Today sees the elite men’s time trial. A lone rider against the clock, surely you don’t get a purer athletic contest in cycling. But as impressive as the contest may be, often it makes for poor TV viewing. 95% of the time you are watching a rider pedalling like a metronome and little else. I find myself reduced to analysing different hand positions, observing if shoulders are rocking or looking at the line they take around a corner. It’s a bit like studying a painting, you have to search for the details.
TV matters. Big audiences are key to attracting sponsors and the opinions of TV producers sway the UCI. So making a time trial more appealing for TV audiences matters a great deal. Sporting purists might regret this but always remember that if you’re reading The Inner Ring, you are not an average viewer of the sport but someone who has gone out of their way to read a niche blog.
So what can be done to make the experience more appealing but at the same time not turning the contest into a circus event?
- Camera angles need to vary a bit. The motorbike cannot draft the rider but often shots like the one above show a rider from behind and there is almost nothing to see. Worse, when they flip to the helicopter shot there is even less to watch. Side-on shots at least help to capture some facial impressions and some sort of diagonally in front camera angle could help more.
- Split screen technology can work but it has to be done right. In the Giro earlier this year RAI showed two riders simultaneously but the effect was to reduce the image size of each rider so making it hard concentrate on either rider. You need context, like captions to explain the time gap or relative speed.
- On screen graphics can help bring extra information. Cadence and speed for example, maybe heart rate or power but these can be confidential. A map to depict where a rider is on the course or perhaps the gradient on the road.
- Real time information. The idea of waiting for a time check at fixed point seems odd in the age of GPS and electronic communications. Real time information can be communicated to show average speed and the position on the course.
- As well as changing the TV production, you could toy with the format too, for example riders going head to head in segregated lanes or maybe setting off riders in a stage race time trial according to the reverse GC order, for example a rider 38 seconds down on a rival starts 38 seconds after them.
Before you leap to the comments of course this boredom is not unique to time trialling, a bunch rolling along a road is not exactly thrilling. And yes there can be real suspense when a race is close and sometimes the lack of real time information means the tension builds as a rider approaches a checkpoint or the finish line. You can see them round the final bend on the TV and look at the clock, make a mental calculation as to whether they do it. I’m hoping we get this later today.
Only this tension usually exists between the top riders and I as type Eurosport is generously screening four and a half hours of the worlds time trial. Remember, if you are interested by the full coverage then maybe the average channel-hopping viewer is not. Yet it is often this viewer who makes audience numbers swell, who entices sponsors and more. A slick production can make a big difference to the viewing experience.