The Art of Cycling Commentary

A pro-cycling race typically lasts around four or five hours; it takes serious commitment (or a damning lack of anything better to do) to sit down and watch the whole day’s racing from start to finish. Apart from anything, you have to steel yourself to spend several hours in the company of a couple of commentators whose main goal, for much of the day, is to keep talking.

I stumbled across a Fanpost by Larrick23 recently called ‘The Commentators Curse’, which struck a chord with me and inspired to write my own take on this. As Larrick23 eloquently explained, your average cycling commentator is prone to talk an awful lot of old nonsense during the course of a day’s racing; as he puts it, "commentators use the same words as us normal folk, just in a different order and at a different time". He also graciously suggests that, actually, their job is not as easy as it might initially appear.

But back to the nonsense.

Take the laughable history lessons that commentary team Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett dish out on the quieter days of the Tour de France. As you watch beautiful camera shots from the circling helicopter, Sherwin reads his lines about French culture from the race guide, aiming for a tone of natural curiosity but sounding wooden and mildly embarrassed. Liggett, meanwhile, clumsily attempts to shoehorn in the odd intelligent (?) comment, or witty aside.

You, the viewer, begin to wonder whether you shouldn’t be making better use of your time; you could simply pop back to the TV for the business end of the race to see Cavendish, Greipel and Kittel battle for the spoils.

But if you did that, you would miss those occasional moments of poetic prose, where in desperately attempting to fill up some dead air on the TV airways one of these experts’ stumbles across some analysis that is so breathtakingly absurd that you wonder if it isn’t actually a kind of minor genius.

Here, I am thinking, of course, about Sean Kelly.

He might not be exactly a natural behind the microphone, but the man knows what he’s talking about. During a quiet day on the Vuelta Espana last year I was dozing on the settee watching the peloton roll past the dry Spanish scenery, and the commentary team were waffling desperately to fill the lull. The riders reached a feed station and you could detect the bare hint of excitement in their voices as they realised that,’s just some cyclists having a bit of lunch, but this gives us something to talk about.

Gentlemen…to your stations.

Kelly was prompted by the commentator to talk the viewers through what sort of things the riders might find in those little canvas bags known as musettes, which are handed to them to provide a spot of lunch on the go. He went on to spend a glorious and poetic 10 minutes describing, in forensic detail, what you and I know as the humble sandwich.

He waxed lyrical, in that gentle lilting Irish accent about tiny pieces of bread or brioche, covered with a thin coating of a dairy or olive based spread – just enough to moisten it – with a filling of cheese, or perhaps a nice bit of ham; this is really dependent on the tastes of the individual rider. With the food in this form it can be held comfortably in one hand by the rider, as he takes bites of the sandwich…etc…etc…and on, and on.

And just think. If I’d left the settee to go and do something useful, I may have missed the culinary insights of one of the world’s legendary cyclists, as he enlightened me on the technical and nutritional benefits to be gained from eating a sandwich whilst riding a bike.

If that’s not time well spent, then I don’t know what is.

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