On The Passing of Cycling.TV

Oct 11 2017

Will Farrell sings at a fanciful funeral for cycling.tv

♫…all we are is dust in the wind…♫

Last week, numerous cycling outlets reported that Cycling.TV, long-time online broadcaster of Euro cycling events, would be shutting down forever in a little less than a month. The company’s message to subscribers ran thusly:

Cycling.TV regrets to inform you that as of November 3, 2017 we will cease operations. As set forth in Clause 4 of Cycling.TV’s Terms and Conditions of Purchase, you will receive “a refund of the amount you pre-paid for the Services less an amount proportionate to the number of days for which you have had access to the Services”.

It was, as valedictions go, brilliantly and painfully appropriate—terse, yet convoluted, devoid of detail, accompanied by radio silence from the company, and utterly out of sync with anything on either the company’s website or Twitter feed, even now, a full week after the announcement. At time of publication, its app remains ready for download.

Just based on the rest of the brand’s communications, the mere existence of a closure announcement is notable, and the fact that it arrived weeks before the eventual termination feels like a minor miracle.

And yet, it remains nothing short of amazing that Cycling.TV made it this far. It’s old enough that tracking down its digital origins is difficult. The site’s initial appearance in the Internet Archive is 2003, and the first media mention I could find was in November of that year, predating both YouTube and the phrase “social media”. By 2004 it was broadcasting—if not races, then at least ads for balance bikes.

By the following classics season, it had seemingly achieved the breakthrough—live online coverage of Het Volk (~$12) and KBK (free). Through damp conditions and intermittent snow, I watched a leg-warmer-less Stijn Devolder shred the field, before George Hincapie snuck away in the closing kilometers and dusted Kevin Van Impe in a two-up sprint. It was one of those “this is the future, man” moments. I was so excited I took a screenshot:

Cycling.TV KBK Screenshot

This was the Internet in 2005

Don’t get me wrong—there were still issues. Video quality was quite variable and even at its best, roughly the size of a credit card. It took a couple tries on several different browsers to get everything up and running. The entire website lived inside a giant, inscrutable Flash app, which even then felt like legacy tech. But no matter—these were early days. The concept of cheap direct delivery—when a cable package containing a few hour-cut one-days alongside the girthy tripe of Versus’ TdF coverage was already nearing $100/mo—had seemingly been proven.

From a letter to the editor I sent Velonews that seems (mercifully) never to have been published:

…I watched George Hincapie flat ride away from Kevin van Impe from 300 yards out at KBK. Man, that was sweet. While you were watching bass fishing on OLN, I was watching the race LIVE (and for free) over the internet at https://www.cycling.tv. Not only that, but I also saw Tour of Qatar, the Jacob’s Creek Tour Down Under, and the British Cyclocross Championships. For free. And with no Al Trautwig.

Man, that was sweet. Cycling.tv might just be the greatest thing to happen to bike racing since integrated shifters. Since it’s always on, I think I’ll go watch it again right now.

Little did I know that this would be Cycling.TV’s apex.

Granted, 2005 was not a great time to start a video delivery project—the first browser wars had left Internet Explorer with nearly 100% of the market, but it was declining mastery of a scorched-earth ecosystem that could best be described as “universally inconsistent”.

As problems became progressively more intractable, various camps battled for user share with cleanliness, speed, and standards-compliance. The first Firefox dropped in late 2004, marking the beginning of the end for Netscape Navigator. Apple released its pre-packaged Safari browser in 2003, eventually prompting Microsoft to kill IE for Mac in 2007.

Cycling.TV, which had initially billed itself as functional on Internet Explorer and Netscape, suddenly found itself without a stable Macintosh browser, just as sales of the brand were spiking with the runaway successes of iPod and iTunes. The next spring, When Hincapie’s steerer separated on Mons-en-Pevele, I missed it, furiously refreshing my browser after another sort of crash left me staring at a “loading” graphic for probably the third time that morning.

Compounding this issue, Cycling.TV was built on a series of precarious proprietary video platforms. Its early versions ran on the Narrowstep player, then switched to Jump.TV, which merged with current corporate entity NeuLion year or so later. Until late 2007, Cycling.TV’s website didn’t even have non-Flash portions—this meant there weren’t any parts of the webpage that Google’s search bots could scan, or that a non-Flash-enabled device (like the then-newly-announced iPhone) could read. And even after traditional website components were built out, all the actual video content remained inside the Flash portion’s buggy black box.

