Eurosport’s cycling commentator is part facts ‘n’ figures authority, part passionate fan and part riding buddy. You could say he’s the station’s much slimmer, much better behaved Joliet Jake Blues to Sean Kelly’s more laconic Elwood in a race-calling dream team.
David is 1/3 of the Eurosport Tour team, along with Sean Kelly and Emma Dvies-Jones.
I caught up with David as he took on his own personal Tour de France, criss-crossing the nation from Brest back to Paris to call it how he sees it for the station’s millions of viewers. How do you stay fresh enough to commentate for three weeks? Is it a dream job, or is it much harder than it sounds? Here’s the scoop:
Pez: How does your ‘typical’ Tour de France day shape up?
David Harmon: I usually aim to finish breakfast by 7am at the latest. Get everything packed up, but as you’re living out of a suitcase it gets easier to get into a routine. I usually have just one bag, including cycling kit. Then it’s into the car and we’re off.
Pez: Who does the driving?
David Harmon: We usually split driving and navigating duties, but Sean likes to drive so he takes us to about 60kms to go. It depends as sometimes you’re off the race route. Then we rejoin the route about 30kms, and aim to park as close as possible to an exit from the finish.
Then it’s a case of grabbing the papers – especially L’Equipe. Maybe Marca (Spain) or La Gazzetta dello Sport if we’re in Italy. And we always grab the local papers as well and do some catching up on our notes.
If we’ve got time, we grab a coffee and some lunch, but we have to be in place two hours before we go on air to do a sound check. Then commentary is all day stuck in a tin box! It’s not always comfortable. In Macon two years ago, we were almost passing out. The sweat was running off us in buckets.
Pez: What about the end of the day?
David Harmon: You have to get away as quickly and neatly as you can, having done all your press room bits and pieces. Of course, that’s not always easy if you’re at a mountain top stage finish. Sometimes you might have a 300km drive to your hotel, so you can’t afford to waste too much time.
It’s rather like being in a team in a lot of ways. Get up, have breakfast, do your stuff, travel to the hotel, eat, get to bed. It can be pretty regimented, and it needs to be or it doesn’t work and you miss your on-air slots!
Luckily someone knows where the plug is…
Pez: I’ve heard that you and Sean try to ride at the races you commentate on.
David Harmon: Yeah, we ride a lot together. We did three weeks of riding at the Giro, and we try to ride every day. I was a mountain bike racer, but Sean’s never treated me as anything other than a roadie. He’s done the competitive bit so now we just enjoy riding our bikes. We’ve become great friends rather than just colleagues. It’s something I never imagined when I was watching him race on TV. He’s actually my son’s godfather.
Pez: When you guys are working, how much do you physically see of the actual race?
David Harmon: We only see what the viewers see normally – except on a much smaller scale on tiny monitors! We get to have a look at the time trials, and the prologue when it’s included, because they start long before we go on air. There are always people hanging around at the mountain top finishes so we meet riders up there, but …… otherwise, we only actually see the race with our own eyes four or five times between the start and Paris.
Pez: Is it difficult to spend hours seeing something so ‘epic’ on that scale?
David Harmon: I’ve just become so used to seeing it like that, but then I used to work as a motor sport commentator and as a producer or director for TV for years so I got used to it kind of quickly.
Pez: You got your start in cycling commentary through producing, didn’t you?
David Harmon: Well, commentary itself actually. I went to work on the Le Mans 24-Hour motor race. A boss of mine took me along, but he’d double-booked himself for commentary, so I had to do the English feed. He couldn’t say ‘no’ to a job, so that was my start! I did that for a few years before I sent a showreel to Eurosport. My CV mentioned that I raced mountain bikes, and David Duffield (legendary UK cycling personality) spotted it. ‘Duffers’said something like: “I remember him. He was crap but he can talk!”
Pez: Duffers is a bit of a legend ….
David Harmon: An absolute star. I shadowed him at the Tour in 2000. The day I met him, I’d driven in from Geneva airport. I was really nervous about it, waiting in the hotel lobby filled with riders and cameramen. I couldn’t see him anywhere but I could hear him yelling “Where’s the bar?!?” That was a good start!
Pez: What else takes up your time?
