Friday, July 17, 2009

Maybe the Best Sport on TV

I know. We cycling fans can be insufferable, going on and on about the seemingly meaningless details of a sport dominated by one guy from Texas and a bunch of Europeans.

But do me a favor. Just watch one stage of the Tour de France on Versus, and make sure you watch it in high-def.

It may not convert you into a hardcore cycling nut, but you might get gently hooked. With the changeover this year to high-def, the Versus tour coverage might be the best sports TV you can find.

The scenery, of course, is tremendous. You'll get all sorts of aerial shots of chateaux, fields, villages, and peaks. You'll get remarkable closeups of the riders (some supplied by cameramen like Marin County's Greg Peterson, who ride as passengers on motorcycles). You'll get first-class graphics, including interesting data like the current heart rate of a few riders.

And you'll get tremendous commentary from Phil Liggett (my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker pays him the ultimate compliment, calling him "cycling's Vin Scully") and former Tour competitor Paul Sherwen. They're informed, witty, erudite, and offer as complete a picture of the event as anyone could while sitting at the finish line while the event stretches out over more than 100 miles of road.

Liggett and Sherwen strike the fine balance between keeping the hardcores happy and welcoming the newbies. They are major celebrities in a minor (to Americans) sport.

I do have quibbles with the Versus coverage. There's an unfortunate blurring of the line when they insert "demo" segments with cycling equipment makers like Specialized and Cannondale. These thinly-veiled commercials should be identified as such.

Interviewers like former pro Robbie Ventura can seem amateurish at times. Questions can veer from the inane ("How did you feel?") to the "inside baseball"-type queries than can cause eyeglaze for many viewers. In fairness, cycling probably doesn't have a deep pool of English-speaking former riders with great screen presence.

And Versus sometimes misses things. When American Levi Leipheimer fell near the end of Stage 12 (breaking his wrist, as it turned out, and forcing his withdrawal from the Tour), it went unreported on Versus. It's a reminder that an event that takes place on the largest playing field in sports can be hard to follow.

But Versus has gotten better each year, and this year's Tour de France coverage is worth a look. We've come a long way from the days of sappy John Tesh music (come to think of it, sappy John Tesh commentary) on Tour TV coverage as our penance for being bike nuts.

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