Cycling Commentator Showdown

Just when you thought it was safe to watch cycling on the TV again, ITV4 have announced that there will be daily highlights of the Vuelta a Espana. Whilst many will react gleefully to this news in the knowledge that something other than the new football season or wall to wall ParaOlympic coverage on 4, in reality, it means that something terrible is on the horizon. Whilst they have thankfully given us Gary Imlach as a host, there is the horrific and very real possibility that Ned Boulting and Matt Rendell may be allowed to commentate again.

If Hugh Porter drove you to despair in the Olympic Road Race, just wait till those two get going.  I spent most of the Vuelta tweeting Matt Rendell to correct his mistakes (not that he probably ever looked) until the fact I was simply staring at a keyboard typing back all the time somewhat defeated the point of sitting down to watch. Unfortunately, Ned Boulting then began to have the world’s longest orgasm, brought on by the mere sight of Bradley Wiggins, which went on for the remaining two weeks. It was a God-send that Cavendish had already pulled out and they couldn’t scream over him.

So to help you avoid a similar fate, I have compiled a helpful guide to the commentators cycling is currently blessed with in the English language, so that if you are lucky enough to be able to change between them, you can select one who will not insult your eardrums. Time to do what we British do best: moan about other people.

ITV4: Ned Boulting and Matt Rendell

Oh dear. Where to start. Listening to these two is like being heavily patronised in one ear whilst a drunk bloke yells into the other. Matt Rendell is the hipster of the commentary world, having moved from writing Blazing Saddles, a history of the entire Tour, and books on Marco Pantani to books about Salsa dancing. He has transferred this attitude over to his commentary, where he has decided that every name that isn’t from an English speaking country must be pronounced in the appropriate accent. Whilst a nice idea at heart, when he keeps repeating Basque surnames, particularly when no Basques are even animating the race, you get the impression he’s doing it more for his own self fulfillment then for any benefit of the viewer. Indeed, he does have somewhat of a cult attraction to certain members of the peloton, and during ITV4s prediction game, seemed to be picking names more to say ‘look, aren’t I bloody knowledgeable about cycling’ (despite his predictions being wrong and in one case featuring someone who hadn’t even started the race) then to actually win. He even managed to predict that third place on the 2012 Tour podium would be taken by one of Rui Costa, Dan Martin or Simon Gerrans.And we haven’t even got onto his constant, obvious errors. Or his partner in crime.

For whilst Rendell is blathering away about Colombians and how they will win easily when they are already being dropped whilst recanting poetry written by the mother of the uncle of one of the rider’s wives, Boulting is trying to be the everyman in the pub, which would work well if it weren’t for his shouty, wide eyed delivery and fixation with the bleeding obvious. If the organisers of the Vuelta had heard any of Boulting’s comments during the first week, especially during the first long time trial, then they would have abandoned the Tour there and then and given Bradley Wiggins the red jersey. Boulting seems to have grown up on the football commentary circuit, where everything is ‘great’ and things are always described in superlatives which then ‘run out’. Whenever Wiggins would enter the shot, the screaming fit would begin, and didn’t end until the ride had been proclaimed ‘[Wiggins’] best ride ever’…just as the next days was. And the day’s after that. It would have all been so good if only Chris Froome and JJ Cobo hadn’t beaten him.

I simply have to include some of the howlers that Rendell threw up at last years Vuelta, just to emphasise the difference between the two: Boulting will be stating the blatantly obvious (‘He could gain a minute, or less, or more then that’…) whilst Rendell will be trying to be deep by pulling out things that are just incorrect. Choice errors include the assertion that the Geox squad featuring Cobo, Sastre and Menchov would be desperate to do well as they hadn’t ridden the Giro (Which made Denis Menchov’s 7th place at the event very impressive for someone who apparently wasn’t there), calling Bert Grabsch Fabian Cancellara around the entire TTT course, despite him not even being on the same team of Grabsch, which no doubt made it odd for casual viewers who then found Cancellara was going again for Leopard after supposedly leading HTC round as well, saying Marcel Kittel had won 4 stages of the Tour of Portugal (it was Poland), and saying Rodriguez was the best uphill finisher in the world, in the same year that Phillipe Gilbert had just won Fleche, Liege and Amstel as well as San Sebastien. Tony Martinthe 6ft 75kilo Time Trial behemoth and Dan Martin the 5’9 62kilo climber were confused as well, just to top it off. Hmm.

