The Art of Noise – The Secrets of Cycling Commentary

“But just who is that rider coming up behind – because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche IT’S STEPHEN ROCHE!”

Phil Liggett’s breathless words from La Plagne in 1987 – arguably the most famous piece of (English language) commentary in the history of cycling – resonate with as much power today as they did almost 28 years ago. They are what I, only twelve years old at the time, remember about that Tour. I have no recollection of the politically charged start in Berlin, or of the to and fro of the weeks that followed, or even of the person who actually won the stage that day on La Plagne – it was Laurent Fignon. Until recently I didn’t even know the name of the climb that Roche so miraculously regained a 1′ 30″ deficit on the yellow jersey of Pedro Delgado, setting up his final victory in the closing time trial three days later. All I remember of the whole three weeks (which at that stage of life meant the whole cycling season), and this is the literal truth; all I remember are those few words. That looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche.. It’s Stephen Roche!” Such is the power of commentary.

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La Plagne. 1987. Commentary Gold

We see it (hear it actually) in sport all the time. Commentators grabbing the limelight away from the actual protagonists and owning the action in perpetuity. 1966? Ken Wolstenholme has the absolute last word on that one – “Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over. It is now!”; You want 1974 and the Rumble In the Jungle? Harry Carpenter is your man – “And he’s out! OH MY GOD! He’s won the title back at 32! Muhammad Ali!” And a personal favourite of mine from 1999 and Clive Tyldesley: “Beckham…. Into Sheringham.. AND SOLSKJAER HAS WON IT!”

Cycling commentary, due to the sheer length of stages and lack of definitive knockout blows, tends to be a far less hyperbolic arena. Liggett at La Plagne is like a cataclysmic volcanic eruption set against the more usual plate tectonic fare of breakaway breakdowns and chateau diversions. Semi-regular sprint finishes offer some form of climactic commentary but no more so than you would get at every horse race that was ever shown.. So what is the secret of being a good cycling race commentator? And what the hell do they find to talk about all that time? The Jersey Pocket met up with a few exponents of this dark art to find out.

Despite the familiarity of having a microphone in front of him, Rob Hatch is struggling to speak. I’ve asked the Eurosport commentator for his favourite line of commentary and he’s trying to remember one. Maybe speaking four languages has widened his linguistic net so far that pinning something down is harder than usual. “It would be cricket” he says at last. “It was all about cricket when I was growing up in the North-West. I do remember listening to England vs the West Indies at Sabina Park in Jamaica the early Nineties. It was all about the voices for me. Hearing Tony Crozier, Tony Greig and, of course, Richie Benaud for the first time. I used to watch the Channel 9 cricket tapes from Australia with my dad. Richie is a huge commentary hero of mine.” Eventually he remembers the line. It’s Tony Crozier, in his super-rich Barbadian accent, after a new boy batsman finds himself on the business end of a vicious bouncer for his first ball. “Nasser Hussein. Welcome to Test cricket.”

Voices are enormously important to Rob. So much so that he has two of his own. Along with the multiple languages, he has distinct on-air and off-air accents that take a little bit of getting used to. “It just happened when I started broadcasting” he says, and he is as almost as well known for it as he is for the emphasis he places on correct pronunciation. For him the broadcaster’s voice is the most important tool in the box. “The major thing, and I think a lot of people don’t realise this, because it’s sort of a sub-conscious thing, is you have to have a strong voice, you have to have a believable voice. People take notice of [a believable voice] so if I have a weak voice and I’m talking about something factual, human nature means that you are less likely to believe it. Whether it’s TV or radio, you are coming across through a set of speakers and you have to be able to communicate with them. Language is a massive part of that but the basic tool is the voice.”

This surprises me a bit – I suppose I was expecting an answer about technique, memory, experience, the ability to find that memorable phrase or just to keep on talking whatever happens but when you think about it, for the commentator who is pitching the mood of the action unseen, it is vitally important. If you, as a listener, don’t like the voice, if it annoys you, it’s a non-starter.

Jon Harris-Bass agrees. “The voice is so important. Still to this day I can’t listen to a weak voice broadcasting for any length of time.” Another Eurosport commentator, Jon took the unusual route of studying theology before working on a local TV station on the basis of a friend telling him that he ‘liked sport and liked talking’. He got his break when a cameraman heard him doing a mock commentary on the sidelines of a lacrosse match. His colleague put him forward to the station manager who let him try some rugby commentary, which he did with enough success to kickstart a career.

