ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) — It was a cold, blustery morning before the start of stage 2 at the Three Days of De Panne, and Renaat Schotte was dressed as you would expect him to be.
As Sporza’s in-race reporter during the spring classics, Schotte was decked out in motorcycle gear, with his helmet in hand, ready for the day’s battle across the wind and the cobblestones that accent the territory of west Flanders. As he did every morning, he was interviewing key riders before the start of the stage, getting a feel for the action, and updating on any breaking news.
A long fixture on the racing circuit, the 46-year-old is well-liked by riders. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) stopped by for a chat before the riders clipped into their pedals. And then it was off to the races.
Anyone watching the Internet feed via Sporza around the world knows Schotte’s face, and his voice. He’s on the frontline of the most important classics of the year, a dream job if there ever was one.
VeloNews caught up with Schotte to chat about pavé, the lure of the Flemish classics, how Sporza organizes its cycling broadcasts, and why Tom Boonen is considered a cycling god. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: How would you describe your job as cycling reporter for Sporza?
Renaat Schotte: I work only with cycling, but all aspects. I was in the last track worlds near Paris. In cyclocross, I call the races from the field. It’s kind of like being on the motorcycle, but you wear your boots. You are struggling through the mud, running from point A to B, giving flashes from the field. I am on the motorbike during the Flemish races, and I am in the commentary booth during the Giro, and doing interviews during races like Milano-Sanremo and the Tour de France. It’s kind of busy!
VN: Is this a dream job, or is it work as well?
RS: It’s true that a lot of people would give an arm or a leg to be on the motorbike during a race like the Tour of Flanders, or a legendary Gent-Wevelgem, like we witnessed last Sunday. Sometimes, I say to myself when I look at myself in the mirror, ‘man, you are a lucky bastard!’
VN: How did you first get into cycling? Were you a former racer?
RS: No, I was never a racer. Cycling is big in Belgium, of course, but my father is a bit responsible for my passion for cycling. He was the man in charge of the finish-line photograph in the races in West Flanders. He was in charge of the photo finish to determine the winner. When I was a little kid, he took me to the races, and put me into car No. 1. That’s when I got to see the race at a very unique angle. Later, I became a sports nut, and cycling always had that special place in my heart. When I started in journalism, in local TV, I was focused on cycling, and the local races, the small kermesses, the junior races, and the big races when they would pass through the region.
VN: How did you arrive to Sporza?
RS: A company started a pay channel dedicated to sports back in the 1990s. My boss told me, ‘you are going to do cycling for us.’ So I went from covering local races, covering the junior races, right to the biggest races of the world. I started to go to the Vuelta a España in 1995. I went to the worlds in Colombia, and from then on, it’s been a rollercoaster. I worked for three years with them, and then I joined public TV. That’s how I ended up with VRT, and then they started the brand, Sporza, in 2004. I’ve been covering races like the Tour de France with VRT since 1999, and I haven’t missed one since.
VN: Of all the races beyond the classics, what is your favorite?
RS: The Giro, for me, is the most beautiful stage race of the year, for a number of factors. Nothing against the Tour de France, but sometimes it’s too big to enjoy it. The food is a bit better in Italy as well.
VN: During the classics, on the front row of the action, you must see things that no one can see?
RS: I’ve been doing the motorbike commentary since my first classic season in 2005. It started with Boonen winning the Tour of Flanders, and from then on, it’s been an adventure. It’s crazy to be on the motorbike, especially in a race like Gent-Wevelgem last weekend. You see things that you cannot see on television. You feel like a racer. You feel the cold, the rain, of course, you don’t feel it in the legs, but you’re tired as well. When you get off that motorbike, you’re exhausted. You have to go to bed early, you have to recover. There is no partying around this time of year for me. You can truly appreciate what the riders endure in these races.
VN: I can imagine you can appreciate even more how hard the classics truly are, right?
RS: I feel their pain. When I see crashes, aaaaagh, it’s a negative feeling. If you see a guy crash on TV, it looks more innocent than it looks in real life. When you see crashes in real life, it makes your connection with the riders even more intense.
VN: Do you have a favorite rider?
RS: Of course, I have my favorites, but it would be a disgrace to say this or that rider is better. I have guys that I have a closer connection with, or guys that I have more sympathy for. As a lot of Flemish people, I would like to see Greg Van Avermaet win a big one, just to get him off the hook. I wouldn’t mind seeing a guy like Stijn Vandenbergh win a Tour of Flanders. He’s been stuck with this label as the ultimate gregario. If you look at the way he’s racing, he might be a leader as well, but it’s more difficult for him to pull that big win off, because he doesn’t have that finishing sprint. He needs conditions like wind and rain, and a very tough race. I think he could have won Gent-Wevelgem, but the tactics of Etixx needed to be different.
