The Art of Cycling Commentary (or, how to talk a good race)

A pro cycling race typically lasts around four or five hours; it takes serious commitment (or a damning lack of anything better to do) to sit down and watch the whole day’s racing from start to finish. Apart from anything, you have to steel yourself to spend several hours in the company of a couple of commentators whose main goal, for much of the day, is to keep talking. There’s a well known pearl of commentating wisdom which says that, wherever possible, the commentators role is to add something to what the viewer can already see on the screen. The best commentators pick their silences well so that the on screen action and the atmosphere do all the work. The problem with this is that the very essence of the commentator is their verbosity; bemoaning the amount of talking that they do is a bit like complaining that all the leaves seem to have fallen off the trees in autumn – you know it’s coming, so don’t fight it.

With the best sports commentators this fatalistic approach works fine. In cricket, Australian legend of the commentary box, Richie Benaud, was the master of economy and largely let the thwack of leather on willow and the hum of a full cricket ground tell the story – Richie simply interjected a dash of colour here and there to enlighten viewers. The beauty of Benaud was that, when he did speak, his warmth and undemonstrative knowledge made it feel like a cosy chat with an old friend.

The flip side to this gentle embellishment of the action on the TV screen is BBC Radio 5Live’s horse racing commentator John Hunt. Of course, being a radio commentator he has to do more than just add to the picture, he has to paint it first. Now, I have next to no interest in horse racing and even less knowledge, but when one of Hunt’s commentaries comes on I listen transfixed; the pace and pitch of the commentary rises to exaggerated heights as the horses gallop towards the finish. I don’t understand everything he’s talking about, not even enough to be able to picture what’s going on, and yet the raw excitement projects itself straight through the radio and up and down my spine.

Cavendish at the business end of the race (Photo: William Morice - Wikimedia Creative Commons)
Cavendish at the business end of the race
(Photo: William Morice – Wikimedia Creative Commons)

It does make me wonder what a commentator like John Hunt could do with one of Mark Cavendish’s epic sprint finishes. It’s exactly those long flat stages, where half a dozen riders form a breakaway, and the peloton spend the next 4 hours slowly but surely reeling them in before setting up the big guns for the sprint, that the commentator – and indeed the committed armchair viewer – really earn their corn.

Take the laughable history lessons that commentary team Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett dish out on the quieter days of the Tour de France. As you watch beautiful camera shots from the circling helicopter, Sherwin reads his lines about French culture and the societal norms of the middle ages from the race guide, aiming for a tone of natural curiosity but sounding wooden and mildly embarrassed. Liggett, meanwhile, clumsily attempts to shoehorn in the odd intelligent (?) comment, or witty aside. You, the viewer, begin to wonder whether you shouldn’t be making better use of your time; you could simply pop back to the TV for the business end of the race to see Cavendish, Greipel and Kittel battle for the spoils.

Chateau de Montmort - awaiting an informative historical commentary from Paul Sherwin (Photo: Jonkeer - Wikimedia Creative Commons)
Chateau de Montmort – awaiting an informative historical commentary from Paul Sherwin
(Photo: Jonkeer – Wikimedia Creative Commons)

But if you did that, you would miss those occasional moments of poetic prose, where in desperately attempting to fill up some dead air on the TV airways one of these experts stumbles across some analysis that is so breathtakingly absurd that you wonder if it isn’t actually a kind of minor genius. Here, I am thinking, of course, about Sean Kelly.

Kelly is one of Ireland’s great cyclists – sportsmen, even – who during the 1980’s was a major player in the pro-peloton. He might not be exactly a natural behind the microphone, but the man knows what he’s talking about. During a quiet day on the Vuelta Espana last year, I was dozing on the settee watching the peloton roll past the dry Spanish scenery, the commentary team waffling desperately to fill the lull. The riders reached a feed station and you could detect the bare hint of excitement in their voices as they realised that, ok, it’s just some cyclists having a bit of lunch, but this gives us something to talk about. Gentlemen…to your stations.

Kelly was prompted by the commentator to talk the viewers through what sort of things the riders might find in those little canvas bags known as musettes, which are handed to them to provide a spot of lunch on the go He went on to spend a glorious and poetic 10 minutes describing, in forensic detail, what you and I know as the humble sandwich. He waxed lyrical, in that gentle lilting Irish accent, about tiny pieces of bread or brioche, covered with a thin coating of a dairy or olive based spread – just enough to moisten it – with a filling of cheese, or perhaps a nice bit of ham; this is really dependent on the tastes of the individual rider. With the food in this form it can be held comfortably in one hand by the rider, as he takes bites of the sandwich…etc…etc…and on, and on.

And just think. If I’d left the settee to go and do something useful, I may have missed the culinary insights of one of the world’s legendary cyclists, as he enlightened me on the technical and nutritional benefits to be gained from eating a sandwich whilst riding a bike.

If that’s not time well spent, then I don’t know what is.

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11 comments

  1. I don’t listen to any commentary unless it’s Hugh Porter, in fact I sometimes play Hugh Porter’s commentary from a completely different race if he is not doing the one I’m watching, which works fine because it is very similar to watching a race on which he is actually commentating

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    • That’s not a bad idea, although i think i’m right in saying Hugo Porter hung up his microphone this year so you might have to settle for the mute button. Some people seem to think Phil Ligget is some kind of natural treasure…hmmm.

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  2. […] We head down Killcrash Lane, past the barking Border Collie lashed to it’s usual gate post, on a road surface that resembles Paris-Roubaix: all ruts and potholes, with an icy drainage trench running parallel. We say Paris-Roubaix in the same way that Sean Kelly does – Par-IS rather than Par-EE – before trailing off into rambling Kelly impressions. […]

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