If it is the accent that characterises Rob, you would have to say that Jon is defined by his pitch. I know that I have a very deep voice, and I’ve had that since I was two or three, when my father started calling me ‘Foghorn’. Most people think I’m a lot older just based on my voice, and that has been incredibly beneficial in my career.” This is certainly true. I had thought that Jon must be in his late forties and I had unconsciously attributed a greater authority to his words based solely on that. In fact he is a full decade younger than he sounds and my junior by a couple of years. “The thing is that age is usually something that assists with a voice.” he says, “The majority of good commentators come into what I would call the purple patch of their careers from forty onwards.” And that maturity would be directly attributable to both the development of an authoritative, believable voice and the experience which goes with it.

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Jon Harris-Bass and Rob Hatch at the Asian Games

Jon’s childhood commentary memories focus around three wonderfully unique voices, all of which grew richer as they grew older. “Bill McClaren was the guy who I absolutely idolised and whose commentary defined the sport [of rugby] for me. Murray Walker in Motorsport was obviously totally and utterly immersed in the sport and therefore made it come alive. Brian Johnston on the radio with cricket was the same. You could listen to them for hours and hours. You believed everything that they said and they swept you along on a journey that wasn’t just centred on statistics. It was stories. They were storytellers and this was something that really helped me love those sports.”

Simon Brotherton, who has covered twenty Tour de France’s for BBC Radio in regular summer breaks from his usual soccer commentary, agrees about the importance of the storytelling. Despite being better known for football, he is a lifelong cycling nut. He was on the slopes of La Plagne watching the action as a fan the day Phil Liggett uttered those famous words and, back in the days of only a single round-up show at the weekend, he used to tune into French radio when he got home from school for daily updates of the Tour. He sees the cycling as a place to let loose his linguistic creativity. “I will be doing the Tour on radio [again] this year. I personally think that cycling is great sport for the radio: it gives you such a canvas to work with. A mountain stage on the Tour is like Theatre of the Mind. You are trying to take the listener right to the heart of what is unfolding. You are trying to tell them what it visually looks like, you are trying to get the human drama and the nuts and bolts of who is chasing who down the road and how far apart they are but you’ve also got the whole colour to bring in too; the flags, the jerseys, the roadside fervour, right down to the smell of the BBQ’s sometimes. There is so much flavour to talk about on Tour.”

David Duffield was the past master of cycling story-telling, and it was he who hooked Jon Harris-Bass into the sport. Or rather it was his commentary that did. “I was working on the Eurosport News Channel and David was commentating Ghent-Wevelgem. It was not a race that I had ever heard of before but I was going to have to write a news report on it for the channel, so I watched it for two and half hours and absolutely loved it. It was definitely the commentator who dragged me in. It was the balance that he struck. His ability to storytell when nothing much was going on was extraordinary. Now a lot of people feel that, towards the end, David Duffield started to get the balance [between story-telling and commentating] wrong, but he was such an amazing servant to cycling.”

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The Elder Statesmen. Sherwen & Liggett.

Simon Brotherton is quick to acknowledge the huge role that Phil Liggett has played in cycling commentary and, in doing so, explores something of the manner in which the words are delivered. “I remember Robert Millar, he had won a stage in the Pyrenees – I think it was at Guzet-Neige in ’83 – and Liggett said something like, “The two arms are all we want to see now. And there they are!” That was great. He wasn’t saying anything profound but it captured that final moment of victory. He was speaking on a reporter phone and it wasn’t as clear as the line that you get now so it made it somehow more exotic – he could have been broadcasting from the moon.. He was somewhere that was away from where you were, somewhere distant where these epic struggles were going on.”

Knowing what to say is an obvious talent for an aspiring commentator but Simon also highlights the importance of knowing what not to say.  “I was too young to hear it at the time I do think that David Coleman’s commentary from the [1970] Mexico World Cup – ‘Banks! What A Save!’ – the way that he says it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That’s the key. It isn’t always being clever with words. It’s just the way you are able to put it across and Coleman at his best was really good at that. I remember in Athletics you would get an Olympics or a World Championship and you would see [the runners] coming to the last lap and, instead of gabbling on about how “This is where it’s all going to kick off..” he would just say, ‘THE BELL.’ I [still] try to remember that you don’t have to use nine hundred words to describe everything.”

