For six hours every afternoon on the Tour de France, only the back of Steve Docherty’s head is visible. His blue wheelie chair is a humble throne from which the director-producer peers over his glasses at his kingdom of flashing buttons, hi-tech replay controllers and ten screens showing a mix of what’s live and what is recorded.
Alongside presenter Gary Imlach, Docherty writes the running order and is the unseen decision maker of what hundreds of thousands of viewers see back in the UK. He counts down commentators Boulting and Millar into advertisement breaks. He takes notes for the seven o’clock highlights package. He gives editorial advice and assesses performances. In short, he is doing the work of several people. And, of course, he decides which images to use.
Before the start of the 2017 Tour in Düsseldorf, it transpires that they are going straight from a break into the dull pre-rollout national anthems. “Do a bit on cam, we’ll get Gary and Chris talking,” he says, adding later: “Send them as live before the race starts. One doesn’t have to be a brain surgeon to work that out.” With his air of a meticulous headmaster, I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of the man the crew call “Doc”. However, he has a dry side too. “As long as we miss the German anthem,” he says.
Over the years, Docherty has worked on panel shows, snooker, rugby and many other bike races, but the Tour de France is something far more uncontained and freeform. Working with the crew on site and liaising with the London mother ship while keeping an eye on the 176-strong peloton is rather like conducting an orchestra which keeps changing places – and instruments – every few seconds.
“This is a hybrid of many jobs. Everyone does a bit of everything when needed,” he says. “That’s kind of the beauty of this, it’s a one-off month where you do all sorts of things that you wouldn’t want to do for all your life. But for this one moment, it’s exciting.
“This bit is actually the pleasure. You finish, plan the next day, travel to the next hotel and the pain in the arse bit is checking in at eleven o’clock, opening your suitcase, sorting it for the next day.”
An original of British Tour television coverage, Docherty has been through that routine many times. Back in 1988, it was just him, a driver, a cameraman and a sound producer squeezed into a Renault Espace. In three decades, he has witnessed a day-and-night evolution in transport and production technology, as well as seeing the number of British riders in the race, and his crew, quadruple in number.
One thing has not changed: the problem of placing the three four-and-a-half minute breaks they are obliged to take per hour. “People don’t like them when they’re watching cycling but that’s commercial television,” he says. “You choose your moments. The worst is in the mountains, when you draw breath and hope for the best. Where do you take them?
“It used to be on the descent because that was easy, nobody’s going to attack there. It’s different now, they attack everywhere. So, we usually do it in the valleys of the big mountains or early in the climb while they’re shelling out the lesser riders. We try and get rid of them so when you get to the action at the top, you don’t have to take them.”
Stationed in their OB truck every day, Docherty is so near yet so far from sporting history in motion: he rarely sees a Tour cyclist in the flesh. But 1989 was an exception, as he stood next to Greg LeMond on the Champs-Élysées, when the American discovered he had won, after crawling through the legs of the Paris riot police guard: “LeMond started bouncing. You could hear the commentary tribune and the voices rising and that seemed to be bouncing as well as Fignon got closer to the line. The French knew he’d lost, LeMond knew he’d won. That moment was special.”
A version of this article was first published in Rouleur 18.5
The Tour on the Telly
Part 1: How ITV capture a moving circus
Part 2: Ealing, we have a problem
Part 4: The outsider – Gary Imlach