Most likely to say: Boutling: It’s Wiggins! What a brilliant ride! He’s right on the front! Amazing stuff! Rendell: Yes Ned, but the Colombian *clears throat* Jiminez who we can just see floating off the back of the peloton is readying himself for an assault, and after taking 3 stages at the Vuelta a Costa Santiago, he’ll be a real threat later on. And there’s Andy Schleck on the front. You watch as Jiminez is dropped, look him up to find he won 1 stage of an even more obscure race rather then the one Rendell claimed, and that Andy Schleck isn’t even riding the race.

Least likely to say: Something that doesn’t make you want to do terrible, unspeakable things to them.

ITV4: Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen

The grand old partnership that are a bit marmite esque -either you love them or loathe them supposedly. This may have something to do with, at least for Liggett, a support for Lance Armstrong, when these days even mentioning the man is due to unleash the bitterest of bile as people explode in argument over whatever claim has been made today. Personally, I thorougly enjoy the pair’s commentary, even if over the past couple of years they have occasionally (Well, Liggett certainly) began to become caricatures of themselves, repeating old phrases and making the occasional mistake. Still, they should be prescribed for those who are stressed – simply start watching the tour early, and as the fluid body of riders glide past the sights and sounds of rural Europe, the calm fatherly tones of Phil and Paul will waft you away to a place where everything is peaceful and pleasant. They will even gently educate you on the buildings and geological features of the world. Bliss.

More importantly for those who prefer the commentary to focus on the sporting element of the, er, sport, the pair very rarely make mistakes, that is, make mistakes that the other doesn’t correct. Oft will Phil get a tad over excited and claim someone is attacking only to for Paul to jovially reassure him that it is not the case, and use his own modest take on his impressive career to describe what is going on. Even better, the pair seem incapable of using the word ‘er’ – and impressive feat. They do occasionally get personally attached to riders however, or the converse and start detesting people, which aside from the cliches they appear to have rooted into themselves, are there only flaw.

It is the cliches that get under the skin however. Liggett has had a book of his ‘Liggettisms’ published, but has perhaps taken it a little too far, and now seems almost determined to insert certain phrases into the action, as has, more surprisingly given his more grounded and logical tone, Sherwen. Examples include the now infamous ‘suitcase of courage’ near every rider seems to have ‘dug into’ at some point or another, or being told that this is ‘in this sport of professional cycling.’ Their newest trick is that whenever someone attacks out of the breakaway to go an extra k before being caught, they go ‘well, if anyone could hold off the charging peloton, it’s this man’ – like Hell! Still, Phil and Paul are excellent for all but the pickiest viewer, and thoroughly recommended.

Most likely to say: Liggett: And the Group of the heads of state of the bike race has formed now, and they’re just dancing on the pedals with legs like pistons, hauling each other up the mountain towards the fabled golden fleece-but what’s this? An attack now by Voeckler! Sherwen: Well, Pierre Rolland attacks- Liggett: Yes, yes, Rolland, thank you Paul- Sherwen: -and he rockets past that equisite looking country house, built in the 1700s by Baron Marco de….

Least likely to say: ‘Lance was on drugs’

Eurosport: David Harmon/Sean Kelly

Kelly watching the world’s most heart-in-mouth action

You have to wonder if there was some grand design to cycling commentators that ensured that the pairs would always feature two people who appeared to be polar opposites of one another. For Harmon and Kelly couldn’t be more different. David Harmon is basically a louder version of Marc Nicholas, with seemingly exactly the same voice, who is prone to getting extremely excitable and offering some odd turns of phrase, whilst Sean Kelly wouldn’t change his tone of voice even if someone’s head exploded and it turned out they were an alien. The pairing spend most of the time talking about tactics, which is good fun, although Kelly can be somewhat of a killjoy sometimes by ruining Harmon’s attempts to build some tension. You see, Kelly is never wrong, and that’s not me trying to say he’s arrogant – he just always seems to get it right. Harmon definitely knows the riders and what they’ve been doing, but occasionally gets a bit over excited to the point you worry what people who can just hear the ‘commentary’ must think you’re watching as he moans and groans to mirror the facial expressions of those suffering before him.

The best compliment I can give them is that there’s not much more to say, which suggests either I haven’t been paying enough attention or that they’re actually pretty good, as long as you can stand Harmon’s obsession with twitter and asking the fans what they think, which can drive you insane in one of two ways – either the inane predictions the fans make, or the very fact that Harmon is using the system. Kelly seems to fall into the latter half sometimes. Awkward.

