The race within a race

Monday, 6 June 2011

Blel Kadri

It’s a small detail but watching the TV coverage of the Dauphiné yesterday the excitement around the performances of French riders was very noticeable. It’s understandable given four Frenchmen made the top-10 in a French race broadcast live on French TV. But there’s more to it than that.

For starters, it leads to a race within a race. The yellow jersey might be precious for most riders but there’s an invisible tricolore jersey for the first Frenchman on the overall classification. They get guaranteed coverage, a camera hovering near them during the race but also features and interviews before and after the stage which you might not notice if you’re watching international coverage. It’s the intersection of supply and demand: the domestic TV audience meets a rider able to speak French. Right now Ag2r’s Blel Kadri is sitting in the top spot and he got a good interview live on French TV yesterday. This airtime is incredibly valuable.

Local choice
This isn’t to say it’s unique to France. US TV will feature the best American rider, Colombian radio does the same and so on. An interview with a home rider is much better thanks to local interest, familiarity and no language barrier. But in the absence of a real GC contender for the race but the presence of several riders capable of a top-20 finish, keep a look out for the French riders in the Dauphiné as some will be calculating for this invisible prize, whereas the best US, Spanish or, say, Australian, is often in the mix for a proper placing. Above all, when the Tour de France comes several French riders will be going all out to get daily airtime even if it means they don’t actually win a stage or claim a visible prize.

The hunt for a champion goes on
Being the best Frenchman has its values, and the French coverage is complicit in exaggerating the abilities of local riders; yesterday we saw lavish praise for Kadri’s “excellent” spring results… only his best result was a second place in the Circuit de La Sarthe and a string of top-20 places. Solid and promising… but not quite worthy of the superlatives he received live on TV and the rider was modest enough to acknowledge he’s progressing. This perhaps says more about the media desperate to promote a good news story than it does about any rider.

Real success matters
But for all the publicity that comes with the honour of being first Frenchman home, it’s still not the same as winning. A genuine stage victory comes with plenty of publicity and the chance to break out from the back pages, maybe even a short feature on the TV news in the evening. So whilst riders do fight for this small contest, they are obviously aiming higher. It’s just that French riders struggle for the big wins so this is a consolation prize.

Oliver June 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I find this type of patriotism deplorable. And it is too bad that pro cycling brings it out. Every country is guilty of it: look at the variable reactions towards doping, if someone tests positive we consider him guilty unless of course he’s a compatriot: he then benefits from a lot of doubt…

Speaking of doping: the legislation against doping in sports in incrementally tougher in France than elsewhere in most cycling nations (I think it is a crime): despite what the badger says, perhaps this might have something to do with the lack of a French champion or top contender? Ya think?

Guadzilla June 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I think the British press are the worst when it comes to hyping their athletes – be it F1, cricket, cycling or whatever. In most other countries, the press will also raise critical questions to go with the puff pieces, but the Brit media makes you think that Team Sky is going to do to every cycling race what the Postmen did to the TdF from 1999 onwards.

And it goes beyond just nationalism as well. There are also regional and language-driven biases (eg, English vs non-English speaking athletes). Not just in cycling but in all sports.

BikeRog June 6, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Oliver, why do you find a show of patriotism “deplorable?” It is what it is, simply an attempt to provide local news to local listeners and viewers–no different from the New York sports pages emphasizing the exploits of the Mets and Yankees, while the LA papers focus on the Dodgers and Angels.

