Wednesday, June 29th, 2016


THE MODERATOR: Thanks to everyone for joining. We are joined today by the “voices of cycling,” veteran play-by-play commentator, Phil Liggett, and two-time British national cycling champion, seven-time Tour de France competitor, and long-time analyst, Paul Sherwen. We’re also pleased to be joined by 17-time Tour de France competitor, and second-year Tour de France analyst, Jens Voigt, as well, we have NBC Sports Group’s coordinating producer of the Tour De France, David Michaels, and NBC Sports Group’s coordinating producer for cycling, Joel Felicio.

The 2016 Tour de France on NBC and NBCSN marks the 31st consecutive year that Phil and Paul will combine to call the event. We’ll take opening statements and then open the call to Q & A.

DAVID MICHAELS: Hello everybody. I just wanted to tell you we’re situated in one of the more picturesque Norman Farms out pretty close to the D-Day beaches. And when you get to a place like this, and you’re in a place with such incredible history, it just brings it all back to why the Tour de France is so unique in sporting events. In my 30 years of doing TV sports there is nothing more amazing to me than the Tour de France.

So given that just for practicality, we’ve got 250 hours of TV to do, and it’s on our live show, it’s all live. It’s pretty amazing. Sometimes it can be as many as five or six hours worth of live TV.

This year we will have for the first time a live GoPro camera mounted on to a bike, which is just a harbinger of the future in terms of where this is all headed. We’re going to see, from this year forward, some truly amazing things.

We are also hoping to upgrade our live data feeds that we get from cyclists and with more interesting graphics.

On that note, I’ll turn it over to Joel Felicio.

JOEL FELICIO: This year’s event is incredibly exciting from the competition to the course. The course is going to be just fantastic. One of the things that I’m looking forward to seeing… is fans will have the option when they can’t watch in front of their TV, to watch our coverage on the NBC Sports Gold app. It gives you access to an experience to watch the Tour de France with uninterrupted coverage, with no commercials. Six stages from start to finish, and expanded coverage beyond that. Also, if you purchase the NBC Sports Gold app, you can watch 15 other races from now until one year from now, including the Vuelta a Espana.

So that’s something we’re excited about to complement the live coverage we’re doing.

PHIL LIGGETT: Hello, everybody, good morning to you. I’m Phil Liggett. I’m beginning to get the hang of this Tour now. I first started in 1973, and I’ve never spent July in Great Britain, where I come from, on that date except when Tour de France has been there.

The tour, to give you some idea of its size, this year there are approximately 2,000 media and journalists… which is more or less doubled in the last ten years. And the Tour de France now really ranks as big as anything, except perhaps an Olympic games or a world soccer final.

Other than that, remember this is an annual event, not every four years. Though it is a major happening, it of course brings everything to a halt. This year it passes through four countries. It goes into the Principality of Andorra, Spain, Switzerland and of course spends a lot of time in France.

The race itself is a very balanced field. Paul will no doubt tell you all about that because he suffered the pain of the sport, whereas I have suffered the journey.

But on the other hand, I have to say that probably this is looking to be the most competitive.

Apart from that, I’ll pass it over to Paul.

PAUL SHERWEN: What Phil was saying about the rise in the Tour.  We conjured up the term last year, the “fantastic four”, because there were four really serious contenders for the Tour de France last year. They were all in the ride way passage, I thought was fantastic.

Most of them are back. We believe there has been a replaced title, as the name of the top sprinter, by a guy by the name of Fabio Aru. He could spoil the party. But when you look at the big names, it’s going to be a magical tour.

People always say to me, why do you have to have so many flat stages? Why can’t it be in the mountains all the time? But I always regard the Tour de France as being like a great book. You’d never read the last chapter first. You have to go through the whole of the book to get to the epilog and find out how the whole story unfolds.

What Phil was saying about the sprinters, well, when I get my official start list on Friday, and start putting the yellow lines to the contenders for the overall stand, and the red lines through the sprinters, it’s an amazing feeling putting it together. And although Bouhanni the French man won’t be there, it’s going to be magical to see the battles between Greipel and Kittel, two big German riders who are really leading the way to renew German cycling. And that’s why we’re really happy, because I only rode the Tour seven times, but you add another ten on that and that’s how many Jens has ridden.

