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Roundtable: Can onboard cameras save cycling?

VeloNews editors talk about the upsides and downsides of onboard cameras like GoPros and how they can change the way we watch cycling.

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On-bike cameras have been hailed as a savior for cycling. They bring fans inside the sport, the argument goes, revealing bike racing’s intricacies and athleticism in ways that helicopter and motorcycle shots simply can’t. They help humanize a confusing sport. That makes cycling more marketable and brings in more sponsorship. We all know bike racing needs more cash.

It sounds great, no doubt about that. But are these cameras a real improvement? Do they actually make watching bike racing any more entertaining? Can they really have an impact? We’re now more than a year into GoPro-enabled bike racing, and many questions remain. We pulled together a roundtable to try to find some answers.

True or false: Onboard cameras improve cycling TV.

John Bradley, @johnbradley: True, but primarily in sprint finales.

Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: True … Sort of. I agree with John, and I’ll add that it’s so rare and unpredictable that they actually capture exciting action.

Caley Fretz, @CaleyFretz: True, but until live onboard feeds are more common, the impact is minor.

Fred Dreier, @Freddreier: True, but only if they catch crashes or chaotic situations on the road.

Andrew Hood, @Eurohoody: True, anything that puts the viewer inside the peloton is a plus.

When was the first time you saw onboard footage from a pro race? What did you think?

John: Can’t remember the race. Sprint finish roughly two years ago. I thought it was amazing during the few moments that people who actually factored in the finale came into the frame.

Spencer: I definitely can’t remember, and I think that illustrates how the footage is rarely that compelling.

Caley: The first time it had a real impact on me was the 2014 Tour of California. It was footage of John Degenkolb battling for position and then sprinting. Got my heart rate up for sure.

Fred: I saw footage from the 2015 Tour de France on my Facebook feed. My initial reaction was holy crap, if it were me riding that bike, I would immediately crash into the guys around me.

Andy: The Giro did something like this a decade or so ago. I thought, ‘Those guys shouldn’t be doing this dressed in diapers with slogans painted on them.’

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Does the footage have to be live to have an impact on the viewing experience?

John: Honesty, I think it has more potential for post-race highlight reels.

Spencer: No, and I think it’s better when it isn’t live, unless you’re able to cut to Vincenzo Nibali whistling down a gnarly Alpine descent during a pivotal stage of a grand tour.

Caley: The live tests performed so far have not been all that impressive. But as the technology improves and directors can cut to multiple live feeds at will, the live onboard footage will add a lot to the broadcast. The tech gets smaller every year; we will get there eventually.

Fred: No, I would argue that the footage just needs to capture a piece of the action that is best viewed from that perspective, such as a sprint, a crash, or a section of pavé. That footage is interesting to me, even if I view it the following day.

Andy: If they can be fed live into a broadcast during key moments — attacks, crashes, sprints — otherwise equally engaging as part of post-race highlights package.

Is there a particular camera angle you’d like to see?

Spencer: Doesn’t count as on-board footage, but I want a drone flying right above the peloton during a field sprint — just don’t hire the pilot who was responsible for this gaffe.

Caley: I want Grimace-Cam®, a camera pointed up at the face of GC contenders on major climbing stages.

Fred: Dutch corner cam.

Andy: Sprint finishes are amazing in the front row.

TV rights are a source of revenue. So who should own the footage taken on racer’s bikes? Teams, race organizers, the UCI, Velon, GoPro, or some combination?

John: The race organizer should own and be able to sell the rights, but they should be obliged to share the revenues with all teams in the race, the same way the Premier League shares TV revenues with all 20 teams each season. If you consider that the UCI is an international governing body the way FIFA is with football/soccer, then the ASO’s and RCS’s of the world are event/competition owners like the Premier League. Not a perfect analogy, but it’s close enough to show that this shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.

Spencer: Onboard footage only makes sense when it’s packaged with the rest of the race coverage, so I say it should all be owned by one entity — at this point, that’s a race organizer. Maybe it will change down the road, so long as we don’t all die of boredom talking about Velon, team revenues, and governance.

Caley: We have to prove that the onboard footage is something worth buying first. But if that turns out to be the case, race organizers should own the rights. But teams should get something, too. The cameras are mounted to their equipment by their mechanics.

Fred: I’d like to see a revenue sharing model between the races and the teams. It makes sense, so it should be super easy to arrange, right?

Andy: Grow the pie, share the pie (including better press buffets for journalists).

Will onboard cameras save cycling?

John: No.

Spencer: Who said it needs to be saved?

Caley: No way. But they’re an interested (if small) twist in never-ending search for revenue.

Fred: They can’t hurt.

Andy: Cycling doesn’t need to be saved; it needs to be marketed and sold in a more appealing way to fans and sponsors.