Watching live cycling on TV

Motorbike filming a cycle race

I love cycling and I love TV yet the two combined leave me colder than an early morning January ride. The climax of a race can be thrilling but the four to five hours of foreplay is hardly arousing now is it?

The Grand Tours

Watching a Grand Tour live on TV is all about the atmosphere which you somehow hope to absorb via the magic of your plasma screen. Dedicated pro peloton followers take the day off work to watch a Tour live, a few possibly take all three weeks off and sit on their couch dressed as El Diablo. Taking a holiday to watch cycling on TV is a little odd when the time could be better spent riding your very own tour.

Alas, we can’t be riding all of the time and wisdom suggests we rest every now and then. With Sundays reserved for a long country ride, Saturdays are the perfect day for watching a bit of cycling on television. I say watching but really it’s all about occasional glances. Each time you look, your eyes seemingly see the same old gothic churches, suburbs, men dressed as superheroes, chateaus, fields and fields and yet more fields.

The early hours of a stage are televisual wallpaper. Like house party chatter or the sound of your boss telling you about their weekend, cycling on TV is a backing track whilst you do something better with your time. Until the last climb that is, or the last three to five kilometres of a sprint. Suddenly the plasma screen works its magic and sucks you in. Not into the crowd. No, you’re on the bike, legs turning in your head as you whoop and holler as if your favourite rider can hear your overexcited nonsensical encouragement.

Of the three biggies, the Tour de France is without doubt the most watched. Ironic then that it is also the dullest. The Giro and Vuelta bring the fireworks to the party with plenty of short sharp steep climbs, each of the two ugly sisters trying their best to outdo one another in search of an extra viewer or two.

The Vuelta is my personal favourite where the stage profiles resemble my HR graph after a dreaded interval session. With many of the world’s best cog turners resting after a torturous three weeks in France, Spain’s Grand Tour is all about opportunities and surprises. The golden oldies have one last chance to burn brightly whilst neo-pros can blossom or wilt in the harsh Spanish heat.

Flat stages

Admit it, when scanning stage profiles you too put thick red crosses through those pan flat stages. Nothing to see here, move on. The so-called queen stage is the one we search for, you know the one, the one with the gruelling mountain top finish, the one at the end of the race when the GC is usually settled (this year’s Vuelta has been a notable exception). And what of the time trials? Well you’d be better off watching lube soak into your chain overnight.

Riders are interviewed whilst racing. This should make a comeback. Minus the microphone cord

The Classics

Starved of racing over the winter we’re eager to see how our favourite riders look in their new kit and we welcome the distraction from the rain pounding on the window. Suddenly the hours and hours of fields and bleak European industrial estates are exotic.

Unpredictable, anything seems possible in a Classic race. Bunch sprints (yawn), breakaways, or even better, a selective puncheur sprint to the top of a narrow cobbled climb or the freshly painted finish line in an 19th century concrete velodrome.

The Olympics

It hurts to say this as a roadie but the most exciting races to watch are indoors on a wooden track. Sprints, pursuits and that one where they follow an ageing librarian riding a toy scooter are all highly entertaining. However all are bested by the elimination race in the ridiculously named omnium. The fun includes watching eliminated riders doing extra laps despite the great big flashing red light on the front of their bikes. Poor chaps.

Cycling highlights

Cycling highlights are where it is at. Gone are the endless hours of the peloton flying through the flatlands. It takes just 45 minute to catch the breakaway moves, the crashes (don’t lie, you like wincing at them too), the attacks and the grand finale as riders approach the line.

All praise ITV4

Here in the UK, we are blessed with an hour’s worth of highlights each night providing with us a window into the Tour de France, Vuelta and lately, some of the Classics. ITV present cycling coverage as it should be. There’s no hype, no fast edited montages with loud music hyping up the day ahead. Instead you get uncle Imlach or little brother Boulting quietly analysing the day ahead with knowledgeable guests such as Roger Hammond and Chris Boardman.

The format is what we can only describe as relaxed. With an occasional tongue in cheek here, a wink wink there, a nudge nudge here and knowing smiles everywhere. The set never changes and seems to have been funded with whatever change was left from the last round at the bar. Such understatement is perfect. Let the rider’s legs do the talking.

Cycling commentators

Cycle forums get near hysterical when it comes to the voices that coax them through a race. Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby and Sean Kelly, BBC’s Hugh Porter (recently retired) and ITV’s Phil Liggett all come in for the harsh kind of criticism anonymous forums allow. Unfair too, after all, filling endless hours of TV with interesting talk is no mean feat, nor is it easy to identify one skinny lycra clad man from another from a helicopter shot. I for one welcome these men into my living room. Hearing them means cycling is on TV and that’s a good thing.

It took a brave and well dressed man to capture cycling races back in the day
It took a brave and well dressed man to capture cycling races back in the day

Why hasn’t TV coverage of cycling evolved with the times?

What year is it? I ask only because cycling coverage on TV seems to be stuck in a bygone era. The pro’s may ride carbon and wear lyrca but the TV coverage has yet to seek its marginal gains. With the advent of HR monitors, cadence catchers, and power meters, such information should be on screen. I don’t want to see Chris Horner inexplicably smiling at me as he climbs, I want to see his power to weight ratio, his blood sample results, his HR rate exploding.

At the very least let’s see positioning determined by GPS so we know where the riders are at all times. Why GPS isn’t used in time trials is beyond me. TTs currently beam back splits at every 100 KMs or so whereas GPS would present rider versus rider for each and every metre of the race.

I’m a cyclist, give me more, I can handle the pain

For all of its faults, cycling on TV is a hard habit to kick. We endure the long stretches of pain with the hope of experiencing a single moment of euphoria. A bit like hill climbs.

Images courtesy of 1) and 2) Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (1957), Photo of a cameraman filming cycling in Lanaudière


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