Time trials on TV

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

time trial TV

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.

TomH September 21, 2011 at 2:02 pm

In the final timetrial of this years Tour de France the live timesplit between Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck was very useful. The gap between them was turned the other way around second by second, time-trial racing in it’s purest form and understandable for everyone to see.

Added data like speed, power, cadence and gear give the race some more insight. SRM has been doing this for years and it’s very helpful for the novice viewer.

ave September 21, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Indeed SRM’s data is online, it’s only a matter of contracts and finances that we get those on the TV footage too.

GerralddJ September 21, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Agree fully, and given the amounts of money invested by race organizers and sponsors I am in fact surprised that nobody seems to think about making the viewing more interesting. If I were a cycling sponsor, I would push for this.

James September 21, 2011 at 2:12 pm

I’ve seen in World Rallying (which is also done in a TT format) how they show two cars along a stretch of road alongside each other so that the viewer can see their different speeds and different lines. This would be particularly good on a technical TT with lots of corners.

Ankush September 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Commentary is an integral part of live TV coverage and if one can get a past TT rider/coach, it could make for a good viewing. Eurosport has roped in Michael Hutchinson for Worlds TT and he keeps adding his specialist comments and key technical observations which makes the event more interesting. TT discipline is so much about data and as you said, in this age of technology it’s just a matter of taking the initiative.

Bud Lyman September 21, 2011 at 2:51 pm

The TV-producer is essential. Cycling needs to learn from cross country skiing. I believe ITT can be very exciting, but it has to be produced the right way. Showing the best riders passing times live, shouldn’t be too difficult.

Luc Prévost September 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm

At this level (WC) it would be possible to put a small wireless camera on the handlebars of EACH rider to give a close up of facial expression linked to heartbeat peak and wattage if available. Yes it would have a cx fx but it would be the same for everybody.

The same could be done for another camera on the cookpit to see the road as the rider sees it.
Could be really frightening in tight corners.

I would also experiment with the new mini quadcopter used succesfully by Paul Raats to give never seen angles on riders in corners, etc. Very low cost but very dramatic effects.

Q September 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I want to just add my agreement with a couple of the previous comments. First, superimposed or side-by-side footage of riders taking corners in technical courses could be very interesting. Second, having a TV commentator who was once a TT specialist could be much more enlightening than Phil and Paul getting poetic about enduring pain.

Patrick September 21, 2011 at 5:01 pm

as much as I love watching the time trial, I’d swap 4.5 hours of today’s cycling with at least half an hour of live coverage of the Angliru stage at the Vuelta this year…

Peter Lütken September 21, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Re: change in format.
In Cross country/nordic skiing and biathlon there is a discipline called “Pursuit” in which the starting order is decided by the previous race. If you won that race by five seconds, then you start the pursuit event five seconds ahead of number two, etc.
Do a race where you one day climb Ventoux as a mass start, then the following day race a “Pursuit TT”.
Could make for an interresting race where Cancellara would be useless on day one, Frandy would suck on day two and where Philippe Gilbert would be reasonably OK both days, thus winning the whole thing. Only ones who’d stay home are the likes of Greipel, Cavendish, etc..?

David September 21, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Without doubt it would be possible to do a side-by-side comparison. i.e. Rider #1 on GC starts 2 minutes after rider #2. However, they run the two side by side (correctly labelled to minimise confusion) to show the reality of any timegap. It would make the lines they take more interesting and a proper visual idea of how they compare (rather than just a figure of X seconds).

On an undulating course I think incorporating lots of live stats wouldn’t really help, unless they bring them together to show how they compare at the same points on the course. It means nothing to me to see that rider #1 is currently going at 55km/h on the flat, while rider #2 is currently at 20 km/h because he is on a climb.

Generally I just think time trials are poor tv and part of the evidence for that is the reduction in time trials seen in major stage races.

Fournwi September 21, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Couldn’t agree more with the comments regarding telematic transmission of key performance metrics (incl gearing used, braking, etc.) along with cameras mounted on the bikes, riders, etc. would make the action much more intense for both road and TTs. Likewise, the ability to listen to the director & riders on the radios along with the current in car camera examples we have seen really puts the viewer into the race. The model of professional motor racing from F1, Nascar, Rallying should be followed. They have the same concerms about confidentialty of their performance data, but seem to have worked it out. Combined with the unique ability to showcase beautiful cities & countrysides would make cycling unique in professional sports viewing.

Felipe Botelho September 21, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Fournwi nailed it.
SRM has been transmitting data for a while, but not from the major contenders. Even with the concerns about confidentiality, you should be able too see cadence, speed, heart rate, etc. That with some wireless cameras in key spots should take the TV coverage to another level.