JENS VOIGT: Hi everybody. Last year I had the honor to do some work for NBC for the first time on the other side of the fence in the Tour de France, and I really must say I was caught in my tunnel vision. I just went from stage to stage, from motel to hotel, and only last year on the other side of the fence I realized what a magical and crazy, beautiful, breathtaking adventure the Tour de France is.

The Tour de France needs three-and-a-half thousand beds per night. Three-and-a-half thousand people will go through France every day to get to the spot of the finish line, to get up and make it up the next day again. It is just out of control how big this race is and how fantastic it is.

It’s beautiful to see all kinds of French get behind this. The French nation is really happy and proud to have this in their country. It really comes up as a special situation when the Tour de France passes though. But it only took me to the outside the cycling as a rider to realize how big of an adventure it is. And also looking at the rider coming across the finish line from the outside, I also realized last year how perfectly ending it is for each rider. Each rider who reaches Paris in my eyes is a hero. It’s actually pretty, pretty cool.

If you look at the statistics, roughly about a quarter of them, 50 riders-plus don’t make it to Paris. So of the 200 riders we already know for sure, about 50 of them will not make it to Paris with pressures, falling sick or other problems that come around.

So it’s a fantastic adventure, but it takes everything out of everything out of a rider in the race. And like everybody already before said, we have fantastic fields here, and what I like about this year’s field is we have a sea of contenders from each country or each continent.

We have some really strong looking Colombians. We have Tejay van Garderen from North America. We have Richie Porte, Australia, and a lot of Europeans who want to take the yellow jersey. It’s going to be good until the very last day. They’re going to keep it exciting for us.

PAUL LIGGETT: Just for the record, Jens holds the joint record of having participated in the highest number of tours, which is 17.

Q. David and Joel, you mentioned the live camera mounts on the bike and the data feed. In what ways do you see these really enhancing the production? And are there any additional ways you plan to supplement the host feed for viewers?

DAVID MICHAELS: Well, first of all, the live feed will absolutely enhance production, because you can actually now be inside the race. And this year, like I said, it’s only one camera. Who knows, by five years or ten years from now, everybody could have a camera on them. You have the ability to really find out what was truly happening within the peloton… and be able to hear the sound and hear the guys talking.

Q. Are there any other ways that you guys are enhancing the host feed? Any other cameras that you’re adding or anything like that?

DAVID MICHAELS: I think it’s important to note that we do the host feed, but we do have ISO feeds of all of their cameras. So we pretty much do our own show. In other words, it’s not exactly a pure world feed, that’s for sure. So I think as long as you understand that, yes, we very much rely on them for all the feeds of the helicopters and motorcycles, we’re still cutting our own show.

That might be where we’re concentrating on a story that’s back behind the peloton, and the world feed may be concentrating on a story that’s happening out in the break waters. So there are a lot of different ways you can go with this type of an event.

Q. Gentlemen, question for you, which is that Chris Froome enters this race, of course, as a champion and very, very appreciated rider. But there is sort of a critical reputation to his victory, and I’m curious if you think that there are things that cycling can and should do to maybe alleviate some of the more sort of critical approaches to winning races? The idea of protecting a GC contender until the late stages, being very strategic in terms of moves. Do you worry that it’s become a little bit dialled in in terms of approach to winning the grand tour?

PHIL LIGGETT: I hear your comment that it can become a bit economic if you like, because that’s the way the Sky Team have learned their trade. They control the event by sheer power and tactics and what their meters say on their bicycles. And I don’t think it leads all the time to a very exciting race. What is exciting about this is the way he rides his bike and the fact he is a very, very tough bike rider.

He’s a Jekyll and Hyde character, a really nice person off the bike. You meet him and you wouldn’t think he has an angry bone in his body, but on the bike he’s so determined to win.

So I really think that it can go one of two ways. It can either be very boring as Sky gets the grips on this race, or if it’s anybody up against Chris Froome, we have a very exciting bike race.

PAUL SHERWEN: What Team Sky has done is they have found the recipe of how they as a team can win the race, but everybody else knows where they’re going to attack. I think when you look at the other teams and you look at Movistar, that’s a team that’s been built to destroy Sky in the mountains.

So once you see eight teams going in for a certain period of time, I think we’ll see a much more interesting race this year than we’ve had in the past. I really believe that Nairo Quintana is going to rattle Chris Froome’s foundations, because you saw how he had him up against the ropes on the penultimate day of the Tour de France last year. And that’s what this Tour is going to be all about. It’s going to be about the last week of the tour.