On the whole, there seemed to be no real understanding—or really any communication whatsoever—between whoever ran Cycling.TV’s tech side, and the voices speaking and writing to its viewers. I distinctly remember Anthony McCrossan repeatedly saying you could put the Cycling.TV stream on your TV with “an S-Video cable”—which, while technically true in a small number of cases, was by no means an exhaustive set of instructions that would work for all (or even most) viewers.

Their business model at least initially suffered similar confusion, offering an upper tier of subscribers higher-bandwidth video streams at a time when vast swathes of audience was suffering along on connections barely fast enough to accommodate the lowest available quality. Full on-demand replays were also rolled into these premium packages, but the Flash app’s poor-to-non-existent fast-forward and rewind (along with continued general instability) cut any usefulness off at the knees.

But the real technical albatross around Cycling.TVs neck was the relentless pace of the rest of the world. YouTube established page-load-and-go viewing that worked more or less across platforms and was available to anyone, anytime, for free. Its marriage with Google in 2006 cemented the expectation that this experience would be the default moving forward, and by 2009 a whole ecosystem of pirates and pirate-feed-aggregators had emerged, delivering that very same experience using ad-driven livestream platforms to shunt over-the-air bike racing around the antiquated lines demarcating TV broadcast regions.

a screenshot of viewing options on Steephill

Look familiar?

That said, there was still a chance as the aughts rolled out for Cycling.TV to find a niche in this landscape. Piracy was (and continues to be) a buggy, frustrating, ad-filled, language-indifferent and unreliable experience. The earliest HTRWWs used CTV because it was better, but only just, thanks to the site’s aforementioned technical shortcomings. Sustained improvements and heartfelt apologies might have won hearts and minds, but the company decided to go a different way.

Cycling.TV’s customer relations were shaky from the get-go. In 2006, they charged $35 for a premium membership. This came with for-sure coverage of the spring classics, with other high profile events listed on the year-long schedule as “TBD” (rather than “live” or “on-demand”). As the event dates drew closer, they became $20 upsells (the Giro, the Vuelta) or simply “highlights” (the TdF), or even disappeared entirely. Though they backed away somewhat from this bait-and-switch model in later years, prices continued to rise, and early-season purchases remained inexcusably ambiguous on what buyers might actually be getting.

As users migrated away from the site, customer service horror stories began to emerge. When bloggers made fairly constructive attempts to highlight the shortcomings, Cycling.TV employees left comments continuing to defend the website and offering push-back rather than working to make customers feel whole.

The rise of social media was similarly unkind to the company. It gave cycling fans a place to communicate and share information about races, including but not limited to different viewing strategies, links to pirate feeds, and real-time feedback and information about services they were using. Years before Twitter lit up NBC for idiotically delaying its “live” Roubaix so TV viewers could see Arenberg, cycling fans were broadcasting the story of Cycling.TV’s protracted technical crisis:

You’d think at some point someone with professional experience in customer service might have stepped in but no—for years the brand continued to “counter-punch” (borrowing a phrase of the moment) any allegation of inferior content delivery. Even users with no complaint other than they just wanted to watch some bike races were rebuffed with an attitude somewhere between “indifferent” and “asshole”:

It is, I suppose, a detachment the brand will carry to its grave. Despite its impending doom, the Cycling.TV website continues to list events scheduled well past its official shutdown date, either too disaffected to care, or unscrupulously trying to suck a few more dollars out of its unsuspecting and long-suffering audience.

Cycling.TV schedule

…but aren’t you guys shutting down on the 3rd?

But in what is one of the most disappointing aspects of this entire saga, this attitude seems to be the last of the company’s sins to be absolved. Cycling.TV is now a “real” website, with a homepage, pages for each event, cross-platform support through an app, easy on-demand viewing, and a detailed and delivered-upon schedule. I shed no tears at its demise, but cannot help wonder what might have been had one aspect or another of the brand’s problems been resolved in a matter of years and not decades.

And frankly, there remains some uplift in Cycling.TV’s now-inevitable demise—if the company was able to carry on for 14 years—a near-eternity in Internet time—doing everything wrong, what might happen if a company finally comes along who knows how to do things right?

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