Larry T. September 21, 2011 at 8:39 pm

There’s little to be done to make “the race of truth” interesting on a live-TV basis. The specialized machinery in use makes any sort of challenging course (serious climbs, fast descents, etc) the subject of loud whining from directors and sometimes the riders. Remember the dramatic chrono course on the Cinque Terre a few years back? Sadly, the camera work there was lacking for the most part, the gorgeous views combined with the twisty course could have made for some good TV images I think. The directors and riders seem to want to boil it down to a contest of simply who can produce the most watts while riding the most aerodynamic bike….a task that can pretty much be determined with an hour in a wind tunnel. There simply isn’t much about it I find interesting as a long-time pro cycling fan, so I can imagine how dull it must be for the average Joe SixPack. Of course two extremely boring sports (baseball and golf) do well in the TV ratings in North America, but Joe SixPack understands them (and likely has played them) while cycling remains far from mainstream. The idea of starting riders with their GC intervals in a stage race sounds interesting but with the rules against drafting the other riders this would likely confuse everyone even more. And this would do nothing to make any stand-alone TT event more interesting. I’d like to see them bring back the two-up chrono, at least with this one can observe a bit of strategy as they decide when to change off the front and how long and at what pace to ride. As Patrick wrote, give me a road race any day!

Ken September 21, 2011 at 9:29 pm

The individual time trial is the most subtle of cycling disciplines, since the rider and his coach have almost total control over his or her riding approach. Seemingly small choices make big time differences. The best riders plan their optimal speed on the flats and scout the technical sections well beforehand. Hence, there is a lot of opportunity for a skilled commentator to point out different choices of technique.

A split-screen comparison of how Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck took the turns in the TDF time trial would show the viewers tons about why Andy lost the jersey. (And also why his new director sportif might be such a factor in 2012!) A top analyst supported by technology can give the viewers a gripping story. Unfortunately, I agree most TV coverage of time trials is uninspired. If I hear Phil Liggett say, “He’s turning himself inside out!” one more time, that’s exactly what my stomach will do.

The Inner Ring September 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm

One extra thought would be a sort of technology to replay the “shadow” of a rider on certain corners or technical sections of the course. In slow-motion you could see several riders going through these sections and who is the fastest, who takes the best line and at what speed. It is possible with technology that replicates where a tennis, golf or cricket ball goes.

Gillis September 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm

I didn’t read every comment, but I saw no mention of the use of static cameras. Or rather movable cameras, on a boom or the like, at fixed locations on the course. I think of F1 as I say this. A camera like this, positioned in a technical corner, you get to see the rider coming at you, in the corner, and exiting. Watching this angle from rider to rider you can start to get a sense of speed between them as well and different corning techniques

The only other idea i came up with is a somewhat high tech one. In some racing video games when you’re doing timed laps you get a ghosted image of your previous run to compete with. It’s something to race against without worrying about hitting. What would be interesting to see is the ghosted image of the fastest rider on screen with the current rider. This would be especially exciting when a given rider is on pace with the current fastest. To do this in real time though I imagine would be quite a technological undertaking, with changing camera angles and all.

I would disagree with your last idea on segregated courses though. Then its not a ITT then, its a head to head race. In fact I don’t think riders should be able to receive splits during their run. That’s a tactical advantage that everyone before the next didn’t get.

Struan September 21, 2011 at 10:38 pm

I’m not totally convinced by on screen telemetry as most of it ( hear rate, watts, cadence ) actually only means something to people who are already fans. Speed is the only one that someone watching for the first time is likely to understand.

I realise that all these things can be explained by a good commentator, along with other important details like position, time spend on the extensions and so on, but I don’t think in and of themselves such data will make it any more interesting.

Some sort of split screen comparison I can see helping people see differences – c.f. the length of time Andy Schleck took to get into an aero position off the start ramp in the tour this year vs. Evans, but again, this will require a good, knowledgeable commentator to point these things out.

Fundamentally I think the problem is that it’s just not that interesting a spectacle, even for a great many cycling fans; if I miss a time trial stage of a race I pretty much never feel the need to seek out highlights as the results are 90% of the story.

Chuffy September 22, 2011 at 12:18 am

Much as I like many of the ideas above, I can’t help but think that anything which brings Tony Martin’s disgusting drool-chin closer to my attention can only be a bad thing.

Top TT-ers can be a horrible sight up close.

Jim September 22, 2011 at 1:38 am

Borrowing some of the techniques such as multiple images and real-time data from other televised sports are great ideas. I believe cycling has a particular challenge in that video production is performed by a number of different organizations with rights to various races. They then transfer the video to other broadcasters that then add appropriate-language audio. ASO which did the coverage with the clever timing graphic at the TDF time trial has rights to several key races.

evan September 22, 2011 at 2:43 am

if you set off a rider according to his GC time, what happens when 10 guys have the same time?

PeterC September 22, 2011 at 6:13 am

Having a still lipstick cam on a very fast corner showing viewers how fast riders go and far the riders lean would be a good addition; like on MotoGP. Non-cyclist watchers would probably very surprised to see a rider going through a fast corner coming off a slight down hill at 60+kmh.

And you could add some very detailed whiteboard analysis like they do with cricket/football where they draw over the top of the picture. Say, draw a line across Martin’s shoulders in the first km’s from a head-on shot, and it would probably be pretty level, then do the same at km 45 and you’d expect to see at least a little more movement (ditto the hips), and explain to viewers this is a sign of the rider getting tired. Then compare to someone who’s really blown up and with a lot of shoulder/hip drop.

