Written by Cycling, Media, Radio, Sport, TV

Following Le Tour

No. Sadly, I don’t mean spending large parts of July in a camper van driving between the Pyrenees and the Alps, joining the multi-national throngs clinging to the mountainsides.
I mean following the Tour, on-air and online.
Assuming that you’re not “available to view” during the daytime on weekdays, your first decision is whether to go for the “Mugabe media lockdown” option and try to avoid all references to the results before you get home in the evening and catch up with highlights/recordings. Depending on what you do for a living, and who you speak to, this may or may not be possible.
The problem I have with this approach is that it means that Twitter and much of the web would be completely out of bounds for the latter part of every afternoon. And working in a radio station as I do, if Mark Cavendish (or another British rider) wins a stage, then it goes out on air. I learnt that the hard way last year. No amount of fingers in the ears and la-la-ing can prevent the knowledge being imparted. That all said, there were certainly days this year that I escaped prior knowledge – usually days that I was locked up in meetings all afternoon.
Twitter is actually really good for a number of reasons. There are plenty of cyclists online and using it to greater or lesser extents. Not least, Cadel Evans, this year’s winner. But Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, Andy Schleck, David Millar, Jens Voight, Simon Gerrans and many others can all be found online. They can give you some good inside information into riders’ thoughts.
Then there are the live feeds from the likes of ITV Cycling, Eurosport’s Spokesmen, Versus Cycling and Cycling Weekly. Throughout the stages, these (and others) and busily giving you updates of what’s happening. So if you have access to no other media, you can get excellent live updates, just as fast as people can type.
But it’s the broadcast media where things are best. And with ITV4 and Eurosport, pretty much all your television bases are covered. ITV4’s free to air coverage is excellent – with the ever present Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (both on Twitter too) – providing not just ITV4, but most of the English speaking world with their peerless commentary. With Gary Imlach, Chris Boardman, Ned Boulting and Matt Rendell, they have a formidable team.
I know that the Phil and Paul show isn’t to everyone’s tastes, and they do have to explain the basics each year for the benefit of new viewers, but there’s the alternative in Eurosport’s David Harmon and Sean Kelly. British Eurosport viewers also get James Richardson and the gang in the studio introducing each stage. Eurosport is essentially the broadcast home of cycling, but it has always been slightly hamstrung, in my eyes, by the lossy compression that they use on satellite. The SD picture quality has always been lacking, and you’d only have to switch between Eurosport’s pictures and, say, the BBC (if both are covering the same sporting fixture), and you’d easily see the difference.
Fortunately, like ITV4 (at least on Sky), Eurosport now broadcasts in HD, and the host coverage from France 2/3 just looks stunning. You could easily draw up a longlist of places to visit in France at a later date just drooling over those pictures. HD is certainly the way to go for cycling.
Eurosport does have the advantage of coming on air a little earlier than ITV4 on most stages. Although ITV this year offered more complete coverage to those who paid £2.99 for its iPhone or iPod Touch app (no Android version sadly).
Both channels offered at least two and half hours’ coverage of each stage. And for one monumental day, ITV4 came on-air for the better part of six hours – by far the longest I can recall them being there.
As someone who was introduced to Le Tour in the mid-eighties, I had to learn about the race from nightly half-hour highlights on Channel 4. As well as expertly compressing the day’s procedings into a tight timeframe, they produced some excellent recorded “packages” around the commercial break.
And that’s still the case today on ITV4’s excellent nightly highlights pacakge. It should be noted that the production team hasn’t really changed enormously – just the channel they work for. Of course, for the bigger mountain stages, the time is handed over entirely to the cycling, but during some of the flatter stages when little aside from the final sprint happens, they’re useful addendums. You can also be sure of interviews either in English or with subtitles, with all the relevant riders.
