ITV’s cycling reporters have been out in force over the last week, giving their predictions for the 2016 Tour de France yellow jersey contenders and revealing big changes to the line up, not of the riders, but of the commentators.
Ned Boulting, David Millar, Chris Boardman, Gary Imlach and Matt Rendell have been speaking in London, and at the Eroica festival in Derbyshire, about the changes to the show's format. Last week at Look Mum No Hands! Boulting revealed that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, the voices of the Tour on British TV, were to be replaced as real time commentators for the race.
The immediate reaction of many die-hard Phil and Paul fans such as myself was …NO! Who can replace Phil’s assured and knowledgeable commentary? He practically IS the Tour Incarnate for God’s sake. My first experience of watching the Tour came with Phil patiently explaining the intricacies of the race, the tactics, the characters. He had that calm detached coolness and poise you need from a commentator, but when it all kicked off, Whoaaa! Phil would respond with all the excitement and energy of a kid waking up on Christmas day.
Then there was Paul. Paul had that amazing ability in the quiet moments of a race to pretend to speak knowledgeably about, and describe the helicopter shots, of the Chateau de Bourgogne du Chantilly Framboise - how it had been built by the great Marquis de Pervois who used it for imprisoning the mistress of Louis XIV, Madame de Boucherie Boulangerie en Peches, a lady famed for her beauty and mole on her third nipple. All described in a nonchalant, easy style, when we knew he was just reading it all word for word from the freaking Guide Historique. Paul had the style and impudence of a supply teacher reading a history book from his lap behind the desk. Pure class.
So the next reaction after NO! was WHY? WHY could you do such a thing as lose the best cycling commentary duo in history?
Gary Imlach, speaking at Look Mum No Hands pop up on the Southbank this week revealed that Phil, 72, and Paul, 60, have, in fact, been working for American TV on a rather lucrative contract that ITV have to opt into. It made for a ridiculous situation where Imlach would have to hand over to Phil on a strict countdown and Phil would have to seamlessly pick up the British TV viewers as if he was speaking just for them without alerting the American audience that, hey, there’s someone else in the room now! “He has to pick up in such a way that it seems emphatic enough to a British audience that he’s beginning commentary, although you notice in fact that he doesn't say hello, but it's emphatic enough that it sounds like the start of commentary without sounding so overly emphatic that someone listening in New York would say 'why's he just started the bloody commentary again...?'”
So without any editorial control, and without any real time commentators of their own, ITV have made the big and bold step to do it themselves. Not so much a Brexit, a Phlexit, perhaps? As Imlach said at LMNH, “Can you imagine in any other sport, in football or anything, not having your own commentators and having to just opt in or out… it's just a nonsense. We've not been in charge of our own commentators…. So it's been a nonsense and should've been sorted out a while ago."
So that’s the why? But what about the how? How can they do it with the same poise, brazen impudence and excitement of the Phil and Paul show?
Boulting and Millar have, in fact, been learning the ropes and practising for some time now: on last year’s Vuelta, and most recently on this year’s the Tour de Yorkshire and Dauphiné, amongst a few other important races. Millar, apart from having the benefit of being an ex pro who actually knows what he’s talking about has taken over the Paul role of History supply teacher and fact master. He is the new keeper of the Guide Historique. Imlach suggests that the stylish Millar, afficionado of Maseratis, designer of his own clothing range and art lover, may even be able to offer the chateau owners a few style tips and have opinions on colour schemes. Ned may need to temper his enthusiasm a bit to match the same elegant, cool, authoritative voice of Phil. But he gets very excited at the exciting bits, which we viewers find exciting.
Of course we will also have the sardonic wit and edgy knitwear that only Gary Imlach can pull off. That and the northern, dry, wry and, let’s face it, overtly masculine style of Chris Boardman. A man’s man. He should launch an aftershave, that man. “Mersey’ or “Wirral” or just, “Northern”.
Behind the scenes there’s the encyclopaedic brain of Matt Rendell, the author of the excellent Pantani biography, numerous other cycling books, often featuring Colombians, as well as the great tome, “Salsa for People Who Probably Shouldn’t.” After a stint as Movistar pressman and mouthpiece for Nairo Quintana, the brains of the British cycling media has returned to ITV. You may remember Rendell for his brilliant confrontation with the ex pro and doping suspect, Laurent Jalabert who cast doubts over Froome’s performance at last year’s Tour.
I have to say that even this “Remain” campaigner has been swayed a bit after talking to the protagonists of the ITV team. It’s not going to happen immediately, but I have at least, opened my mind a bit to the “Phlexit” camp. Time will tell, but I’m going to give the guys a chance. Could be good this one.