i believe the usual riposte to allegedly unwarranted criticism used to be 'walk a mile in my shoes', a phrase of similar intent to 'don't knock it till you've tried it' at which point the entire house of cards of criticism comes crashing down. for it has frequently been alleged that we are but a nation of armchair experts, an observation which i cannot deny applies as much to yours truly as to my peers. commentators are something of an easy target, gents who have to call the action without the benefit of an honours degree in hindsight.
but to briefly return to my opening statement, before you voice your #disgusted opinion on twitter, try the following exercise: get hold of a recording of the giro, le tour or even one of the classics, watch it on as small a screen as you can get hold of, then turn the volume off and record yourself commentating on the race. i'm willing to bet you'll be floundering within seconds, and on listening back to the recording, the number of ands, ehs, buts, etc will occupy almost as many minutes as does anything resembling a coherent commentary. i know; i've tried it.
itv4's commentary partnership of ned boulting and david millar for the 2016 tour de france supplanted that of phil liggett and paul sherwen, causing a modicum of consternation for fans of the latter pairing, but offering a freshness that some of us found most agreeable. david millar seems to have made an almost seamless transition from professional rider to cycling's man about town, fronting his own clothing collection by castelli, representing maserati cars and factor bikes, suppliers of frames to one pro cycling. his inside knowledge of the sport, allied to a cool, calm exterior could hardly be other than an ideal asset to televised cycling.
ned boulting, on the other hand, has spent a number of years as a presenter on itv4's cycling coverage, often as a humorous sidekick to the more straight-laced chris boardman. his broadcasting experience in the sporting milieu is scarcely in question, despite his own claims to the contrary in books such as how i won the yellow jumper, but presenting and commentating are not exactly prescribed bedfellows. was commentating on cycle racing always ned's ultimate endgame, or is it simply the way things worked out?
"I was bullied into giving it a go. It was never on my radar, but after two years of badgering I succumbed to pressure, and gave it a go."
in view of the undoubted pressure levied by the sport's principle grand tour, i think we can all agree that the millar/boulting pairing was something of a success. scarcely was there the onset of histrionics from either gent and there's little doubt that both coped remarkably well with long, often less than interesting sprint stages as well as the mountain stages that enlivened the battle for yellow. but would ned say that commentating is harder than simply telling folks how he won that yellow jumper? in other words, is it a few degrees scarier than simple presenting?
"Yes. It requires a far greater depth of detailed knowledge, and a good working understanding of what is happening at any given moment in a race. This may sound simple, but you'd be surprised how often racing throws up new situations. Had I not served a fourteen year apprenticeship, there is no way I would have chanced my arm."
i am most fortunate in that those i work with on a daily basis are not only a friendly bunch, but most are also good friends when the office door is locked and all the lights have been switched off. but in broadcasting situations, particularly in the realm of commentating, rarely does one indvidual have much say in who occupies the other chair and microphone. that has far more to do with aptitude for the job and behind the scenes contractual negotiations. if you've ever seen photos of the tour's commentary facilities, you'll know that swinging cats ought to be left at home.
in which case, do ned and david millar get on well socially and in the commentary box, or do they both have sunglassed minders protecting them from each other? "We do get on well. We are different people, for sure, but we share certain values; not least a sense of fun, an intellectual curiosity and an unreconstructed love for watching racing. We travelled around France with a wonderful production manager and a Catalan friend of David's from Girona, who kept us sane throughout."
returning to my contention that we all ought to have a little shot at commentating on previously unseen cycling footage before letting forth with unbridled criticism, you will note that i said you should find a remarkably small telly on which to watch. for though many of us have the luxury of sizeable hd smart televisions on which you could often count the number of teeth on chris froome's largest sprocket, commentators, the very folks who could do with visuals of that quality, are mostly to be seen watching a screen not much larger than an ipad. how difficult is it to accurately identify riders on such a small number of pixels?
"Have you ever tried?
