Sunday 17 December 2023

Sadhbh O'Shea's journalism tales and tips

Sadhbh (pronounced "sive", like hive) O'Shea has over 10 years' experience in journalism, and has been a prolific writer, working across the cycling titles Cycling News, and Velo News, as well as doing a stint at the BBC. 

She previously shared with me how she got into cycling journalism and what she likes about it.

At the Tour de France (photo: Betsy Welch)
Now, Sadhbh is preparing to move to the other side, working in PR for Team Jayco-AlUla professional cycle racing team. 

Before she transforms herself into a suit, she recalls some journalism anecdotes, notably from working at the last few editions of the Tour de France. 

A busy summer 2023

Yes, it’s been a particularly busy summer – more so than recently. I did the last eight or nine days of the Tour de France and then I did the Tour de France Femmes. But with the Cycling World Championships in Glasgow happening so close afterwards, coming home to the Isle of Man, and then going away again was quite arduous. Soon after that I went to cover races in Canada.

Tour de France

This year was the latest I’ve ever come out for the men’s race, which was a challenge, as so much had already happened. So I started working at the Tour from the penultimate Saturday, on the stage into Morzine. It took a little while to adjust to that, and then I left before the race finished because I had to be in Clermont Ferrand for the start of the women’s race, and be able to do the pre-race stuff.

I didn’t get to do any pre-race work for the 2022 Tour de France Femmes. That year I worked the first 10 days of the men's race and then I went home. Because of staffing levels, I had to work on the men's race from home until the final Friday, and then I flew out to Paris on the Saturday. 

This year I wanted to leave early from the men’s race as we already had someone covering it, so I was able to do all the Tour de France Femmes pre-race coverage.

By that time the Tour de France had moved into the Jura, so it was about a three-hour drive to Clermont Ferrand, where the Tour de France Femmes was starting – so not too bad, all things considered. I was glad I left when I did because if I had waited until they were further up, it would have been a nightmare to try and pick up a car somewhere and then drive more and more diagonally across France. Whereas leaving from Bourg en Bresse was logistically a significantly easier drive than it would have been if I had left later.

I was at the Tour de France for the time trial from Passy to Combloux, which was pretty dramatic. We were stood at these gazebos beyond the finish line and there was a TV in there so we were watching the coverage. I don’t think anyone could really believe what was happening. I think people had thought Vingegaard would be stronger than Pogacar, but not so much stronger. 

I don’t think we’ve ever really seen Pogacar look that second hand before. It was still a good race, but in relation to Vingegaard he wasn’t anywhere near enough. We were just shocked at seeing Pogacar looking properly second best. It was an unusual situation to be in. So yeah, it was quite interesting being where we were. There were fans stood on the side of the road near where we were and it was quite the buzz – you could feel the ripples of surprise and shock among everybody.

Race-day logistics

A Tour de France day is almost always super long, unless it's a short stage. Things condense a little around rest days as you don’t have to do as much travelling.

But when they’ve got the big transitions where you have to jump from one region of France to another region really far away, you end up doing some really long drives during the day. I remember last year when the race dipped into Switzerland for a bit and came back out again, there must have been a two and a half drive from the start to the finish on motorways. 

I tend to work better in the morning – it’s not to say I can’t work better later in the day, but I am not a night owl. I tend to stop working once I’ve had dinner, so in the morning if I’ve got a bit of time I finish off work from the night before. It usually means I do it before breakfast so I can get it out of the way. 

There's usually a point at which we have to leave the hotel, and that is generally to allow ourselves to arrive up to two hours in advance of the stage start. You also want to try to avoid getting caught up in the caravan. 

If it’s an easy way into the media area and you don’t have to cross the course, and you don’t have to mix with other areas to get to the car park that’s fine, but most days you do. So if you arrive just as the caravan is leaving you are stuck for 20 minutes while you wait for them to pass. And then that is 20 minutes of dead time just stuck in the car waiting for the caravan to go through. So it's best to try and avoid that. You’ve also got to account for traffic, so you could be leaving your hotel. So depending where your hotel is, you could be leaving between three and four hours before the stage starts. 

We might stop at a service station and get some food, depending on whether or not there'll be food in the press room. In the last couple of years there’s been a WhatsApp group set up by the Tour de France organisers where they make and announcements and give information to the accredited journalists. One of the pieces of information they send is whether there will be food in the press room. It’s up to the host town or city to put on food. Some cities really want to show off whatever food they’ve got, and keep the journalists happy, so they’ll put on a good press room buffet. Other cities couldn’t care less, so you won’t get anything.

At La Planche des Filles in recent years the food has been quite good, but at the top of Alpe d’Huez, there's cheese and bread and that’s about it. I remember the stage that finished in Saint Gervais de Mont Blanc this year had a decent buffet. Last year at the Tour de France Femmes I remember at one of the stages we were given champagne. It wasn't at Epernay, though when we went there we did get a lot of nice finger food. 