David Harmon: I do some PR work – the commentary only pays part of the year, so it’s good to have a few different things going on. I do stuff for a bike company and for the London-Paris sportif ride and the Dragon ride.
Pez: I hear the Tour of Flanders is your favorite race …
David Harmon: It’s a single day race so you can get home and see the family afterwards. The Tour is just epic. It’s on a massive scale. 8000 people moving every day …
Pez: Can you really enjoy that?
David Harmon: It depends. 2007 wasn’t very enjoyable. Everything that surrounded cycling meant we were talking about the problems more than the racing. Every time you opened your mouth to say how exciting the race was, you knew there was the possibility that something else awful was going to happen … again.
That’s the problem I have … Sean’s there to give his expert opinion on the racing. Emma Davies-Jones is there to come in and out on the commentaries, and I’m there to carry the can!
Emma Davies-Jones and David.
Pez: The day that Bjarne Riis confessed to doping and how his yellow jersey meant nothing to him, you sounded more like a fan than a commentator. I think your words were something like: “If it didn’t mean anything to you, you shouldn’t have ridden!”
David Harmon: I’m not naпve, I understand what goes on and went on. I understand that a lot of those guys think of racing as a living. What happened in the past happened, but there’s a new understanding of what makes sport. It’s time to stop being just the voice of pictures on the television – if I’ve got a comment to make, I’ll make it. That’s my job. People won’t always agree with me, and I won’t always get it right.
That doesn’t often happen with commentators. They’re more vocal in other sports and other countries. I remember that day very well, but I also remember the fall-out afterwards with the article by Paul Kimmage in the Sunday Times which was terribly hurtful to everyone. We knew then that the time was right to speak up for what’s right rather than just talking over pictures.
Pez: But you’ve managed to retain a passion for the sport …
David Harmon: I’ve always let the love I’ve had for the sport come out.
It’s like being a manic depressive … you get enormous highs. Take Floyd Landis. As an ex-mountain biker, I was quite emotionally attached to that and I genuinely liked the guy. I think I did one of my best commentaries on the run in to the line, and then a couple of days later it was the ultimate low. But I don’t let things turn me into a cynic. If you don’t love the sport, walk away and do something else. That’s the way it is for me.
They still love Richard Virenque in France – he does tv commentary now.
Pez: Are there other times you don’t feel like loving the sport?
David Harmon: Days when I get bored?! Well, there are the days, hours, minutes when I don’t like it. When someone like Vinkourov gets caught and I just think “How can you possibly be SO stupid?!” It’s not surprising that someone cheats and gets caught, but it’s when they walk around thinking they can get away with it … But, yes, there are days when it’s less exhilarating. Last year in the Vuelta, we had a 52.5km TT on a flat motorway. No-one alongside it. Dead straight. Blazing sun. That is absolutely the worst feeling. There’s only so much you can say about sprockets, tyre pressure …!
Pez: That’s when you earn your money I guess!
David Harmon: Yeah, but on the other hand, the Tour of Flanders doesn’t feel like a job. It’s like being down the pub with your mates, having a few pints. You earn your money when you’re doing the hard days!
Pez: Another bonus is that you get to call up guys like Brian Holm and Henrik Redant – the DSs mid-race … it’s like getting to speak to Bill Belichick as the New England Patriots are playing.
David Harmon: That’s what I did in motor racing. So I want to give that feel to the viewers, so they can hear first hand what’s going on. We are increasingly lucky that there are more English-speaking DSs in the sport, so it’s getting easier to do that.
Pez: So, using your commentator’s eye, who’s going to win?
David Harmon: I would not discount Valverde at all. He’s got a better kick in the mountains. If he can come in in good shape, and keep his injuries in check …. Cadel Evans is an extraordinary rider. He gets better and better. It’s just grit, determination and a lot of talent, but he’s not as naturally talented as somebody like Valverde. I think could be in for a superb Tour de France. Hopefully, we can avoid the problems of last time.
Pez: I’m a Tour virgin, so any tips for a newbie …?
David Harmon: Approach it from the punters’ point of view and enjoy every second of it – even with all the trials and tribulations of getting from place to place, battling with the Dutch for a parking place in the mountains. Know you’re going to get pissed with the Norwegians and that there’s nothing you can do about it!