So what is the secret to good cycling commentary? Assuming that you have a good voice, then all three agree that it comes down to preparation. Each of them stress the importance of having something to say about every rider in every race and that means good, old-fashioned homework. Simon Brotherton explains: “If you have got 200 guys in a race I’ll be able to say something about each  of them. It’s for the off chance that they come shooting out of the peloton with about 300 metres to go. There is no secret other than doing the hard work. Spending the hours and the time sitting down and doing it. For Ride London I did quite a lot of work for example because, as well as Sky and Ben Swift and Wiggins, you’ve also got a lot of riders from smaller teams who you wouldn’t see for the rest of the year. So you need to do your homework on that. Because no matter who attacks or who does anything in that race, it’s my job to make sure I can say something about them.”

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Unlike football, the action is rarely in front of cycling commentator’s eyes.

Rob Hatch agrees. “For me I find that immersing myself in the sport, in the race, is the easiest way. I’ll make notes on each team and I try to make a note on every rider for each race. I sometimes buy guidebooks but I’ve lived in France, Italy & Spain so they are easier but say for the Tour of Poland I would talk to someone, try and pick up some things. In the off-season I often save little things that I see.. even though I may be trying to have some time away and not prepare too much, I’ll see something that I like and I’ll save it to come back to in February or March.” It’s much the same for Jon Harris-Bass. “Cycling is DEFINITELY the sport that I take the most into the booth with me. Just so you are covered because you never know what is going to happen..” Notebooks, newspapers and online resources all come into play alongside the all-important road book and race radio. 

As with the number of words used, there is a limit to the amount of information that can  be conveyed without it becoming too distracting. When I spoke with Rob Hatch, Velon – an action group formed of pro-cycling teams – had just started talking about onboard cameras and putting far more infographics onscreen. I wondered what were his thoughts about that? “I think that it’s a question of taste. And a question of individual preference. From a personal point of view [I say] No, just because I see that as an Americanisation of cycling. However if you could have the option of having that, if you like it.. that could work. As a commentator I would LOVE to have that on boring races where I have nothing to talk about, but if you are bombarded with it every two minutes, I think we are taking some of the drama away..” 

And what about who is in the booth along with the commentator? Everyone I spoke to made the point about the difference between a lead commentator and analyst/summariser. Lead commentators have a significantly different role to play than the (usually) ex-pro analyst sitting alongside them. Understanding the roles is one thing – the analyst will always be silent during the final kilometre of the stage for instance – but creating a good dynamic is vital too. “It can make or break a broadcast, I really do think that.” says Rob – who occasionally has the unenviable task of commentating solo. “I think that as long as you get on with the person it’s pretty easy to form a partnership but I there are certain partnerships where you do one or two broadcasts and you think, ”Oh, that’s good..” It goes up a level..”

Simon has enjoyed similar experiences of a good dynamic formings with his analyst. “I always have a co-commentator for the Tour. That will be Rob [Hayles].  What he says carries weight but on a personal level I get on really well with him. Most people do. He is an easy-going bloke [and] we are on a similar wavelength comedically. When we did the Giro in 2013 we did actually have to put the microphones down and turn them off on a couple of occasions because we were laughing so much that we couldn’t speak. Some stupid thing would have happened at the side of the road that got us going. It’s great when it’s like that. But we did have to take a few seconds off because we were crying with laughter.”

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Good mates on and off-air: Rob Hayles and Simon Brotherton enjoying the weather at the Giro.

“On TV most of my work is with Chris Boardman and I think that on-air relationship is developing well. We have only been doing it for a relatively short period of time but I think that it has come along well. The relationships you have are important. I think it’s very important to keep the summariser as involved as possible. The audience want to hear from them. Chris Boardman is the one who has won the Olympic Games and the World Championship – not me..”

Strangely, few co-commentators develop into leads – I remember being completely sideswiped listening to the 2014 Tour of California when Paul Sherwen had the lead role and Phil Liggett was supporting him. Jon Harris-Bass thinks that commercial pressures may be eroding the distinction but he firmly believes that they are two disparate skills. He uses Eurosport’s most famous analyst to illustrate the point. “I absolutely love Sean Kelly. He is very much an acquired taste on air.. What he says is fantastic but Sean could never be a lead. And I don’t think he would want to be.” And it’s not just because of the Irishman’s famous taciturnity. “The weird thing is that if you get Sean in a bar, having a drink afterwards, or in the little asides we have on the Tour when we are off air – he is hilarious.. And sometimes I just wish that more of that would come across on air because he is a really funny man..” Beyond the differences in personality the subtext is clear: there is ‘talking on air’, and there is ‘broadcasting’. None can sum it up in words what the difference is – which in itself seems strange – but perhaps it’s like the sportsmen and women themselves. You have to train hard, you have to prepare but at the end of the day, if you haven’t got the gift you aren’t going to make it.