The hazards of reaching the finish line

Sometimes things can go wrong on the day. For example on the stage into Epernay, during the Tour de France Femmes me and my colleague's car had mechanical trouble. We managed to make it to the yellow jersey press conference but we had to skip the winner's press conference so that we could get out in time to exchange our car at the nearest Hertz office. The car was having trouble with hill starts. I live in a hilly area, so am normally all right with hill starts, but I couldn't get the car going. So one of the security guards had to come in the car and floored the accelerator to get it going. He gave it so much welly I thought he was about to steal it! The thing is he had to do that because we were on the course.

On that day journalists had to cut across the course, which was part of a final loop before the riders crossed finish line, in order to reach the press room situated in the middle of the loop. You could only cross the course at a very specific point. So my colleague and I were trying to find where that point was. At the Giro d'Italia you normally get a QR code in the road book so it can give you the exact GPS coordinates. But the Tour de France road book doesn't have that, and we just couldn't figure out where we needed to go. We kept going down these different turnings and then going "nope, that's not it". The car was making weird noises, and then there was a big clunk. My colleague got out to check that the exhaust hadn't fallen off. It hadn't, but we were still on the course and the security guard had to get us off pretty quickly. 

Finish-line flurry 

It is quite stressful dealing with the end of the race. I can feel the adrenaline rising as the race is getting nearer and you have to spring into action as soon as the riders cross the line and especially as I am only 5ft 3 (1m 60). So trying to see over the tops of journalists' heads and find people to interview is quite a challenge. That can be quite interesting!

Depending whether you’re on your own or whether there are a couple of people working for the same publication you might have a chat about who we’re going to aim for and then see what happens afterwards. If you're own your own you have to go on your instincts and try and identify what stories have been important within the race that will be interesting to tell. Normally you are guaranteed some sort of press conference or media moment with the winner after the race. At the Tour of Oman this year, it was just a huddle behind the podium. At that one you didn’t really have to worry because you could also find other people than the winner too. Often it’s a case of running around a little bit like a blue-arsed fly, but with a mission at the same time. It can be difficult.

Interviewing Matej Mohoric in the mixed zone (photo: Ben Delaney)

Getting the best out of mixed zone interviews

How you approach mixed zone interviews is a bit different nowadays, especially with the bigger names where you are guaranteed several journalists will be there. It has changed a little bit, as just reporting that “This rider said this at the end of a stage” is becoming less important because so many people have that quote, and a growing number of websites have paywalls. So if you just write that story that “Geraint Thomas said, ‘I’m very happy’ after a stage” then people will look and say, "Well there’s a paywall there. I’ll go to a different website where there’s no paywall." So it has become about finding themes and topics and packaging things differently. 

So the writing has become less about "I need to get things out as soon as possible" and more about "I need to try and make this as strong as possible" and finding the overall story within it, and it has become less of a rush to get things done. It was definitely like that when I first started – getting all your stuff and then racing to the press room and trying to write as quickly as possible, which can be stressful and quite challenging. Back when I was working at Cycling News, and I was at the Tour de France it was quite testing, as someone who struggles with dyslexia, and it could be quite difficult trying to get things planned out and in the right order. So it is definitely better to have a more relaxed approach to post stage/race writing.

Getting to the press room

Often the the race course does a nice U-shape or N-shape so you can cut from the start to the finish and you’re there a long time in advance of the stage finish. That way you’ve got time to write some stuff up and publish it before the crucial part of the race. So that’s a nice day if you can do that. But if not, sometimes you might arrive quite late so you really only have enough time to get yourself set up, maybe get a bit of food in you and then you’re watching the finish. 

Sometimes the press room, especially in the Tour de France, which is really big, may end up being quite a distance away from the finish line. There was one stage where we drove from the press room to near the finish line. It was the stage that Kaspar Asgreen won (to Bourg en Bresse), and it was a long walk and very hot. So we drove there to save time. 

But sometimes that's not possible, and you just have to walk it. For the Tourmalet stage of this year's Tour de France Femmes it was quite the adventure. It was quite a drive to get there from the previous day’s finish town, Blagnac near Toulouse. It was about a two and a half hour drive to get there, so I missed the start of the Tourmalet stage. 

On some of the really big mountain stages you might as well miss the start because anything you get at the start is going to be completely irrelevant by the end of the day unless you pick up quotes for a completely different thing. If you speak to the big favourites or whatever the whole race could be upended, so there’s no point in doing it. 

If I had gone to the start at Lannemezan I would have missed a lot of other things and it would have taken ages to get up to the finish line anyway. So I set off early for Tourmalet , and checked into my hotel along the way. That took longer than planned because the lady at the reception had disappeared, leaving a note saying “back in an hour”. Well, I don’t know when the hour started, so I just waited - thankfully for not too long, as I still got to the press room early enough. However, the press room was at La Mongie, 4.3km down from the Tourmalet finish line, and there was no organised transport to get there. You could do it by car if you went up the day before, and obtained a special pass beforehand. Alternatively you could get what they said was a cable car. It was not a cable car. It was a chair lift, and for someone who is not a fan of heights it was not a nice discovery! 

