The modern Tour de France is a truly global sporting event. A quick look down the top ten of yesterday’s GC reveals six different nationalities – the first French finisher in the prologue was Damien Monier in 38th place – so it is only natural that the interest in countries outside of France is increasing every year. With the race making it’s way along the coastal roads from the Netherlands into Belgium, we decided to skip ahead of the riders and take a look behind the scenes to see exactly ho what you see and hear on your television every day goes from the roads of Europe and into your home.
Your Tour de France commenatry comes from right on the finish line every day.
There are nearly 150 nations taking ASO’s television feeds and highlights packages from the Tour de France in 2010. If you have ever seen an English language feed from the Tour de France, chances are that you have heard the voice of British commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin. The duo are famous throughout the cycling world with Liggett know by many as “The Voice of Cycling” and Sherwin’s years as a European profession – including riding seven Tours de France himself – giving him a unique insight into what exactly goes on in the race.
There is a new voice too, that you may have heard if you have seen ASO packaged highlight reels or tuned into the early hours of the full stage coverage. Matthew Keenan has joined the ASO commentary team on a full time basis for their races and it was thanks to him that Pez was able to gain a look around the other side of the cameras at the 2010 Tour de France.
Ready To Start
With more and more countries taking the full live feed of the race, Matt Keenan’s job is to provide the voice that accompanies the live pictures of the day’s stage from whatever time the broadcast commences.
What time Keenan starts his commentary session each morning is determined by the scheduled starting time of the day’s stage. These live pictures are transmitted from the start each day, but are not necessarily picked up by the broadcaster in the country in which you might happen to be watching the race.
The mobile commentary tribunes where the voices – in whatever language is needed – are added to the pictures.
Pez dropped in on Matt just as the riders had rolled away from the unofficial start and were gathering on top of the Erasmusbrug in Rotterdam, waiting for the official start to the first road stage of the 2010 race.
With four hours of commentating ahead of him, Matt was being what some might consider “sparse” with his his words, preferring to allow the pictures – in the most part – to speak for themselves. Later, when we chatted at the end of his shift, he explained that he normally had a small note attached to his screen reminding him of what he feels are his three golden rules of commentating:
1.One point at a time
2.Add value to the pictures
3.Let it breathe
It was this final point that I was most interested in. With anything up to four hours of non stop commentary each and every day of the race, there is plenty of time to fill on air. Keenan said, however, that he believes a good commentary does not have to consist of filling each minute of those hours with uninterrupted talking. In his own words, “It’s not radio.”
The post Matt Keenan occupies is just next door to his better know co-commentators, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin and in comparison to their post, this one is a little more basic. As well as his TV screen on the left hand side, which shows him which pictures are being broadcast, Keenan also has his own computer with his personal notes in the middle, a booklet of printed notes covering a variety of landmarks that can be found along the route of each day’s stage and a third monitor that links into the Tour de France’s live online text-based race feed.
Keenan would be on duty in the commentary box until around 3.00pm today. While his start schedule is based upon the hour the race starts, his finish time is based upon when the Versus network in the United States decides to takes their live feed. Sometimes it might be only for the last two hours of a stage and on other days it will be from kilometre zero, meaning he does no live commentary at all.
While Matt got stuck into the early part of the day’s feed, we headed off to chat with the other 2/3 of the partnership who were doing their pre-telecast duties that also involved a variety of superman style shirt changes.
Phil And Paul
If knowledge is the accumulation of experience, then Phil Liggett’s own calculation that between himself and Paul Sherwin they have 70 Tours de France combined, speaks for itself.
While Paul was off searching for newspapers, Phil explained to us what his morning consists of in the hours prior to the start and before the duo take over the live feed from Matt Keenan.
There would be a lot of talking today before yellow jerry Fabian Cancellara got his chance to have a say on the day’s stage.
“For the US we do a pre-recorded preview program and that takes half an hour, and then it buts up against our live calls,” Liggett told us. “We go through the whole day’s racing, we have celebrities on and then from that, we go straight to the days live racing. That takes up an hour or so of the morning”
Liggett and Sherwin also do stand up pieces to camera with various other networks and that is mostly done before they go live in the afternoon.
