Time trials are crucial in the Tour de France. Yet for all their importance, watching a rider pedal solo rarely offers great TV. Barring a crash or puncture, the only action comes at the time checks and finish line meaning 95% of the video output features a rider tucked into an aero position, face masked by a visor. It’s like watching a metronome set to 90 bpm.
Can more be done to make a time trial more interesting on TV? The answer is yes, from low tech ideas all the way to telemetry and graphics software and other sports show the way.
When a duck swims across a pond all you see is the graceful floating action but underneath its feet are paddling furiously. Pro riders are the same, a time trial might look smooth but of course they’re at the limits of exhaustion. But if the effort is not obvious then it’s hard to relate to what is happening.
A time trial’s importance comes from the way it reshapes the GC, rather than a solo act it’s all about the relative performance. It’s why a pursuit race on the track is more exciting than a 4km time trial. On the road the only suspense comes when a rider approaches a time check or the finish line because this is when we see who is up and who is down. It’s this relativism that gives us a clue about improving the television production: the entertainment comes not from watching a lone ride but from seeing their performance relative to others. Sadly the only production technique in the last 10 years seems to be the concept of the “hot seat” where the rider with the fastest time is filmed waiting to see if someone can beat their time.
The concept of a time check on the course is very quaint. Passing a large clock on the route to get an intermediate time is something from the sports earliest days when a reporter might stand by the road to watch the race go by and then rush in to a café to send a report by telegram. Today we have better technology and surely don’t need two fixed points along the course to measure a rider’s speed? It’s possible to fit the course with timing mats to pick up the transponder every kilometre and measure pace this way. Better still, use GPS to measure progress in real time. With some software this would allow a virtual course to be screened where the rider’s position on the route could be mapped and plotted in relation to others. It’s like a swimming race where you see a bar on the screen to mark the world record pace or a car race video game where you can compete against a ghost image when trying to set a lap record on a circuit.
Telemetry is another area to explore as it helps tell the story. Showing on-screen graphics can help us see what is happening. Now I suspect the kind of people who make it to a cycling blog would like to see a TV-screen version of an SRM display, plus live info on what gear the rider is using. However, remember most viewers have never used clipless pedals and physiological data is likely to confuse rather than inform.
With all the data another point of interest could be to see how the rider performed along the way. Who started fast? Who finished fast?
Blame The French?
Away from cycling and TV sports coverage in France is basic and has evolved little since the 1970s when Robert Chapatte commented on the race. Amusingly presenters still rely on those giant microphones that vanished elsewhere during the 1980s. Whether it’s football, tennis, rugby or more, live images get commentary but there’s rarely any pre-match analysis or post game debate so the idea of analysis and deploying graphics and data would be a leap to make. Also I think the first time I saw a virtual yellow jersey on-screen graphic when Cadel Evans took yellow from Andy Schleck in Grenoble in 2011. In fact time trials all over the world seem to get the same treatment, the Giro offered split screen images but this was meaningless, just two smaller images of men pedalling without the context of speed.
However other sports don’t have this problem. Motorsport can make qualifying for Formula 1 more interesting although this involves an ever-changing because a lap takes just two minutes. But cross-country skiing is experienced in making the suspense happen over long distances and cycling needs to speak to its winter cousins.
Low tech ideas
Telemetry is expensive and on-screen graphics even more so, plus a real technical challenge for an event that takes place on the road rather than the confines of a defined stadium. But if some things are easier said than done, on a limited production budget there are still some things that could make the event more lively:
- zoom in on the face of the rider. A helicopter shot rarely works but a close-up on the face of the rider or a close-up of their heaving chest as they breath can give a clue to the effort
- replay technical aspects, for example film riders taking a sharp corner so we can see who has the best line
- use a plain stopwatch to time the riders more often. Roads in France have bornes every kilometre which allows a follower on a motorbike to time their speed over a section with some precision rather than the cliché of pointing the camera at the motorbike’s vibrating speed dial
- change the seeding of the race. Reverse GC has its logic but when Tony Martin sets the best time for hours, perhaps the world’s best TT riders should be placed with the best GC riders, a seeding done by the race. Or perhaps a rule that the reigning world champion is given a place amongst the final ten by default?
A time trial might be a race against time but watching one on TV can be a waste of time. Yet the discipline is so important to a stage race that surely there are more compelling ways to tell the story?
Better production techniques can bring the race alive. This can start with simple things like more time checks but telemetry and computer graphics can help tell the story too and are surely the future. Other sports already do it, when will cycling change?