The nightly ITV4 highlights package is the bedrock of my Tour de France viewing. Even the montages they put together at the end of each day are exceptional. Even more exceptional is the fact that the ITV website has actually published a list of all the music they’ve used throughout the 2011 Tour! I speak as someone who – on more than one occassion – has pointed the Shazam app on his mobile at the TV to discover this very information.
And then there are streaming options for both ITV4 and Eurosport. As well as the aforementioned app, ITV4 streams free online. Interestingly, they ensured that anyone who viewed had to provide an email address. On the one hand, that meant getting an email daily when the stage was available to view online (or on-air). On the other hand, a Media Guardian story about impending micropayments for some ITV programming rings a couple of alarm bells.
As Eurosport is a subscription channel, there aren’t any legal free ways to view it online. However, viewers can subscribe on a month by month basis to the Eurosport player which offers decent value for money. And Sky subscribers can access Eurosport as part of its recently rebranded Sky Go service, free of charge. With up two devices registered per subscription, that means you could be watching on a PC, mobile or even Xbox.
So finally, that brings us to the radio. Five Live Sports Extra sends Simon Brotherton out to follow the Tour. And this year, there was plenty of coverage of the last few kilometres of each stage on the digital station.
But I do have a criticism.
For various reasons I found myself in the Scottish Highlands for the final stage of this year’s Tour – mountain biking as it happens. Unfortunately, Aviemore does not seem to get the Freeview multiplex that ITV4 broadcasts on (I even tried retuning, adding BBC Alba to the set, but not adding the service I was chasing). With an unreliable WiFi connection that meant streaming was not an option, I had to “fall back” to radio.
Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem. As I say Five Live Sports Extra has offered excellent coverage throughout the Tour. But at the weekend, the Tour clashed with the first Test at Lords against India. That took precedence on Sports Extra, so no live commentary there.
Over on the main channel, they were covering a rugby league fixture, as my Twitter feed showed me that the riders were entering the last few kilometres.
What you need to know is that although the overall winner of the race had been decided in the previous day’s time-trial, with Cadel Evans ousting Andy Schleck with a superb individual effort, the green jersey was still up for grabs.
And the main man in contention was a Brit – Mark Cavendish.
No Briton has ever won the green jersey, and indeed only Robert Millar in 1984 has won any jersey at all. So this was big news.
While many had Cav in as a shoo-in – his powerful HTC-Highroad delivery train besting everyone else on the Tour – you can never be certain. The margins in points offered meant that his nearest rival only had to beat him by a couple of places in the final sprint, and Cav could lose out. So favourite or not, there was all to play for.
Five Live had not one, but two people in the commentary booth on the Champs-Élysées. We must surely go over to them soon – rugby league or not.
Half time in the rugby arrived and there were less than 10km to go. That’s around 10 minutes of riding.
FIne – the timings are working out OK. Let’s cross over to Paris now.
“First the news headlines…”
OK. The news has been awful over the last few days. And Five Live is (as Talksport never tires of pointing out) primarily a news channel.
We come out of the news.
Let’s head straight to France for the final five kilometres then.
Uh no.
First an interview about the boxing last night. I’m not denying that the bout was worthy of discussion. It was live on terrestrial TV – all too rare for the sport these days – and was closely fought by all accounts.
But there’s LIVE cycling happening right now.
Go to Paris! Now!
Finally, as the sprint entered the final kilometre, we headed to France and heard the last sixty seconds or so of the race.
Now, by the sound of things, we entered commentary mid-stream, and it’s likely that had I had reliable internet access, I could have streamed the coverage. But on-air Five Live treated the cycling awfully.
Just ten minutes was all I was looking for. The boxing conversation could have happened at another time. The news – already rescheduled to squeeze into a half-time break in the rubgy – could likewise have been shuffled around.
Poor. Very poor.
In summary, excellent coverage on television. Excellent coverage online. And mostly excellent coverage on the radio. With the exception of Mark Cavendish winning the Green Jersey.
And I realise I haven’t mentioned it, but wasn’t this a superb Tour? Absolutely excellent across the board. The best in many years.