“We do the openers for Mike Tomalaris of SBS in Australia on some mornings, we do an opener for the ASO for their program and for ITV in the UK we do openings for them as well as inserts or maybe a voice over for their live show. By then we have treachery 12.00o’clock and we have lunch for an hour and then we start.
There is no shortage of ex-pros in the commentary box. RAI Sport’s Davide Cassani is along the tribune from the ASO trio.
With Liggett and Sherwin doing to camera pieces for ITV in the UK, SBS Television in Australia and Versus in the S, as well as other segments that go out on the ASO feed, there is often some shirt swapping that happens to help lend a more “localised” feel to their on camera work.
Also , with the different channels taking the live feed, but not always the same pictures, there can be some juggling required while they are actually on air too.
“We can’t be in 10 places at once so when we do the live call, all of the countries plug into our commentary. We have a set of lights in front of the screen so we know who is with us from Australia and South Africa. Also, on one of our screens we have four different cameras giving us pictures which gives the different international networks the possibility of taking different images.”
“We have to realise which one is being seen where. For Versus in the US, sometimes they might be showing a different picture in a time trial. They might be staying with Lance Armstrong, while you’re seeing in the rest of the world, Bradley Wiggins. So we cannot direclty say “There you see Lance Armstrong.” We have to say something along the lines of “And Lance Armstrong is now out on the course at the moment and riding well.” event though we are looking at Bradley Wiggins like everyone else.”
With the mini-studio set-up that Liggett and Sherwin are based in, there is also the option for the Versus producers to actually cut to the duo for a live piece to air. With the shirt swapping that we mentioned earlier, Liggett explained that they needed to be careful that they had no conflicting advertising or network logos when they were doing different sections for different networks. For their stint in the box today, it was plain black polos which would be suitable all around.
The Afternoon Shift
At 3.00pm we called back to see the changeover and with the pre-recorded piece for Versus still going to air on one side of the black curtain, Matt Keenen was doing the last of his live commentary on the other.
When all was ready, Sherwin advised their producer that they would take the live feed and the two most famous voices in English language cycling, started their commentary on the action, while Matt Keenan headed off to grab his lunch and give us a tour of the rest of ASO’s operations.
Phil Ligget had explained to me earlier that he had a fully electronic data base on all of the riders that he had been keeping for over 20years.
“I keep all my records. There’s no particular preparation for the Tour de France but I do have two very special files that I created 20years ago on the computer and I have every rider. If you pick your nose, it goes on your record. If I punch a rider’s name up I can tell you when he was suspended and for how long and why or if he crashed what he broke etc. There is one for every rider and I update it every day of my life ansd I also have a special one dedicated just to the Tour de France.”
Keenan, who has been involved in cycling as both a competitor and journalist for a number of years is slowly building his own data base of facts but prefers to rely on what he remembers as much as anything. While I was watching him work I was very impressed with the many facts and figures he was able to recall about past races, seemingly without reference to any records at all.
“To be honest, sometimes they just come to me. I’ll be watching something or see something and then a fact will jump into my head and there it is.”
As a one man show when he is working in the box, Keenan also said he is grateful to be ale to rely on the live web feed from ASO that gives text based updates of exactly what is happening along the route.
In the press room, the journalist also have the advantage of the these text updates and they are displayed on big screens alongside the live feed. The volume of the French commentary is not usually turned up until the final kilometres of the stage, so the written word – provided in both French and English – and the graphic along the bottom, can be invaluable to catch up quickly on who is in the break, the time gap to the front or even just how many kilometres of the race there are remaining.
For his afternoon work, Keenan is based in the same portable office that these updates are produced.
The two men responsible for all of that typing are Louis Doucet, who covers the French language text, while Rob Arnold – who spends the other 11 months of the year editing Ride Cycling Review in Australia – takes care of the English.