I had to walk 20 minutes to get to the chair lift, and get on the right one. The thing is the chair lift stopped working at 6pm, and because the organisers wanted the stage to be on at Saturday prime time television, the stage didn't finish until just after 7pm. So I had to walk down the mountain. I had thought I could just walk off-road a bit between the hairpins of the climb. But it was so misty by the time the stage finished and I probably could only see about three or four feet (around one metre) in front of me. There was no way I could ramble across that and risk ending up in a ditch with a broken leg. So it was a case of walking down the climb, using the torch on my phone to see the way, and then shining it at traffic so that I could be seen. By the time I reached the press room the winner's press conference had long finished and everything was closed.

I was still able to get material for my story though, as generally the journalists are quite friendly and help each other out. If you ask someone in advance they can usually give you an audio of what was said in the press conference. 


Cycling World Championships, Glasgow

Going there was relatively smooth for me. I was able to get the boat from the Isle of Man, where I live, to Heysham, just north of Lancaster. For the first time ever I could use my own car in a race, and that made things very chilled, so I didn't have the worry of going to a car rental company and sorting all that out. 

Initially I was going to cover just the road races, but while on the boat I made a snap decision to see some of the mountain biking. It meant that I would have to miss the Under-23 men's road race. It was surprisingly okay for me to have a last-minute change of plan, even if it was a two-hour drive to get to the mountain biking.

As a once every four years event it's a nice thing to have. A lot of riders said they quite enjoyed the atmosphere of a "Superworlds", event though it was quite spread out. It was nice for the fans to have so much going on. But for me to see the mountain bike racing I had to miss the Under-23 men's race, so that race got less press coverage than it might have had in a regular World Championships. Some of the smaller category races may have lost out on some publicity and air time compared to a regular World Championships. 

It was particularly difficult for media organisations that only had one journalist at the World Championships, and was a logistical challenge to figure out what you were going to do, where you were going to go, while making it as easy as possible. I am sure a few people covered the downhill mountain biking in Fort William, but that was really far away compared to anything else. Even Glen Tress, where they had cross country mountain biking was a good trek away. 

For the more niche side of the sport like artistic cycling it did give the public the opportunity to see it where they might not otherwise have done so. The cycle ball and artistic cycling actually sold out. I don't know if it will have a long-term impact but it was certainly a nice moment for those disciplines.

Being a recognised face in cycling media

To a certain extent more riders recognise me now that I am doing a lot more women’s cycling, and Covid video interviews have become more of a thing. In the past it was just telephone calls if you were doing an interview, so the rider wouldn’t know what you looked like until the next time you saw them. It didn’t build that sort of repertoire with them, like it does now. 

Generally as a woman in cycling you stand out anyway as there are so few of us, so riders tend to remember maybe not necessarily your name, but they will identify you as a journalist, and they will probably remember your demeanor or manner more than a male journalist because there are an awful lot more of them. I was quite surprised at a Classics race that a rider had seen me at the end of a cobbled section one day and when I spoke to them two days later they remembered me and said, "Was that you on the cobbles?" And I was like, "Yes it was, me". I was quite surprised that they’d actually recognised me. It definitely happens on the women’s side as I do all the women’s cycle races whereas a lot of journalists dip in and out of them. The women’s peloton appreciate it when they have journalists that are working on their races throughout the year, and they identify with you a little bit more. I wouldn’t say they are more friendly than the men’s peloton, as most riders - male or female - are friendly anyway. But the women seem more at ease with you.

My tips for anyone wanting to become a journalist

There’s no one way of doing it. I don’t think people should think this is exactly what I have to do and if I don’t do it this way I’m never going to get in.

I went through the university route. I did an undergraduate course, then a masters and then after a year and half or two years of applying for jobs I eventually got a job in the cycling industry. 

My main piece of advice would be perseverance, as it's a tough area to get into. Don’t be put off by not getting accepted early on because it has become a lot more popular as a sport to become involved in reporting on. 

For me, perseverance would be the big thing, as I was applying for stuff for two years, and worked in finance before I got a job in cycling. Sometimes it just takes one person to take a chance on you and then you’ve got your foot in the door.

There probably will be a few rejections as that’s the way it goes unfortunately. 

My other big piece of advice would be to keep practicing your writing. If you don’t have the funds to be able to go to university to do a specific course on journalism there are books available and guides on line on how to make a story, how to plan one out. Those sorts of guides will help you. Create a blog, put stuff on line. The more you practice writing, the more you read, the better you become at it. 

Lastly, pitch things to editors. Come up with an idea and send it to an editor. A lot of use have been naïve at the start of our careers and just sent an email to an editor, saying “I’m happy to work if you want me. Please have me.” Editors like to have ideas and a story plan that’s been put together where they can say “I like that, okay – I would like you to do that.” Then they can start seeing how you work. But first of all you have to have the idea to go in. 

Photo: Team Astana/Vitali Abramov

As someone with dyslexia I did not see it as a barrier to making a career out of writing. You'd be surprised about how many people with it write for a living. Don't get disheartened by knockbacks either. Everyone has them - keep trying, and be kind to yourself.

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