cycling journalism

News is like cycling

Me, Friday.

Breaking news is like road cycling
Everything else is mountain biking

On Friday evening I fell while mountain biking. I misjudged a corner, launched over the handlebars and landed hard, the left side of my rib cage creating a flat smack as it hit the damp earth. My elbow gouged a patch of muddy gravel. It was stupid. Thirty seconds later I was dusted off and back on the trail.

On Saturday morning I was out again, road cycling this time. I managed to stay on top of the bike, thankfully, but while grinding up a hill between Enniskerry and Glencree I came upon a traffic jam caused by a downed road biker. He must have hit the deck hard, because a paramedic had him in a neck brace while they waited for an ambulance. He wasn’t getting back on his bike.

There seems to be a misconception among would-be cyclists that road cycling is a safer option than mountain biking. Prima facie, it seems all about grunt effort on flat surfaces – keep the bike pointed in the right direction, apply force, and you’re onto a good thing. Off-road biking, on the other hand, meansovercoming all manner of obstacles. Rocks, streams, puddles, slippery tree roots, wildlife (you’d be surprised) drop-offs and plenty more. Surely that’s risky business? Surely flat, predictable roads must be safer?

NOT SO.

On a mountain bike, you are most likely to fall as you slow down to deal with something in your way. Most crashes are slow-speed affairs, a silly topple here, a forced dismount there. What you land on can be rocky and jagged, but just as often it’s soft and forgiving. Mud, bushes, pine needles, grass and the like – all soft, earthy & accommodating to the human body. And, crucially, you hit the deck slowly. Roads covered in tarmac are less yielding.

Downhilling at speed on a road bike, as any mountain biker who has tried it will tell you, is an insanely risky business. It is non-stop, squeaky bum terror.  Your contact with the ground is via two tiny areas of slick rubber, each about the size of your thumbnail. The stopping power of hydraulic disc brakes, which you enjoy on a mountain bike, is replaced with temperamental rim brakes which you dab gently, unless both your wheels are in line. Unless you’re skilled and alert, danger is ever-present, particularly for the unskilled. Brake badly and you fall. Hit a patch of gravel and you fall. Hit an dodgy patch of road at speed and you fall. Hit a wet patch or a white line at the wrong time and you fall. Lose concentration and you fall.

Falling at speed on a road bike is a torrid affair, it means grating the skin of swathes of your body, breaking collarbones and worse, not to mention the risk of being hit by cars. I topped out at 63kmh downhill on Saturday. Next time you’re driving your car at 63kmh, imagine jumping out the window with only spandex for protection.

What has this to do with news?

Reporting breaking news is like cycling a fast downhill on a road bike.

Reporting news at a traditional pace is like mountain biking down a trail.

The faster try to break news, the better you need to be and the more alert you need to be. Because the faster you do it, the more likely it is that you will fall, unless you are very, very good. And when you fall, as with cycling, you tend to do damage. (Think CNN and the SCOTUS judgement or the AFP getting hoaxed by a fake Muslim Brotherhood website) Your relationship with the story, at that pace, is like your bike’s relationship with the road. It is infinitesimal, it is fleeting. One bump and the two threaten to separate and it all goes tits up very, very quickly.

Regular reporting, on the other hand, affords you the opportunity to look around more. As with the mountain bike trail, you must appreciate the surrounds and the conditions at play in order to pick your line. You take the reader around and over the bumps in the road. When you stumble, it is easy to recover. You notice the unusual things surrounding a story (metaphorically represented by the beautiful views on Friday, and the deer, hares and stoats that we saw in Ballinastoe). Regular reporting (and mountain biking) present risks, but the rewards are richer. It’s not purely about speed, it’s about the appropriate combination of speed and context.

There’s a huge surge in road cycling at the moment, matched in the news world by an ever-increasing desire to report faster.  Neither cohorts seem to appreciate the risks. As the news business approaches breakneck speeds (they’re called that for a reason) only a tiny minority are willing to acquire the skills they need to do it safely. They are hurtling downhill, failing to brake when it’s appropriate, ignoring the road conditions, going so fast that they struggle to keep in contact with the facts. And people (read: news organisations) keep hitting the deck. Hard.

Knowing when to slow up is crucially important. Knowing how and why you should dab the brakes is equally important. Mountain bikers, for this reason, often make good road bikers, because they know when to brake and when to let things roll. Last year’s Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, is a former mountain biker, as are a swathe of the top-ranked riders, including current green jersey, Peter Sagan.

So what’s the ‘takeaway’ here? If you’re a road cyclist, hire or borrow a mountain bike for a week and learn how to downhill on it. Your speedo won’t hit 63kmh, but the skills you pick up at a slightly slower pace might save your life on the tarmac. And for media types – learn when to slow down your breakneck news reporting to sensible breaking news. It’s better to be right than first, and why risk having your failures sprawled out on the tarmac, a mess of road rash and jutting bones?

There’s a sporting saying: To finish first, first you must finish. In cycling, that means you must finish the race. In journalism, it means you must finish all the normal checks before pressing ‘publish’.

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<Quick charity plug – I’m cycling 160km in aid of the Mark Pollock Trust in September – donate here. >

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