Your Tour de France telecast will look the same this year, but it may feel somewhat different. That’s because the Tour’s largest broadcasters are staying at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than broadcasting the race on-site in France. Thus, the commentary that you hear won’t come from the finish line, but rather from some television studio thousands of miles away.
Eurosport’s commentator Carlton Kirby has called hundreds of races throughout his career, both on-site and from the studio. We caught up with Kirby to learn what is gained for the telecast — and what is lost — from these two very different broadcasting scenarios.
VeloNews: What’s the biggest difference for you when you’re commentating on a race from back home, instead of attending the event?
Carlton Kirby: No matter if you’re in a mobile unit at the finish, or in a studio with air conditioning and a coffee machine, you’re doing the same thing, the view out the window is just different. The actual bones of the job are quite similar. You are calling the race as you see it on the screen. So, you have to ask yourself: What is different, and why is it worth it to actually go on-site?
Well, I’ll tell you: It makes your view of the race verifiable when you’re there. For example, I know that Jakob Fuglsang’s last name means ‘bird song,’ which is a nice little thing. And somebody asked me, ‘why don’t you pronounce his name Foo-gel-sang instead of Foolsong. And I said: ‘Because I asked him!’ I asked him at breakfast, because when you’re on-site, you can talk to the riders. I can walk or drive the technical approach to the finish, which is gold. During a sprint stage, every turn is important, and sometimes I’ll walk the final approach with [commentator] Sean Kelly, and there will be no need to even take notes, because he’ll just say, ‘Oh, this will be shit.’ You can read an off-camber turn when you’re standing on it, and see the attack points when you’re going up and down a mountain.
VN: When you’re at the race, who are you talking to regularly to get your intel for the broadcast?
CK: As a commentator, you don’t have a great deal of contact with the riders. It’s the press guys we see more, because of the mechanics of the day. We need to get to tomorrow’s finish line, and sometimes that is a four-hour drive. So, we’re close to the press guys who have spoken to the riders, and they wander up during the day, and we’ve been in place for two hours already, and we meet with you guys. So, our information can be slightly second-hand.
On rest days we circulate to meet with everybody. The most interesting people are the race commissars, and talking with them you get a lot of insight into who they are keeping an eye on. They will tell you, ‘Yes, so-and-so is looking really mentally fatigued,’ or, they are saying, ‘He’s getting very aggressive in the peloton and we’ve had a word with the team,’ that is all great information.
VN: So, what really is gained by being on-site?
CK: You need the details. Painting a verbal picture of a five-hour race is stream of consciousness, and to be able to do that effectively, you just need to be there. You get the atmosphere and emotion of a place. You get the mood of the crowd, and of the press. We get to see our own output with our team interviewing the riders.
You get a sense of the weather — a bright morning, going up this morning in a hail storm, and the hailstones are this big. All of this stuff adds to the vérité of the broadcast, and it’s stuff you cannot get in a studio in London.
When you’re part of the race caravan, all you talk about is the race. At dinner, you gather around the table and argue the hell out of it, and that’s a big thing. We’re literally opening up Sean Kelly’s cranium to learn the nuances of the sport, and he comes out and says which guy is going to go on and win the next day. We can’t do that when he’s at his house and I’m at mine. The Tour forces us to have dinner. It’s that melting pot of information that you get on-site. I could get 20 minutes of commentary out of dinner last night.
VN: What’s it like calling a race from back home at the studio? Set the scene for us.
CK: It’s pretty bleak. At the moment I turn up to a large building that has been stripped of staff, and there are just 16 people in the building. You have your usual office equipment, coffee machine, and sandwich machine. You take yourself to the studio, call up your procyclingstats.com, do your research online. And then, you hang a look at anyone who is there to find out if they’re going to listen to you. It’s windowless. You sit there, it’s often quite quiet, and you get brought an exotic meal like a guacamole sandwich. We have a quiet conversation about who is going to win today. Uhhh, I’ll say Bettiol. Are you sure? Yep, that’s my pick. OK. And then, we wait.
I talk about the same stuff, except I’m making it up. It’s the art of illusion. Talk about what you know. I’ll ring someone up on-site to talk to them. I never say when I’m on-site vs. at the race. But I do allow people to believe I’m always on-site.
VN: What do you talk about differently when you’re in the studio?
CK: I’ve been doing bike races live and on-site since 1996. I’ve done so much and been so many places that I mostly have all of them embedded in my head. I’ve been up the Galibier. I’ve fallen off the Galibier. I’ve gotten drunk on the Galibier and been evacuated off the Galibier. I could paint the Galibier and Ventoux and even some of the rarer mountains by memory.
VN: What difference will people notice in this year’s Tour broadcast from a normal year, when you and your team are on-site?
CK: I think not many people will notice. If it goes on for two or three years, then people will notice because the freshness of what is in our heads will ebb. I think as well that audiences will be sympathetic, so even if they know we’re not there, we will be upfront and honest about it. I think people will appreciate what we’re trying to deal with. We’ll ride that sympathy and see how far it takes us up the beach.