Most likely to say: Harmon: Grrr! Ewwww! Phwoarr! There’s some real power being produced out their today, you can see the pain on their fac-oh my! GRRR! Oooh, that gotta hurt, but Scarponi makes the dig, and he’s riding away from them! This could take the stage! He could win the Giro with this attack! This is amazing, can he hold it all the way to the line Sean, it certainly looks that way!? Kelly: No. (long, awkward silence)

Least likely to say: Lets put it this way – like dreaming to outlive the DFS sale, I hope to live long enough to hear Sean Kelly laugh, cry, or express emotion.

Eurosport: Carlton Kirby/Brian Smith

Kirby is now famous as the man who screamed Iljo Keisse to victory after he fell off in the last kilometre of the Tour of Turkey, holding on to take the victory by metres, whilst Brian Smith tried to get a word in. Smith is great – knowledgeable, articulate, and not prone to the sensationalism of his collegue, who goes a little AWOL sometimes. Otherwise, the pair work nicely together, discussing the sport without ever seeming patronising to new viewers whilst simultaneously not dumbing it down too much for those who know what they are watching. Unfortunately they seem to have very little work on Eurosport, only brought on when two events clash, and almost always given the least interesting of the pair.  Again, there’s not much to say, so they must be good!

*2015 UPDATE*

It’s sad to say that I have now grown fed up of Mr Kirby. Whilst he used to come across as excited and enthusiastic, he now just comes across as a characature  of himself, and frankly, just doesn’t know when to shut up. It genuinely now feels like he thinks any silence will be punished by death, and that as a result, he feels the need to fill the space with various inanites such as “we have no idea what’s going to happen” and generally telling us that everything is always “just about to explode.” What’s worse, he has decided he is some sort of wordsmith or poet, and will always try to slip some contrived pun or alliteration in between belittling riders with a patronising and dismissive tone. And don’t even get me started on his need to chuckle and laugh at his own “jokes” every thirty seconds.

Most likely to say: Kirby: Cooooommme onnnn Keiiiisssseeeee!!!! (followed by inane chuckling at his own “puns”)

Least likely to say: Anything stupid.
BBC: Hugh Porter and Chris Boardman

‘What the **** did he just say’

I genuinely feel bad grouping Boardman with Porter. Let’s do Chris Boardman first – he is excellent. Thoroughly knowledgeable, not only in the riders and their abilities but also in the science and tactics behind what they are doing, he also has a great tone that is neither belittling or over excited, and he conveys the action well. Porter, on the other hand…heaven knows why he is still in a job. If we are fair, we could maybe attribute his seemingly in ability to identify a single rider correctly to the fact he is only ever wheeled out by the BBC for the world championships and Olympics, where riders don’t wear their standard kit, but everyone else manages to figure it out, so why can’t he? And how on earth did he manage to claim that, when Victoria Pendleton was about 20 metres from the line of the Keirin final, that Anna Meares was at ‘still on the front’?! The canary yellow clad Aussie was at the back of the pack! Porter is one of those awful commentators who seems to be living off the fact he used to participate in the sport now, and is at the point where they can’t really replace him. Problem is he is a nightmare for both the knowledgeable and the inexperienced, both who will be completely confused by the fact what he describes has no relation to what is happening on the screen. The sooner the Beeb get Gary Imlach to work with Boardman, the better.

Most likely to say: Porter: ‘And there’s three riders off the front, which now means Chris, that all these three are guaranteed a medal! Well! We wouldn’t have expected that! Back to the Peloton, and there’s, is it Gilbert sneaking off the front!? Yes, Gilbert attacks, there’s a dangerous man to let go!’ Boardman: Well, I think that’s actually one of the Dutch riders, as you can tell by their bright orange kit, when Belgium are of course wearing light blue.

Least likely to say: Boardman: Science has nothing to do with this.

Ranking table

1. Brian Smith

2. Chris Boardman

3. Paul Sherwen

4. Phil Liggett

5. Carlton Kirby

6. Sean Kelly

7. David Harmon

8. Ned Boulting

9. Matt Rendell/Hugh Porter

Anyone above 8 is on, ooh 80%+ by the way. Anyone below 7 is under 50%.

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One thought on “Cycling Commentator Showdown

  1. a fair assesment, i do miss Duffiled and Roche from Eurosport, the former was another to love or hate but i found his commentary which oftend diverted onto french gastronomy and wine entertained on a long boring flat stage in the TDF.

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