By Lennard Zinn
The motorcycles, helicopters and stationary cameras of RAI Television bring you the Giro d’Italia up close — the video taken from right next to the riders and from the air and the long shots from the finish line.
They also bring you the sounds of the crowds and the voices and breathing of the riders, as well as commentary, if you are watching the Italian broadcast. But those video cameras on the motorcycles and helicopters, as well as the still cameras, are neither plugged into the Internet nor broadcasting via satellite. The pictures and sound get into your TV or computer via a number of links, some in the air and some on the ground.
RAI has eight heavily-equipped motorcycles riding alongside the racers. Four are equipped with video cameras, two with radio commentators aboard, and two with TV commentators. It also has four helicopters in the air above the race at all times, but only two are shooting video. The other two are “bridge” helicopters, which transmit the signals received from the motorcycles to a ground-based receiving station that is fixed or in a truck, while the two camera-equipped helicopters generally transmit directly to the receiving station. It also has ground-based mobile and fixed cameras and mikes transmitting directly to finish line trucks or to the receiving station.
The receiving station sends all of the signals it collects to RAI trucks at the finish, where technicians mix the signals from the eight motorcycles, four helicopters, still cameras, mobile interview team cameras and mikes, and RAI’s finish-line commentary booth anchored by Davide Cassani, Italian cycling’s equivalent of Phil Liggett. The show you will receive is created inside those finish-area trucks, which send it out to the network via satellite or cable.
The video and audio signals from RAI’s fleet of BMW motorcycles are obtained and sent out by a slew of electronic equipment on board each one. On each of the four camera bikes, the cameraman sits facing forward behind the driver; if he were to sit facing backward as still photographers sometimes do, the transmission antenna behind him would be in the way. He can point his big hand-held TV camera within a wide range of angles to each side of the bike.
All of the three hard cases on each motorcycle — two side cases and one up high in back — have sealed top lids and are waterproof, and so is the wiring pouring out of the sealed hole in the back of each. The driver has a soft case strapped to the top of the tank in front of him, and it has a transparent sealed sleeve on top, inside of which is a map and profile of the day’s race route. Taped to the top of one of the side cases is the list of all of the riders and their numbers for quick identification of the subjects of their video images or audio commentary.
A long, fat “fuzzy mike” is attached across the back of the rear case. Under its long, gray fur, it is also sealed from the elements. It captures the sounds of the crowd and sometimes the heavy breathing of the riders on hard climbs.
The rear top case on a camera bike has a small electronic junction box in it that the technician in the photos was working on the morning of the stage to Alpe di Siusi. One side case contains a radio to talk with the helicopters and other motorcycles.
The TV camera is hard-wired to an electronic panel inside the other side case, which registers the signal. The signal goes up to the bridge helicopter via the tall, fat, rigid transmission antenna behind the cameraman.
Given the vast distances, varied terrain and weather conditions through which the Giro and other grand tours pass, it is amazing the clear video images we can watch from a third of the way around the world.
While there would be nothing to see on our screens without those cameras collecting the images, they are only the first link in a chain that must remain unbroken for us to be able to watch the race live. It also should now be understandable how the signal sometimes is lost and why there are so many other helicopters in the air besides the one directly above the riders filming the action.
It is those bridge helicopters that much maintain contact with the motorbikes and the receiving station on those gnarly descents in the rain when we want to see what’s going on and the signal gets temporarily lost.