With the commentator’s voice being so important – and, in the case of the most of the examples above, so memorable – I wonder what else they can try and bring to the microphone to differentiate themselves. Rob Hatch’s vocal style is the most obvious of the three. “Everyone has their own style and I think that is important. I think it’s an innate thing. My style is pretty obvious. I‘ve been praised for it, I’ve been criticised for it, but my thing is culture and language. The pronunciation is part of it but a lot of that comes from the fact that I’m bilingual in English and Spanish. I lived in the Canary Islands for a while and though I have no Canarian blood, I feel Canarian, just as I feel English.. That’s the thing that I can add, and the language is just a small part that people notice because it’s different, but if you watch all season you might notice that I’ll bring in news from different countries. In cycling, given the fact that it’s is a massively important sport in Spain, France and Italy – in some ways we are playing their game – I’m ridiculously lucky that I can read [those languages]. With the pronunciation, I think it’s a question of politeness.. I think there are a lot of lazy people – certainly in football broadcasting. I was watching Arsenal the other night and simple things like the surname “Martinez”. Here Rob slightly wobbles the ‘a’ and the ‘r’, elongates the ‘i’ into an ‘ee’ sound and does something very Continental with the ‘ez’ that I can’t describe in words on paper. “People just say “Marty-nez” and I’m thinking “Why?” It’s very basic and it’s just polite.”

Simon Brotherton talks more about feelings and capturing the importance of the event when I ask him about the differences that he tries to bring. “I think the ability the bring home the emotion and the significance of the big moments. That is what I’m about. That’s what I’m there to do. When Chris Hoy wins his sixth Olympic gold medal in the Olympic velodrome, or Bradley wins the Tour de France, or Cav wins the World Championship, those are the moments that you have to nail if you are a commentator because they’re the bits that are going to be there and you can’t change them afterwards. You wouldn’t plan what you were going to say for something though; I don’t think that would work. You have to trust in your own ability to be able to react to the moment because you would lose something of that moment if you were looking down trying to read something that you prepared. Or it might sound stilted, it might not quite fit or catch the moment in the way that it happened. You don’t know how something will pan out.” But on the other hand, he knows that giving yourself over to your emotions too much could be disastrous. “I agree with what Rob (Hatch) has said about remaining clear in the big moments; no matter how much you are going for it, even if you are going at 100 decibels, you still need to be clear and concise and coherent.”

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Remember to stay coherent in the big moments.

The potential for disaster is never far away in the world of commentary. Technical problems, mic fright, slips of the tongue or simply running out of things to say are ever-present spectres in the booth. The all-important preparation serves to negate most of these but, inevitably, something bad is going to happen at some point. Jon Harris-Bass recalls a vital part of a script being taken off the printer by someone else in his news bulletin days before he went in to link seven Spanish language boxing interviews and not having the faintest clue of what was being said for over four and a half minutes. He also recalls a close call with a swear word. He managed to avoid it but still fell foul of the commentator’s other nemesis: corpsing. “I was inheriting a football script from one of the other guys who was working earlier in the day. Celta Vigo were playing Barcelona and Celta Vigo hit the post and, in the script, which I naively hadn’t read through beforehand, it said “Shit the post”. Now I said the word “hit” but I saw the word “shit” and I just dissolved into hysterics and laughed for the next five minutes. On Air. Proper snorting laughter with a few grunting pig noises as I tried to inhale. I was with someone and it was his little titter at seeing the word “shit” that set me off and then it was both of us. We had to come in 15 minutes later to re-do the bulletin and had to face in opposite directions and still only just managed to get through it.”

Simon Brotherton’s most vivid memory of commentator catastrophe revolves around food poisoning. As a seasoned Continental campaigner, you would expect that it would be some unusual foreign dish that brought him low but it was actually as a result of the Tour visiting the UK. “In my very first Tour de France, in 1994, the race spent two days in England and, the day we went back to France, we had an overnight boat trip for the stage to Rennes. I felt as sick as a dog but it became apparent that, depending on how the stage went, Sean Yates could get into yellow. Throughout that stage I felt really ill and as they were coming up to the finish I had the microphone in one hand and a plastic bag in the other and I wasn’t sure which I was going to use first. I did manage to get through it and of course Sean Yates did get the yellow jersey, which was fantastic. I didn’t feel quite so ill after that.”