“The work these guys do can really be of assistance to me,” explains Keenan, “As they have the ability to pick up the phone and call a directeur sportif to ask a question if there is something happening in the race. I cannot really stop what I am doing to find out why something might have happened or what the outcome of an incident or accident might have been. With the live feed I can follow that thanks to Rob and Louis.”
Also in side the trailer there are two editing units that perform separate jobs that all that all end up being part of the 30minute Tour de France highlights packages that are sent out around the globe very evening.
This unit on the right actually takes key moments of the day’s stage as they happen and adds them to what will become the key moments of the stage. The other similar unit on the left is used to prepare the small stories that are inserted each day into the coverage, to give a behind the scenes look at the Tour de France. It is at this unit where Keenan will spend his next hour.
“Once the stories are edited, I sit down and do the voice overs for them. When they go out in the package, networks have the option of using my voice, however, some networks re-voice them with one of their own presenters, again, to give their coverage that localised feel.”
Keenan explained that the stories are generally discussed the night before over dinner with the other crew members and together they work on ideas for for the upcoming stages.
One example of how this sometimes works to perfection, was during the 2010 Tour.
“We had been discussing the fact that Saunier Duval were going almost too good to be believable and so we decided that we would need to gather some footage of them to have on file in case something broke later in the race.”
“Our cameraman Eric Falaizeau – who has a background in covering war zones and is simply brilliant – contacted the team and asked if we could film some footage for a story. He was invited onto the team bus to ride with the squad from the hotel to the stage start and it was when they arrive in the village that two plain clothes policemen climbed aboard and arrested Riccardo Ricco. Our cameras captured the whole thing.”
When that job is finished, Keenan then heads back to the tribunes in time for the finish of the stage as the Ligget Sherwin commentary concludes shortly after the finish line has been crossed. They then throw back to Matt and he takes care of duties while the stage winner and jersey wearers are presented with their prizes. From there, it is back again to the edit suite to do the voice over of the completed highlights package.
“I also do the intro and links for the commentary pieces that will be going out as part of the highlights packages and then we have to get it all finished off, ready to go on the satellite uplink at exactly 7.30pm.”
While the 7.30pm deadline is often several hours after the finish if the stage, Keenan explained that there are often times when things run very very tight.
“We have to do a lot of the voice overs for the highlights in a single take or we are unable to meet out time deadlines. The satellite has a window and if we miss that we miss getting the footage out, so it has to be finished by then, no matter what.”
I had asked both commentary crews about the pitfalls of live broadcasting and the making of the odd mistake and all three men agreed that you just had to move on from it and hope that people understood that in such a long amount of time on air, there were bound to be the odd error.
Phil and Paul admitted to passing the odd note if one made an error that they felt needed to be corrected, and Keenan agreed that it was nearly impossible for anyone to talk for four or more hours without getting the odd word twisted.
As for going back to cover any bad blunders that might come out by accident, Keenan summed it up beautifully, saying, “There’s no point reversing back over a dead body.”
Just like Liggett and Sherwin, Keenan also then wraps up his day by tidying up any blogs or internet pieces he might be writing and then packing up his laptop and heading to the hotel in the town of the following day’s stage finish.
There’s a lot of travelling, a lot of sitting inside looking at a TV screen and a lot of hard work and pressure, that goes into giving a balanced explanation that will satisfy the cycling experts watching, as well as being accessible to those who only tune in to watch a bike race for three weeks in July.
Liggett and Sherwin have been doing it so long they make it look (and sound) easy, but the work they have put into getting where they are now, means they know what they are talking about when it comes to both cycling and who they think may one day fill their shoes.
Matt Keenan was given his chance with ASO on the recommendation of both of these men back in 2007, when ASO needed a voice for the Tour of Qatar. The race in the Middle East clashed with Phil and Paul’s previously established appointment at the Tour of California ,so Keenan flew over and has been working with ASO at their races ever since.
If you’ve never heard Matt’s work at Le Tour, take a look at the daily stage wrap videos in the English language section of the official race website, LeTour.fr
There is a new kid on the block and he’s already established himself as being up there with the best in the game. He might spend all of his time sitting at the finish line, but with the natural talent and passion he shows every day, he’s only just getting started.