“Bardiani at the back of the pack!”
Seb Piquet, the urbane announcer for Radio Tour, ASO’s auditory link between the race director, commissaires, directeurs sportif, journalists, and anyone else following the race in an official capacity, had a game of two halves on the cancelled fifth stage of the Tour of Oman.
As a former football journalist, a game of which he tired quickly, despite a childhood obsession, Piquet might recognise the aphorism. Having called three punctures for the Italian team in quick succession before the action could restart in a new location and on a reduced parcours, the remainder of his afternoon was spent in comparative silence. The stage was cancelled.
“For issues like today, I will not take any decision,” he clarifies, speaking in the lobby of the hotel in which all the teams are staying; one which earlier had hosted debate among race organisers, including Eddy Merckx, about how the show had come to be stopped by a display of rider solidarity.
“I will relay the decision on RadioTour if I’m asked to, or say things to the guys in the car – give my opinion – but I will not make the decision.” If Piquet is unflustered by a turn of events that saw the peloton refuse to race in fear that Bardiani’s wheels might fail on the rapid descent of Bouscher Al Amerat, it is perhaps because he has seen – and called – worse. Piquet was the voice of Radio Tour during the infamous ‘tack attack’ on stage fourteen of the 2012 Tour de France. “Suddenly, it was 25, 30, 40 punctures,” he recalls with a disbelieving smile, still seemingly astonished by the turn of events.
A Frenchman by birth and residence, whose 10 years in London from the ages of two to 12 has provided him with a faultless English accent, Piquet has been the voice of Radio Tour since 2005. He made his debut at the Grand Prix of Doha, a bike race held on the twisting MotoGP circuit at Lusail, as replacement for the recently-departed John Lelangue, who had left to become DS at Phonak. Piquet had been working as a freelance journalist (still his profession outside of the cycling season) on the Dakar Rally, another ASO property, when asked to try out for the Radio Tour role. Now beginning his eleventh season, he still enjoys every minute.
From calling punctures in Roubaix to reminding directeurs in Oman that their riders must remain clothed in public, there is little that Piquet hasn’t seen or called. “I am just a voice,” he says modestly, part of a team of four that also includes three motorcycle outriders, his “eyes” at the head of the race. Piquet is sequestered in a car that follows directly behind the peloton, and when required, typically on mountain stages, behind the breakaway.
It is at moments such as these – following the yellow jersey group up l’Alpe d’Huez, for example – that Piquet crosses the thin line between announcement and commentary. It is a transition he relishes, calling the action, frequently to journalists relaying their own announcements based on his descriptions, though he is keenly aware of the need for brevity. Others may need to use the channel: commissaires, for example. The key is to be “short, snappy and efficient”.
Piquet works with a headset and a foot pedal, and, if he is to avoid embarrassment, must be careful not to “open” the microphone unintentionally with a careless movement of his foot, as he did at last year’s Tour. On his lap is a set of carefully prepared notes, including rider names and numbers, and coloured pens: when the motorcycle outriders tell him the numbers of the riders in breakaway, he must note them quickly, and relay them to his listeners. He identifies “a good sandwich” among other essentials.
Remaining concentrated for an entire stage is the Radio Tour announcer’s greatest challenge. While the passengers in almost every other car in the convoy will be rocked to sleep at some point during the six-hour drive, an afternoon nap is not an option for Piquet, who must remain constantly alert for the rider thrusting his hand in the air for a bidon or mechanical support.
He must also have a keen understanding of the event unfolding in front of him: sometimes directly ahead, but often far up the road. Paris-Roubaix is unquestionably the most difficult race to call, he says. The peloton typically splinters into small groups and, like the riders, he faces the additional challenge of the cobbles. Try reading a set of notes in a juddering car. The third challenge for the erstwhile RadioTour announcer to overcome is car sickness, though nowadays he is largely immune, even on Alpine and Pyrenean descents.
It is essential that the announcer has a passion for the sport and a love of cycling, Piquet says. He must respect the rider enough to call aid to his plight with the minimum delay, understanding how hard he will have to work to rejoin the pack, especially on a mountain stage. Piquet’s love of the sport can comparatively late, after a “football mad” childhood in a household with no apparent affection for cycling. He watched his first Tour in 1992. The man he cheered – Pascal Lino, maillot jaune for eleven days before succumbing to the bludgeoning Indurain – is now also an employee of ASO, and frequently Piquet’s room-mate.
Piquet describes cycling’s travelling circus as a family: one with which he spends more time each year than with his girlfriend and son. Gaining acceptance, especially from riders of the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s, is not easy for a journalist, he notes, but he is now a fully fledged member of ASO’s travelling band. Jean-François Pescheux, its technical director, taught him everything, Piquet says.
RadioTour is an institution for those who follow the race in an official capacity, and Piquet is its voice: clear and concise, providing information in idiomatic, unaccented English as readily as in French. He places something of himself in the most perfunctory announcements: in his pleas to sports directors to prevent riders from hurling bottles “into the middle of nowhere”, for example, or in his deliberate pronunciation of certain names of teams or riders. Xiu Jiang’s breakaways in the recent Ladies Tour of Qatar were notable among Radio Tour’s listeners not only for her bravery, but also for Piquet’s crisp declamation of her team: “China Chongming”.
He can recognise a rider in the pack by his body language (Chris Horner’s heel, perenially set at an angle, for example), and describes working at the Tour as an honour. Should you find yourself near a parked or slow-moving member of the convoy at cycling’s greatest race, listen in. The announcements will be worth your trouble.