For Rob Hatch, so far the issues have been technical or logistical ones but he knows that something will happen at some time. It comes with the territory. “I turned up [to a race] in Azerbaijan recently and the host broadcaster didn’t know I was coming so there was no commentary position set up. Those things are the worst, the logistical nightmares. I’m not looking forward to it but there will be a day when everyone is slating me for a mistake – just remember we are all human..” 

The march of time, and the improvements in technology mean that we will probably never again arrive at a scenario where the commentator doesn’t know where the main contender to the yellow jersey is on a major climb in the Tour, as we saw with Liggett, Roche and Delgado in 1987. This increased transparency would seem to threaten to condemn the ‘Art of Commentary’ back into a staid litany of statistics and idle ‘banter’. But remember that this is sport; where sublime things occur regularly. Where the unexpected happens almost as much, and where each generation will define greatness anew.

So long as that continues, we will be delighted by the commentator’s reactions to it.

Top Image – Ant McCrossan commenting Rapha SuperCross. via Cyclevox.com

11 thoughts on “The Art of Noise – The Secrets of Cycling Commentary

  1. Sherwen & Liggett are the best. I believe that the “secret” to being a good commentator is exploding when it’s exploding. The back and forth dose of information from Sherwen and Liggett is super smooth with commentary every now and again from a former pro like Roll or Vande Velde. Of course, I speaking strictly cycling. Thanks for the great article.

  2. “Strangely, few co-commentators develop into leads”

    Matt Stephens on Eurosport seems to get the lead gig from time to time, and whilst not the best there is he is a decent enough commentator.

    • Yes – he is the exception. I spoke to him at an event and that was the original seed for the article but we couldn’t co-ordinate an interview. Shame – his take on it would have been good too.

  3. Great read.

    Being fortunate to have good Italian and a working knowledge of Dutch, I always watch MSR and the Giro with Italian commentary and the cobbled classics in Flemish. It adds greatly to the experience.

    Sean Kelly reminds me of the priest of Father Ted whose voice wads so boring that nobody could understand what he was saying, bless him!

  4. I enjoyed reading your article here. I found it because I was looking for information on Rob Hatch. One aspect about cycling commentary that wasn’t mentioned is that of the commentator identifying himself. I’m catching up on a couple of back recordings of Tour de Romandie. At the end of stage 2, finally the commentator signed off saying something like ‘For Magnus B… and for me, Rob Hatch, this has been….” Two full stages of commentating and I have no idea to whom I’m listening. I noticed the same thing last year at the beginning of the Tour de France. The person commentating was not Phil L, but someone else. It took a while before I heard him mention his name – Mat Keenan. I’ve been used to seeing Paul and Phil in the commentary box. Not sure what it’s like in Europe, but here in Canada, in the last few years we’re starting to get more cycling coverage. I think this is the first year we’re seeing the Spring Classics and lead up tours to the big three Grand Tours. I assume that European tv or online media have the rights to broadcast, which they sell to various national sports media. Now, we hear but do not see the commentator, who for some strange reason is not identifying himself. Please, if you’re a tv cycling commentator, mention your name a few times through the broadcast. The viewers are experiencing the event through your grid. Some of us want to know whose experience is filtering our viewing experience.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll pass them on to the commentators I know. I think that the Matt you refer to could be Matt Stephens who has done quite a lot of commentating for Eurosport this last year – Rob often does commentary for what he calls ‘the world feed’, which is what the organisers sell to those countries who don’t have a dedicated commentator at the race. Carlton Kirby also does a lot of the Eurosport commentary these days with Phil and Paul coming in for the Tour.

  5. I totally agree with Paul Rowe. Rob Hatch is an awful lead commentator. His voice often trails off to incomprehensible mumbling. I much prefer Phil Liggett.

  6. to P.R., is it possible that you might be a little more kind when you talk about a commentator you don’t really like? Why take a strip off the guy (Rob Hatch in this instance)? He’s trying to do his best, which may not be up to your standards. Maybe you could suggest 1 thing for him to work on, that might improve his on air delivery.

  7. What a great read!
    For anyone wanting to find out more about the wonderfully eccentric style of David Duffield we’ve resurrected the We Love David Duffield pages that were so popular around the 2001 period. It’s interesting reading them now as they appear unedited and recognising how far the sport has moved on, but also how much we still need commentators with the rich style of Duffield.

    http://bikesy.co.uk/features/david-duffield/

    Chapeaux to you all for putting this feature together.
    Regards
    Tony

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