mark on the Road
What do Jolanda Neff and Annika Langvad have in common? They’re both former world cross-country mountain bike champions that have now signed on to women’s world tour road cycling teams (Trek-Segafredo and Boels-Dolmans, respectively). Despite neither having an Instagram Business account, they both easily made it into the Hookit Top 10 for April, with Neff in 2nd and Langvad in 6th. They’re both popular figures in the mountain biking community, but are quickly expanding their fan base beyond mountain biking with their successes on the road. Langvad started her road season with a bang after a second place finish at Strade Bianche, followed by a third place at La Flèche Wallonne in April.
Lack of Instagram Business Accounts Leading Some Riders to Miss Out
On the men’s side, we’ve mentioned Sagan, Gilbert, Bettiol, and Van der Poel — but there’s another cyclist that’s taken the 2019 season by storm who’s clearly missing from our list. Despite his incredible season so far, Julian Alaphilippe did not make the top 10 (or even the top 20). At a quick glance, Alaphilippe appears to have an active and relatively popular Instagram account. However, he is not currently set up as an Instagram Business account like some of the more socially savvy professional cyclists, and thus is unable to be included in the rankings due to changes in the Instagram privacy settings last year. While Van der Poel also does not have an Instagram Business account, his Twitter posts garnered a huge amount of engagement last month, landing in the top 5 in terms of Twitter interactions. This is particularly impressive considering he has only a fraction of the followers of Gilbert, Sagan, Uran, and Froome, the only 4 who outperformed Van der Poel on Twitter. Alaphilippe, on the other hand, relies heavily on Instagram, and had little Twitter or Facebook presence in April, leaving him at the bottom of our rankings.
On the women’s side, Van der Breggen’s compatriot Annemiek Van Vleuten is one of her top competitors on the road. In April alone, Van Vleuten has racked up three-second places at some of Spring’s biggest races, as well as a win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. However, unlike Van der Breggen, Van Vleuten does not have an Instagram Business account. As a result, her interactions are limited to Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, of the top 10 this month, Van Vleuten outperforms the rest on Twitter, but without an Instagram Business account, she’ll have trouble reaching the top step. Van Vleuten isn’t the only one who hasn’t made the switch. Kasia Niewiadoma, winner of this year’s Amstel Gold race, Marianne Vos, and a number of other big names also haven’t made the jump.
Many athletes have hesitated to convert to a business account for fear of drops in engagement or for fear of being perceived as less authentic. These concerns are largely unfounded, and there are a lot of reasons why professional athletes might want to consider switching over. Besides being included in the Hookit monthly rankings, Instagram Business accounts provide athletes with detailed analytics that allow them to better understand how their content is performing, who their audience is, and how to best engage their fans and expand their reach. Of course, such high-performing athletes are much more focused on other things (like winning races) rather than their success on social media, but social media is a powerful tool these athletes can leverage to build their brands and attract sponsorship dollars. This is particularly important in a smaller sport like cycling, where the pool of resources is becoming increasingly limited.
The Wrap Up
After a thrilling Spring full of cobbled classics, cycling fans took to social media to celebrate the victors. While Sagan and Van der Breggen remain on top in the world of social media, others could start to leverage their newly found popularity to continue to grow their presence and engage their fans in authentic and exciting ways. As we head into the Grand Tours, we’ll see whether more professional cyclists start to take advantage of Instagram Business accounts to not only grow and engage their fanbase, but also to promote the brands that keep them rolling.
Note: All data is from official Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram Business accounts. Any personal Instagram account data is not included in these rankings.
Written by Esther Walker
Esther is a Senior Research Scientist at Hookit. She received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego and loves helping people understand how to derive meaningful insights from a sea of endless data. When she’s not nerding out over data, you’ll probably find her on a bicycle.
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