You’d be forgiven for missing British Eurosport, the self-styled Home of Cycling. There’s no bikes about, no razzamatazz and no clear sign. It is a quiet, plate-glass building on an industrial estate in the south-west London suburb of Feltham. Only a few satellite dishes on the roof hint at what lies inside: a labyrinth of corridors and passages that make up the headquarters of British Eurosport.
The chances are that if you’re watching cycling on television, it’s coming from here. No sport has more coverage on British Eurosport, with 300-odd race days a year.
With such regularity, its commentators have become familiar voices in our homes. Sean Kelly’s Irish brogue and inimitable phrases (bonification?) infiltrating our vocabulary; Carlton Kirby’s paroxysms in the final hundred metres making us worry for his health.
Make no mistake, this is one tough sport to call: 160-odd riders constantly changing positions and location. No shirt names, no set order, no confined playing field or pace, sometimes even no live pictures…
It’s 12.30 on a Monday afternoon and we’re here to follow a Eurosport cycling broadcast from start to finish. Today’s commentators Declan Quigley and Matt Stephens join us in a boardroom ahead of stage six of Tirreno-Adriatico, clutching colour-coded papers and highlighter pens.
Matt Stephens has been busy doing his Tirreno homework. pic: Jack Chevell
You can’t pitch up ten minutes beforehand and wing this gig: the previous day’s results, road book and weather details need to be printed off and scoured; social media has to be trawled for rider opinions and talking points.
While Quigley and Stephens are part of the eight-strong Eurosport cycling team, commentating is just a small part of the operation in Feltham. There are studios and screening rooms; teams specialising in programming, production, marketing, scheduling, broadcasting, editing and the Eurosport website.
Every Eurosport cycling broadcast has a lead commentator (Quigley, this week) and a colour commentator (Stephens). While both offer observation and opinion, Quigley takes them to, and back from, advert breaks and wraps up the show.
“With commentary, we’re not racing, but the experience is similar, the cadence,” Quigley says. “There is adrenaline in it, you are actually living the event in a similar rhythm to the racers.” From breeziness and levity with the early breakaway, it builds to a crescendo at the finish.
British Eurosport commentator Matt Stephens at work pic: Jack Chevell
“There’s a rhythm,” Stephens agrees. “A one-day race in Belgium is completely different to a stage race in Italy. For this, you’ll come on air and it’ll be a steady build-up, a bit like a radio show initially, setting the context. In a Classic, there’s peaks and troughs, attacks going, then an entente cordiale, there’s so much going on. Your intonation will change with the rhythms of the race. Although basically you’re giving extra information, essentially play by play, you have to give it a narrative thread that intrigues people.”
The bread and butter of commentary is concise and accurate identification of riders. Well-practiced Quigley and Stephens can spot a WorldTour professional from a tiny mannerism. “I watch as much cycling as I can and read magazines, and you come to know different shapes. It’s the ability to pick out riders from a camera shot through a shoulder, or a flash of the former national champion stripes. A certain position on a bike means you can identify them straight away too,” Stephens says.
Preemptive research also helps. Ahead of this penultimate stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, likely one for the fast men, the pair check which sprinters have abandoned and highlight on their start-lists which second-stringers or puncheurs might be up there. Then there’s the almost daily task of working out which MTN-Qhubeka rider will be lead sprinter. Using contacts is preferable to guessing: they got in touch with general manager Brian Smith to find out. All this information is tucked away in the back of their minds, to be brought out for certain eventualities on the road.
If in doubt during commentary, they will speak to one another, off mic. “I’ll write a name down when Declan is mid-sentence, I’ll go ‘it’s so-and-so,’” says Stephens. “He'll say ‘Are you sure?’ That communication is really key.”
As professional cycling grows in popularity, their challenge is ensuring they make the coverage as accessible as possible to everyone.
“To have an integrity about it, to be real and not patronising, and not dumb it down, you don’t want to oversimplify it,” Quigley says. “Bring the aficionados with you and have that credibility, while at the same time as new viewers are arriving into cycling, you’ve got to include them.”
Howlers and humble pie
What are the most difficult moments for commentators? Bad weather, for starters. “A stage of the Giro a couple of years ago, there were no live pictures: they couldn’t get the helicopters up. They had the finish line shot, people walking around, some 80s disco music. Myself and Sean [Kelly] must have been talking for hours,” Quigley says.
Then there are the occasional production problems. “One race, there was a crucial bunch sprint with Cavendish and Tom Boonen. At that moment, the camera panned and showed people eating ice cream,” Stephens says.
Errors are unavoidable on live telly. pic: Jack Chevell
Small mistakes are inevitable during a week of commentary on live TV too. “You don’t dwell on them, but if it’s a real howler, refer to it,” Quigley says. “If you say Mark Cavendish is a Slovak, you go ‘hang on a minute, I think I might have got that wrong’.
“If someone goes on Twitter to say your pronunciation of a name is incorrect, it’s good feedback, it’s useful.”
When it comes to cycling’s troubles with doping, they will refer if it is relevant but do not editorialise. “It’s a different role to editorial rolecasting or print journalism. It’s an unusual one because we’re part entertainer, part reporter. We have to relay what’s happening,” Quigley says.
In the box
Time to set up and sound-check ahead of going on air at 1.30pm. It’s a short walk from the main office to a corridor that contains four commentary booths. They are in number 3 today. “This is quite a generous booth. Me and Magnus Backstedt did a Tour of Britain here,” Stephens says, showing us a cramped neighbouring one. “You know how tall Magnus is…”
Inside, there is a desk with two screens, relaying race action from the host broadcaster, and one central mixing deck with knobs and buttons, headphones attached. On the far wall, there is a corkboard with key technical information and the Eurosport spring cycling commentary rota.