VN: For Sporza, how big of a project is the production for the Tour of Flanders?
RS: Tour of Flanders is our biggest project of the year for us. It’s nearly 100 people, because we have radio, TV, the cameras, and the show before and after. The equipment and cameras we have on the Tour of Flanders is really unlike anything else, because we have extra cameras on the major climbs. It’s also the most expensive one, due to the hours of helicopters. Sadly, on that point, we are not going to show the race in its entirety this year. The intention was to broadcast the entire race, but someone higher up decided it was not a good thing to do now. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity to show the excitement that the race is generating across all of Flanders. When you go to West Flanders, to the region without hills, there are so many people on the road. It’s like the Tour de France last summer in England. Hours before the big finale, there are thousands of people in every village. It’s cultural cycling heritage.
VN: What kind of viewer numbers do the classics draw in Flanders?
RS: Only the Red Devils [Belgian national team] at a World Cup game can beat cycling. The other football matches do not. Last weekend’s race was the best-seen Gent-Wevelgem ever. It was more than 1 million viewers, and the market share was more than 60 percent, so that means six out of every 10 people watching TV were watching Gent-Wevelgem. It goes even higher than that for a race like Paris-Roubaix, we go into the 70s! The finish of a race like Paris-Roubaix is being watched by 1.5 million Flemish people, and we are only 6 million, so it’s one out of four inhabitants watching the race.
VN: How have the classics changed over the years?
RS: The classics have really grown overseas as well. You can feel the big excitement from America, from the UK. The Anglo-Saxon fans have discovered the rough territory of Flanders. And they want to see it in person. Every year, I hear more English spoken on the side of the road than the previous year. It’s still growing, and I don’t know where it’s going to end.
VN: Tom Boonen will not be racing Flanders this year, what does he mean to Belgian cycling?
RS: Without exaggeration, Tom Boonen is a cycling god. If everyone is an atheist, then Boonen is still a god. You cannot replace him. Not only due to his victories, but also his personality, and the way he copes with the pressure of being Tom Boonen. None of us can imagine what it’s like to be Tom Boonen. He cannot move his foot to one side without someone noticing, and drawing conclusions. I have huge respect for him, not only in the way he’s built up his career, but how he has stayed humble. He is still approachable. He is a good guy. He’s never walked outside of his shoes. I respect him more as a human than as a cycling champion.
VN: As a Flanderen, would you like to see a local rider win Tour of Flanders?
RS: Those would be dream winners. With any one of the “Vans” — Vanmarcke, Vandenbergh, Van Avermaet — you would have a very emotional win, for sure. If one of those guys win, who are not known as the eternal winners, if they could win, it would be huge for them. They would be immortal forever, because you really need to pull off the win to be immortalized. If you’re second or third, it’s just not the same.
VN: What is the best part of your job on the motorcycle?
RS: Being able to be so close to see how a race develops. The big difference from being in the booth is that you can really see who is strong by seeing them pedal. You can tell if that guy is cooked, and if that guy really has something left. On the TV, it’s much more difficult to see that. On the motorbike, you see the legs all the time. Like Tuesday, I could see [Jens] Debusschere, he was really struggling in the lead bunch. He was really having a hard time with his legs. His thighs were nearly cramped, and you can only witness that on the motorcycle. It’s a real privilege to see that from so close. I am a lucky guy.
VN: Many cycling fans look to Sporza as an example of how to broadcast a bicycle race. What is the secret?
RS: That is a very nice compliment. There are two things. First, it’s the broadcast tradition, which started back in the early days, that we try to make a story out of it. It’s not just jumping from one picture to another, but they do it with a certain style of directing that tells a narrative. And the other thing is the non-nationalistic component of our broadcasting. It’s not that we just want to show a Belgian or a Flemish guy on our broadcast. If it’s a good rider, a rider making the race, he will be televised. I see too many racing TV directors that nationalize their point of view. If we’re in France, well, they must show this French guy. If he’s not performing well, don’t show him! It’s about the riders, wherever they come from. Show the race. The fans are smart enough to see that. There’s a bit too much chauvinistic views in other countries. It’s about the riders, it’s about the race. Every rider who is good will be a hero in Flanders. That’s a big difference to other countries where cycling is also big. In Flanders, if you are a great rider, it doesn’t matter where you come from, you will be regarded as a hero.