They’re catering to their readers, to rooting interests, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Cycling is a sport, and sports are the toy department of life. In the big scheme of things, it’s no big deal. Get over it.

grolby June 6, 2011 at 4:41 pm

What’s deplorable about focusing on athletes from one’s own land, language and culture? It’s perfectly normal and acceptable – after all, humans are wired this way. Jingoistic nationalism is quite deplorable, yes, but I hardly see how a focus on “native” athletes qualifies as such. The inevitable circling of the wagons in the event of a possible doping violation is annoying and potentially problematic (with national federations ruling on their riders), but otherwise I don’t understand why some get in such a huff about any display of national solidarity in sports. It reminds me of commenters on Velonews getting all bent out of shape when they do a feature on American riders who might perform well in a big race – as if by spending a greater proportion of writing time on the Americans, they’re pretending that everyone else doesn’t exist. Versus can be guilty of this, but otherwise I don’t see the big deal. I want to hear about my compatriots!

The Inner Ring June 6, 2011 at 6:52 pm

It’s normal to focus on home riders, like I say above they speak the language. An interview done via an interpretor doesn’t work well on TV.

Yes it gets bad if people take sides agressively but the French TV coverage is very much based on willing French riders to do well and nothing against the non-French riders.

Beth June 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I don’t exactly deplore the jingoistic journalism, but I get tired of seeing it catered to. In most cases here in the USA, the TV coverage, whether Versus or NBC, assumes the “average viewer” is a casual fan, not a hard-core addict like most of here on this website. So they aim their commentary at this demographic. They cover, in tennis for instance, mostly the matches featuring an American player, no matter how interesting that match may be to someone who really follows the tennis scene closely. And they will give attention to the matches on the main courts, of course. But even then, they will cut away from a main court match if something even remotely interesting is going on in court sixteen that involves an American player seeded 56 in the world. I get really tired of that.
Versus is pretty much the same wrt cycling coverage. As a viewer, you are not encouraged to look beyond your American nose. And so, as an extreme example of that philosophy, we get drunken hoards chanting USA USA USA USA. This stuff makes me embarrassed. I have favorite riders and favorite tennis players. I never base my selection criteria on their nationality. And my experience is much the richer for that.

Oliver June 6, 2011 at 11:19 pm

The notion would be that sports would help us rise above national differences. There’s a certain freedom in cheering for a cyclist, because one genuinely appreciates his style, panache, guts or whatever. There’s a certain selfless humanistic poetry in that (think John Donne), while on the other hand, reflexively cheering for someone, just because he comes from your country, or worse your region, I think is pretty sad. But if floats your boat, have at it: you are the vast majority no doubt about it.

My favorite anecdote when it comes to jingoism was when I was watching the Olympics on TV in Spain (I think it was 1996): there was a fascinating volleyball match, a five setter or something, match point which got interrupted to see a Spaniard get a bronze medal! We got to see no sport, not action, just someone get a medal. Couldn’t believe it!

Michael June 7, 2011 at 1:27 am

I think it’s completely natural for local riders to get air time with the local journo’s. The French riders riding on a French team in a French race, what does everyone think the sponsors of these teams are in cycling for? There are there to promote and grow their business, bottom line. What better way to capture a big portion of a local team’s target market. I don’t get upset with it and find it a necessary aspect of bike racing at the professional level. To remove it would also remove a big part of the incentive for sponsors to get involved in cycling. For example see how big the ToC is for Radioshack, Dauphiné for the French teams, various Basque races for Spanish teams etc

Zinoviev Letter June 7, 2011 at 2:03 am

I agree that Kadri’s results have been promising rather than particularly brilliant, but he is certainly a talented young prospect. Originally touted as an up and coming sprinter, it turns out he can climb pretty decently and produce a high quality short time trial. That’s the sort of combination of abilities which could see him pick up quite a few wins.

The circus surrounding Thibaut Pinot now that he is the leading French rider is likely to be considerably more intense. 21 years old and a genuine climber, he’s probably going to get the full “Great French Hope” treatment over the next few years, the kind of damaging pressure the French media really knows how to pile on any young Frenchman who looks halfway decent when the road points upwards.

Rider Council June 7, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Poor Versus is getting an awful hammering these days. Thanks to livesteaming on Sporza viewers realise they were watching live infomercials for ten years. Or is it just another way to vent anger by getting duped by LA for so long?

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