The rest of the space is taken up by sandwiches, cups of tea and a laptop. They use Twitter to interact with viewers and to quickly ascertain race information. Meanwhile, Procyclingstats.com is a source for quick facts and figures about lesser-known riders making the running. Several cycling magazines are on the table for information too (Rouleur among them, of course.)
Checking Twitter for updates in the commentary box. pic: Jack Chevell
Tirreno-Adriatico’s sixth stage between Rieti and Porto Sant’Elpidio is innocuous: it ought to pose little challenge to the peloton or these commentators.
So much for best laid plans: the foul wet weather means there are no live pictures for the first 30 minutes of the broadcast. Quigley and Stephens barely bat an eyelid; it means they can chat through Tirreno-Adriatico’s highlights, discuss poor conditions talking points and interact more with viewers on Twitter before the live footage kicks back in.
When I put on a spare set of headphones, it strikes me how much they are juggling on air. I can hear their voices, that of the producer with regular instructions from Eurosport in Paris and, because of a technical fault, applause from a snooker match also being broadcast on Eurosport.
Then there’s background ambient noise from the race too, which Stephens keeps on. “I like to hear the sound of the road: the motorcycle engine, the whirr of the bicycles, the chain going round. So you’re kind of there,” he says.
Every so often, the debonair French voice of the producer comes across: “Cue point in thirty,” then counts down: “Five, four, three, two, one. Zero – stop talking please!”
This is the point where every Eurosport commentator in whatever language quietens simultaneously before resuming moments later, designed so Eurosport can tidily edit footage into variously sized highlight packages post-race – and keep new viewers in the loop. This is the reason that a commentator sums up the action occasionally, for example saying: “30km to go in this, the sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, two men up the road.”
Declan Quigley listens as Stephens makes a point. pic: Jack Chevell
“You’ve got a little babelfish thing in your ear with a different agenda altogether, so you’ve got to try and multi-task,” Quigley says of the information. “When I started here, having worked at various other television companies, it was very new, very different. But you get into the rhythm and come to expect it.”
As the rain keeps falling, Quigley and Stephens are in the groove, playing off one another, jumping from the issue of black raincoats to mudguards and the action on the road. We leave them to it.
Simon Reed is the Head of Commentators at British Eurosport. Alongside calling tennis and a variety of other sports, his job is to pick the commentary teams and rotas.
Roughly 25 per cent of the channel's cycling commentary comes from this Feltham base; the rest happens on site, be it Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Turkey or the Tour de France. Carlton Kirby and Sean Kelly head up the cycling commentary team, working on many of the big races.
“The key things are entertaining and informing, getting the balance with the lead and colour commentator,” Reed says. “It’s very important that Declan and Matt get on really well. Sometimes that’s crucial in cycling, particularly for the lead, because you’re on air for long periods of time.
Head of Commentators Simon Reed: "You can't get away with bullshit on air now." pic: Jack Chevell
“I find a stage like this more interesting: the chemistry of the two really comes into play, because maybe not a lot is happening on screen. It’s important the lead guy gets the best out of the colour guy: he also has to be strong himself, paint the picture, editorially really giving the viewer what’s necessary,” Reed says.
Reed observes that in sports like tennis, cricket and cycling, articulate ex-professionals, like Stephens, slip more comfortably into a commentary role. “You don’t get that in football, rugby union, a whole raft of sports.”
What has changed in commentary in the last 20 years? “In the past, there was a fair amount of bullshit going on. Social media is another way to sharpen the senses if you start to get things wrong. I think the level of knowledge from the viewer and cycling enthusiast is at such a level, you can’t get away with that now.”
Tinkoff-Saxo star Peter Sagan sprints to his maiden win of the year in a rain-sodden finish. Twenty minutes later, Quigley and Stephens enter the boardroom, still chattering excitedly about the race: what happened to Goss, the guppy-mouthed expression of breakaway Vuillermoz, the Alpecin advert.
Some days the pair can be buzzing post-race from the rush of commentary, as if wired by a triple espresso; others, they feel as drained as the riders. It’s certainly odd seeing them minutes after hearing them call the finish on TV.
Wall-to-wall Vuillermoz in the screening room. pic: Jack Chevell
“It was good today, we did a bit more on Twitter than we normally do. You get a lot of people asking genuine questions that give us a discussion point for a few minutes to break things up,” Stephens says.
Twitter is a double-edged sword: while Stephens had a Cannondale-Garmin soigneur helpfully direct messaging him about their green rain jackets, he also had to block an abusive, foul-mouthed user for only the second time ever. “You get a few idiots on there sometimes,” he says.
After a hectic day of living, breathing and chatting cycling, do they look forward to getting away from it? No chance.
“I do most of my swotting in the evening,” says Quigley. “I never studied as hard in school as I did for this. The very idea, you would study for cycling – it’s great!”
The immediacy of race commentary has its pros and cons. Live television means that, whether good, bad or indifferent, the broadcast is behind them as soon as they are off the air. At the same time, it means there is no possibility of self-editing.
“Sometimes you wish you could be more eloquent and bring more adjectives in. When you write, you can do that, play with the construct and have fun with it. On air, you’ve just to go with what comes into your head,” Stephens says.
As you can see, there is far more to this job than accurately and quickly relaying information. The cycling commentator is a researcher, listener, cycling geek, entertainer and reporter, all rolled into one.
Perhaps most importantly, Stephens and Quigley are still avid cycling fans too. It means the passion transmitted is always genuine, and that the hours of homework are never a chore.
“This beats working for a living,” says Quigley with a smile, before the pair head off to face the London traffic.