Bundle September 22, 2011 at 9:37 am

I tend to agree with some of the ideas here. Although in my mind TV is secondary and the main purpose of cycling is to be read about in the newspaper or website the following day, therefore good, knowledgeable, epic-making writers should be more important than TV production. But TV pays whereas papers and websites tell the story for free.
As for ideas: I would make the use of helmet optional on TT (it’s always better to see the rider’s whole head, hair and skull, and the risk of crashing is small), make TTs more demanding (especially in the worlds), both in distance (not to fear approaching or exceeding 100 km), gradient (not necessarily placing an Angliru in the middle of the TT, although why not, but at least a couple of serious bumps), and road quality (motorways and avenues should be ruled out, cobbles are welcome), so that there can be surprises and fringales if one started out too fast, and leader changers throughout the TT.
More important: BAN heartrate/power measuring devices for riders and DS (an absolute MUST, I think, not only for TTs, and I really hope this appeal catches on). They should never be allowed to have this kind of crucial information.
I agree with showing the speed on TV at all times, and if you know the weight and gradient, you can show power estimates. The more info on the screen, the better. The more time-check-points, the better too.
Minicams on handlebars could be a good idea, showing riders’ faces. Miking the DS could also add spice.

ChrisO September 22, 2011 at 11:31 am

As a TV production person I agree with a lot of the comments and that there are relatively simple ways to make it more interesting but I also appreciate some of the limitations.

Displaying the HR, gradient, speed and other data is relatively straightforward.

Having multiple mini-cameras and bike mounted cameras is quite complex, and would be very expensive – even in motor racing they tend to do this only on certain cars. It’s not the cameras themselves, it’s receiving all those signals – effectively adding 20 cameras to your broadcast. The virtual shadow stuff is maybe possible but again would be difficult on such a scale.

A lot of these machines only have a certain number of inputs – they aren’t PCs connected to the internet, they are specialist bits of kit worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Doing something like the World Record line at a swimming event is OK because there is one event at a time, and one line and one set of info.

I personally think cycle coverage is very poor compared to other sports – but then tell me another sport where French broadcasters set the benchmark. They aren’t famous in the industry for their love of innovation, and there seems to be a tendency to roll out the plan from last year and repeat. The Vuelta this year was also appallingly bad – terrible camera positions and poor directing.

I want to scream when we’ve just seen a crucial stage of a road race with some top GC guys slugging it out, and 30 seconds after they cross the line we get a helicopter shot of yet another cathedral/maison/chateau instead of seeing them collapsing exhausted to the ground. Imagine if Rafael Nadal had just won Wimbledon for the first time and we crossed to a scenic shot of London – WTF.

But that’s what the towns have paid for – exactly why they think that showing a picture of their bridge across the Loire will benefit the town and what post-campaign evaluation has been done on this, I couldn’t imagine.

Sorry, I’m ranting, but it winds me up that TV coverage of cycling is so rubbish. And I don’t see much evidence that TV producers are the driving force to improve it.

The race organisers, like ASO and the UCI, should not rely on the national broadcasters for production but should do what F1 and the Olympics have done and set up a company which owns the broadcast rights and then competitively tenders to production companies to produce the coverage – it generates cost-efficient coverage but the companies themselves come up with innovations to differentiate their proposals.

Like so much else in cycling the problem lies with the atrophied heart at the centre.

Bundle September 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

One more thing. Am I the only one to think the participation in this TT World Championship was pretty poor? Where were Evans and Contador and Froome and Sánchez and EBH and Riblon and many more? Comparing the GP des Nations in the 1980s, with all the stars racing 90km, with this “World Championship” is quite depressing.

JamesBoH September 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Not sure about the others but Froome was simply not selected. Millar and Wiggins were.

cthulhu September 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm

And I doubt we would have seen a different podium.
For example, Evans and Contador are great TTist but no match against the real specialists, Top Ten would have been possible but podium, nay. And EBH, I believe he is saving himself for the Road Race, he is my dark horse for that.

Cyclemaine September 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Good post and comments. I wonder if one of the most significant limitations isn’t the fact that the coverage is “live.” why not time shift some of this stuff. For example, once producers realize a battle is Brewin between two riders (or I they are looking to concoct a competition) switch to a dual screen shot where they show both riders adjusted for time. It would work like this: rider A is on course through the second time check. Rider B has yet to approach the first time check, but appears to be riding well. The broadcast could pull the footage of rider A and sync it will the time of rider B so that the viewer has the perception of a head to head race. This doesn’t strike me as a huge technological burden on the producing crew and gives viewers a head to head appearance without ruining the nature of a ITT.

BazilBrush September 25, 2011 at 10:31 pm

How not to do it…. the UK coverage of the 2011 Vuelta ITT.

‘Highlights’ show was edited to change the order of the starters so that Wiggins’ ride and finish was shown last as if he was in the red jersey. Failed to generate any suspense as results largely given away by to visible time checks in the rider finishes shown before (but who in reality finished after)

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