It is something I am getting better at. Actually, it's amazing how, after a year of commentating, I can confidently pick so many riders out of a crowd. This was a skill I never needed to possess before; there was always time for me to find out later who that rider was that attacked on the final climb. Now, I need to know in an instant. There will always be times when I cannot be certain. That's part of it, too, and I think cycling fans are quite forgiving if you make the odd mistake. So long as your hit rate is good enough."
the notion of partnering a former professional with someone with accrued broadcasting experience is not a new one. david duffield and sean kelly was likely the first to follow liggett and sherwen, duffers first supplanted by david harmon and latterly carlton kirby on eurosport. the same channel has paired the likes of matt stephens and brian smith, placing two former professionals in the one box. but ever since the hapless brian smith was left to commentate alone on the world championships on cycling tv many years past, i've often wondered whether the need for two in the box is one simply of tradition or whether there are other factors at play?
It allows for periods of 'rest', both for the viewer (who will tire of just one voice) and for the commentator. When David is talking, I am often frantically searching through my notes, chasing after an elusive fact. Without that respite, this would not be possible.
At other times, what David is saying is so enlightening and engaging, that I am fully attentive to his words. Don't forget, we have quite distinct functions. I keep the narrative ticking along, refreshing, re-setting the general race picture; offering a welcoming hand to the viewer. David picks out the detail that is only visible to those who have raced. That's where he shines."
there's no doubt that some of the lengthier sprint stages of the tour, particularly during the frst week, can test the mettle of even the most seasoned of commentators. many of us are eager for the mountains, or even the time trials, so the commentator has need of offering two distinct services to the viewer; information and enthusiasm. for never forget that cycle racing and the broadcasting of same comes under the heading of entertainment. in which case, did ned enjoy commentating on the tour and what would he consider the high point?
"I loved it. I watched the race like never before, as if seeing it in HD for the first time.
I actually thought the final stage was a high point. I enjoyed filling the hours before the arrival on the Champs with generalised chat, and then the increasing drama of a bunch sprint. The camera picked out Greipel's acceleration marvellously well, as he roared past Kristoff. It called itself. Then the two waves of GC teams to call home: Bardet and Froome, surrounded by their domestiques, the latter staking a claim to be considered one of the greatest there has ever been."
several years ago, i was fortunate to have been offered a visit to the cyclingtv studios in london. there, i was shown the tiny box room that passed for the commentary position, only a fraction the size of the editing suite of which it was a part. in the case of cyclingtv, the majority of races were beamed by the host broadcaster to a huge satellite dish sited on the roof of the building and while anthony mcrossan and brian smith would often give the impression that they were in roubaix, liege or flanders, the truth was quite different.
the tour, however, is of greater importance in the grand scheme of things and provides a whole array of broadcasting facilities for a wide variety of nations. but is it truly necessary to be there in france, or could ned and david have accomplished the same job by viewing a live-feed from a cupboard in boulting towers, london?
"You can do it remotely. But you gain so much by getting out and riding the final climb, or the last ten kilometres. Add to that the chance to chat with riders and DSs on rest days and time trials, and you get a sense of belonging that necessarily augments what you can offer."
last year's ride of the falling rain was not, as far as i can recall, a particularly windy ride. however, in conversation with the fellow who rented a bicycle to one of its participants, he told me that on his returning the bicycle on the following day, the chap stated that he wouldn't have wished that on his worst enemy, having found it a most testing course due to the wind. i'm aware that those of us who live on the outer edge tend to dismiss much of which outsiders find very much to their distaste, but i can't remember enough to agree or disagree.
however, i'm sure many of us have undertaken an activity or situation which was dispatched with aplomb, but which we'd prefer not to repeat anytime soon. based on ned's accomplished commentary presentations in 2016, is he looking forward to doing it all over again next year?
"I can't wait. I'm off to call the Arctic Race of Norway in a few days. I'm hooked."
monday 8 august 2016..........................................................................................................................................................................................................