The roads of Liège have turned into a spaghetti plate of black wires. It’s impossible to not step on them; a few twitch like angry vipers as someone somewhere tugs at them. Ahead, metal barriers serve as borders for each broadcaster and their flatbed lorries, 120 of them artfully parked, creating a distinctive white landscape from above. This is the zone technique, an integral part of the modern Tour de France.
The great race can by turns shock, delight, inform, educate and send us to sleep, but without all these trucks and trip hazards, we wouldn’t see a minute of it.
Television is how we consume the Tour de France. Watching the coverage is like being on a plane: it’s easy to sit back and take the experience for granted, but I’m damned if I know how it all works. Vsquared TV, a specialist producer of cycling that makes the Tour coverage for free-to-air British channel ITV4, have the answers, and they were happy to have a layman hanging around with them for day two of the 2017 Tour.
“It’s a good thing you’ve come early,” a crew member tells me. “Two weeks in, especially if it’s hot, you’ve either drunk too much or not enough, nobody has gotten laid, tensions inevitably flare.” I’m informed that by the race’s high mountains, there will be drying underwear draped across their lighting set-up too.
This is not a job for the faint-hearted. Throughout the Tour, the 19-strong crew runs on service station sandwiches and a modicum of sleep. The driver of their OB (outside broadcast) truck has an especially early wake-up call. At five in the morning, he moves it into the zone technique’s holding pen. The innards of this hulking white beast have been turned into their moving office, with two distinct sections, production and commentary. The larger part houses several desks and reporter Matt Rendell, presenters Gary Imlach and Chris Boardman, sound supervisor Jo Manly and director Steve Docherty.
He sits in front of ten screens, a Blake’s 7 worth of flash production kit and a microphone from which he can communicate with both his nearby crew and the Vsquared mother ship in London. Metres away, the cameras are set up under a pop-up gazebo to film Imlach and Boardman. (Incidentally, spare a thought for the production managers, cameramen, soundmen, comms team, engineer, technician manager and truck driver who never have a second in the spotlight.)
They pack up and move to a new finish location each day, but this set-up stays the same. For three weeks, the crew are even closer than family – travelling, eating, working, joking and squabbling together. In turn, during the Tour, they become like visiting relatives in the homes of viewers too: Imlach the polo shirt-wearing uncle with whip-smart asides, Boardman the geeky older brother who has forgotten more than we’ll ever know about aerodynamics.
How do the pictures get from the Tour to your living room? They are produced by France Télévisions, in a lucrative deal with ASO, from their five race motorbikes and two helicopters. They are then uplinked from the Vsquared truck at the finish line to satellite; these pictures are known in the business as the ‘multilateral signal’, as they go to all the broadcast right-holders around the world.
Timeline Television, where Vsquared are based in the west London suburb of Ealing, downlink them and make them available in their live gallery. Pictures and commentary are mixed and sent to ITV.
Meanwhile, the presentation, such as Imlach and Boardman on camera or recorded interviews, is produced and transmitted on a unilateral circuit – ie solely for Vsquared – uplinked via their own satellite dish on site and downlinked at Timeline again. The director, Steve Docherty, can cut between those images or the unilateral ones. This all happens in a few blinks of an eye.
It might sound straightforward, but producing live television is like looking after a toddler. It demands constant care and attention. One moment, it’s angelic and peaceful, the next it’s screaming the house down. “We’re not paid for when it goes well, we’re paid for when it goes wrong,” cameraman Richard Haywood remarks. A little resourcefulness goes a long way in such scenarios. At the 2014 Grand Départ in Yorkshire, the camera crew borrowed a scaffolding pole from some builders to improve their lighting set-up.
Meanwhile, the battered black top of their presenting podium is filled in with a Sharpie marker as it gets knocked in transit during the race. The real catastrophe is technical failure and loss of power, which is what befell them on the 2016 Tour stage finishing at Arcalis. Their satellite went out, a plastic walkway simultaneously broke a camera cable and, to top things off, it was raining chats et chiens. Crucially, the French satellite was also on the blink, so they couldn’t go live to those images either.
With only six minutes of recorded footage to use, crew member Dave Thwaites saved the day by getting theirs up and running in the nick of time – and they beat the French to it, which remains a source of pride. Unsurprisingly, there are a few friendly rivalries with foreign broadcasters on Tour.
With the day’s breakaway settled, I step into the commentary box and slip on some headphones to see Ned Boulting and David Millar at work. A few chinks of natural light slip in from behind a pulled curtain, while their handwritten notes, commentators’ guidebooks and laptops are open on the desk, one showing breakaway member Taylor Phinney’s ProCyclingStats page.
On the wall, a couple of sheets of A4 paper remind them of recently-changed team names Fortuneo-Oscaro and UAE Team Emirates, and the national champions present at the Tour. Right in front of them, a couple of LED television screens shows the live action.
“Where’s the feed zone today, David?” Boulting says. “It’s in Titz, they’re not far away,” Millar replies, straight-faced. A minute later, off mic, he cracks up. On the first day in a week of repetitive, doomed breakaways, you’ve got to have a laugh when you can. It’s a brief comic interlude; soon, the ex-racer is explaining what makes Quick Step’s transfer policy so shrewd, while Boulting draws attention to an 11th century church in Aldenhoven.
The commentary couple have got cracking chemistry. Just as well too: 2017 is the first Tour with daily wall-to-wall live coverage, meaning they are talking for longer than ever.
As the clock strikes four, I leave them to it. Outside, the aroma of instant coffee wafts over and the action hots up: Froome, Bardet and the front of the bunch unexpectedly fall in a crash on a slick road. With 15 kilometres to go, roving reporter Daniel Friebe heads off to the team buses with a cameraman and soundman.
There’s no tension palpable in their compound because everyone is busy working. In the OB truck, Docherty calls the sprint for victory impassively. “Kittel wins, Cav was fifth or sixth. Close the door,” he says into his microphone. “Kittel is in tears… steady Gary, next will be to you. To the result, six, five, four, three, two, one. Go result. Froome at the finish getting off his bike from London next.” About to go on air with Imlach outside, Boardman asks whether the Tour champion is in pain.
This is where even more balls get tossed into the almighty juggling act. Docherty links to Friebe with Mark Cavendish live, puts in yellow jersey Geraint Thomas’s reaction and informs Imlach of a super slo-mo of Kittel’s win, while making sure they finish on time. “More from London, then times, talk your way out,” Docherty instructs the two presenters.
They go off air at 16:43:15 GMT, as planned. “We’re back at seven o’clock, we’ll see you then,” Imlach signs off. Two stages down, only 19 more to go. Now just a case of recording the highlights and the podcast before they can think about dinner options at the motorway services…
The Tour on Telly was first published in Rouleur 18.5
The Tour on the Telly
Part 2: Ealing, we have a problem
Part 3: The man in the director’s chair
Part 4: The outsider – Gary Imlach