The first part is laying down the foundation, and being careful, and having the sprinters have their days, and exciting days there. Then when we get to the mountains, I think you’ll probably see one of the greatest mountain battles in the Tour de France in years… because it’s not just Team Sky. They can’t continue to dominate like that. There are so many other teams that are built. I think Astana, he’s a big question mark. They’ve nurtured him all year to be ready for this Tour de France. When you look at Quintana, they’ve given him the confidence to go home to Colombia to get ready for this race. Because he’s matured from the guy from his second Tour de France and he seriously wants to win.

So I think, yes, I think you’ve got Team Sky’s tactics, but there are so many other teams who have got exciting tactics.

JENS VOIGT: The question also should be why do the other teams not fight up their games? They don’t want to win? They just want to sit there and get passed by Team Sky like last year? That should be the question. Because we all know what Team Sky can do, and I think we all just realized once or twice, Team Sky is not the best to get under pressure. They have a plan E and no plan D or C.

So what the other teams should do is throw them off balance, and force them to come up with a team decision for another plan, and hopefully we’re going to see that, like Paul already said. Hopefully Nairo Quintana learns this from last year. He has to try to make up time on the first mountain day, not only in the last one or two days because that’s not enough. He’s got to start going aggressive in the first stage in the mountains already. Plus you’ve got to get to the mountains first.

We have a lot of trust on the first stage. We have a tricky little hiccup finish, not a mountain, but a tricky little hiccup for the second stage already. So he could be in trouble losing time over there.

So I think already the first week is open for battle, and we’ll see where they compete going into the mountains. But I believe more teams have to learn to check the tactics of Team Sky and they are already and willing to have their tactics. So hopefully we’re looking forward to an exciting race.

PHIL LIGGETT: I think Jens is right… in terms of Chris is very concerned about his possible fallibility in that last week of the tour. He faded very quickly toward the end last year, and in the last three days of racing he lost half his overall lead. He built enough in the bank to keep to what he sticks to. But he’s very conscious that he is fallible in the last three days of racing. And of course we have a very tough lead in going to the Alps before the ride into Paris.

He says he’s off with his preparation since that last week with himself, and he hopes to be very much on there in that last week.

Q. Phil and Paul, I read recently that this is your 30th Tour de France together. Any insight on such a long partnership in the booth?

PHIL LIGGETT: I’ll give that to Paul, because he spent a long time adding this up. He knows the answer.

PAUL SHERWEN: It’s 31 years this year that Phil and I have been commentating together. I’d like to add the years I’ve been on the bike, so this is my 38th Tour de France.

So going back to the coverage in the early ’70s when I was racing, it was the gray pictures that you’d get on television at the time compared to the incredible images now and the high definition images that we get. It’s completely different.

It’s almost like a soap Tour de France now. There are people who are not cycling fans who want to tune in every day to watch the story as it develops. But it’s also a travel log as well now because France, whichever way you look at it, any different part of France has a different story to tell on this. And David’s right on this, the history in this country is amazing.

You know, we’re talking 2000, 3000 years of history to most of the regions we go to, and the Tour de France has embraced that. They’ve managed to really wind up their coverage since I first rode in the Tour de France, and the live coverage now — when Phil started commentating at the Tour de France in 1978 it was 10 minutes of television cycling on the Tour de France per week, and it was crazy. It would be only ten minutes, and now we’ve got, as Joel was saying earlier, we’ve got stages wall-to-wall, start to finish, to the drop of the flag at the checkered flag at the end.

PHIL LIGGETT: Cycling as a sport now, everybody who follows sports, it’s totally changed from the early tours, no doubt. My first tour was in 1973. We came on the Tour de France, and the French didn’t even speak to us because we were English and they were French and the English didn’t know anything about cycle racing. It took three years before they shook our hands.

The cycling is now completely off the scale. But as far as the cycle racing goes, I feel personally that the ’70s, ’80s, 90s, the great bicycle races were won and performed by very tough men. Now it’s a stream lined bike race.

My thoughts on race radio is well documented that it should be going out the window. But they call it now with television in the back of the cars, they talk to the riders. They are operating very robotic in the bike race. Hence, breakaways get away, they get pulled between 5 and 10 kilometers from the finish because you know where they are.

There are other things now that are extremely exciting. The clank of the typewriters, the rings of the telephone are all gone now from the press rooms and they’re all streamlined. They’re watching sports. The Tour de France is more popular than it’s ever been. And the French should now realize they have a beautiful country and they know now how to sell it, and the live television and on daily coverage we’re able to tell the people about the country and not just a bike race.

Many of our viewers watch the shows because of the pictures and because of the history, and the bike races just happen to be on the cameras.

Q. This is for everybody, I want to ask you about the challenges of doing a broadcast like this which are pretty unique to the sport at least in America in the respect that you have a fraction of your audience which is completely obsessed with professional bike racing. They know every detail. They know the technology, they probably ride themselves. Then you have a significant portion, I would imagine, tuning into their first bike race of the year, perhaps their first bike race ever and for whom the strategies and so on of the race are unfamiliar and need some explanation. And I know other people watch the Tour de France because they just think it’s beautiful and they love having it on in the background. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of speaking to this kind of multiple kinds of audience? Because I know you guys try to do that. You’re not specifically always speaking to the hard core bike racer when you’re broadcasting this event.

DAVID MICHAELS: I’ve been attempting to do this race as a producer since 1983, and the issues you raised are very important and very correct. I think the situation is this: These days it’s not so much a hard core audience as it is an audience that just likes to watch the tour. Again, as you were indicating, it’s also people that have it on in the background. There is a pretty amazing group of people of several-hundred thousand every day that watch it. Those people are watching in all kinds of different ways. They’re fast forwarding, they’re going back. They’re replaying sections. There is a myriad of ways to watch the race these days.

For the casual person that’s just tuning in, I think the tour becomes kind of an addiction. People tune in and either think it’s cool, at which point they’ll watch, or they don’t think it’s cool at which point they’ll switch off.

I can only equate it to sitting or laying in bed in England, jet lagged, and turning on the television and watching a cricket match. There’s nobody in a cricket match that’s going to sit there and give me a beginner’s primer on what it is. I’m watching. I have to try to figure out some of it for myself.

So given that kind of a situation, I think you can get a lot of the information by absorption. Phil and Paul are amazing at putting that information out there… without talking down to the audience and without being condescending.

And I think that’s crucial too. Back when I was at CBS in those days, we felt like we had to explain everything to everybody, because by and large, except for a very small amount of people, people don’t always get it. They don’t even always get it today. But there’s only so much you can explain.

PHIL LIGGETT: My barometer sadly was my next-door neighbor who passed away at 91. She always said I was better looking on television than in real life, but apart from that she was a brilliant sports lady. And she used to watch this because I was a commentator, and because she could never get her head around the sport of cycling. But she’d turn the TV on, see the field, and a big collection of riders, seeing them all riding at the same pace, and then now what? You’ve got to get that story across.

Having said that, people in a three-week event, it’s like a soap, like a British soap. And we get letters all the time. They choose a rider and follow that rider, and the day that rider crashes or abandons, they’re in tears and they all want to know, “what happened to him?. It was going so well.” And they’re following every day, and they want to follow that story through to the bitter end.

These stories develop personalities. Even if they haven’t got personalities, we give them one like Jens Voigt, because they’re the ones who have no personalities by the way (laughing).

No, in fairness, it is a lot more than just a bike race, and I guess that’s why it’s survived since 103 editions since 1903. It’s because it is not just a bike race. It’s showing its country, its character, its traditions, and until the last 20 years, of course, it was largely all French. That’s all changed now and probably will for quite a while to come.

I think Jens is going to say something, a man that’s done 17 tours.

JENS VOIGT: One of the reasons why NBC decided to get me on board is that we would have a very balanced team. We have a team at the start line asking interviews, questions to riders and spot what we expect for the stage. Then we have people on the mobile bike, inside the race, bringing people and viewers, beginner viewers and expert viewers, what happens in the race.

We have Phil and Paul who do the main job of talking, and then we have me to explain any complicated technical or technical situations. So we have basically addressed each part of our audience or each part of the viewers, and every day we try to find a perfect balance between making the average viewer and making the hard-core cycling expert happy as well.

So that’s why we have such a good team, and hopefully we’ll have one person that appeals to each part of our audience.

DAVID MICHAELS: Wow, that’s pretty good.