SPORT ON TV: Week of the skin cream with thanks to Imlach

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The Independent Online
AS IF any further proof were needed that the Tour de France has a slight image problem just now, these are the snippets of important information which Channel 4 provided at the start of a recent stage, and the order in which they gave them. They were: the stage distance; the number of riders still in the field; the names of those who had given up overnight; the time at which the peloton set off; the number of riders drug-tested the previous day; the temperature, and finally the weather forecast.

These days on the Tour, it seems, the drug-test total is just another throwaway stat. And in case you were wondering, no fewer than 51 of the 166 competitors had been asked to supply a blood sample to the mobile lab. If that is the standard daily percentage, it's a wonder that the peloton have more than a pint or so left between them.

Even this week, with Paris beckoning, the ongoing is-he-or-isn't-he speculation around Lance Armstrong, the race leader, left precious little time for anything else. The first five minutes of Thursday's half-hour round-up concerned Armstrong's use of a skin cream containing a substance - triamcinolone - which sounds as though it should be banned, but isn't (when used in skin cream). Add in another five minutes for Gary Imlach, Channel 4's roving reporter, the adverts in the middle and the credits at each end, and there cannot have been much more than 10 minutes of shaven-legged men on bikes.

Which was a shame, because the peloton, particularly when seen from above, is among the most intriguing sights in sport. As riders jostle for position or try to engineer a breakaway, it seems to have arteries, limbs, a mind of its own. And when it swallows a rider who has tried to cut and run for home, you can almost hear the burp.

But these days everything seems to come down to drugs. Take Imlach's item on the lack of a French stage winner this year, for the first time since 1926, despite the fact that the home team accounts for more than a quarter of the field. As Imlach pointed out, the French riders know that this year, the authorities they are under even closer scrutiny, EPO- wise, than the foreign competitors. Now this may be nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence, but it is also, as a song once had it, a "Thing That Makes You Go Hmmm".

Imlach is by some way the best thing about Channel 4's coverage of the Tour, though that is not to detract from the very professional performances going on around him. Imlach, however, is a class apart, and woefully underused by C4 now that the American Football has gone elsewhere.

Some people probably find his lippy self-confidence unbearable, and so too his apparent need to be filmed at all times with the camera pointing upwards from ankle level. It seems that all those years interviewing linebackers have given him a Napoleon complex.

But it is impossible not to warm to a reporter who opens an item with the observation that "the last time the French won the Tour, they sank the Rainbow Warrior to celebrate, so the last 13 years of dismal failure have at least been good news for Greenpeace".

And then points out, apropos the advertising cavalcade which precedes the Tour, that "actually, a Frenchman has been first across the line every day this year, but sadly for the home side, the Michelin man doesn't count for the general classification".

Admittedly, Imlach's interview technique still needs some polish, and in particular an appreciation of when to be chummy and when to leave it out. When Stuart O'Grady crashed just a couple of kilometres from the line on Thursday, it cost him any chance of finishing the Tour with the green jersey for the winner on points. Imlach accosted him as he wobbled back to his team coach, with his bike apparently in need of stabilisers. "Stuart," he chirped, "bad luck, mate. What happened in the final 'k' there?" O'Grady clearly thought about assaulting him with his bicycle pump. In the end, though, he just carried on wobbling.

Rather like the England cricket team, in fact, who made their live debut on the same station this week with a performance as shambolic as the coverage was smooth. Richie Benaud, thankfully, is still in the commentary box, and there was also some very slick technology to help things along (or, in the case of the microphone which picks up thin edges, to help Mark Butcher along).

Some licence payers, of course, will never forgive the BBC for letting the cricket go, and there will have been hollow laughs across the home counties on Thursday evening at the discovery that while Channel 4 was showing highlights from the first day at Lord's, BBC1 was running with Auntie's Sporting Bloomers.

In other words, there was an assortment of hopeless, schoolboy blunders which we have all seen a thousand times before. And on the other side - yes, you guessed it - Wogan's show was even worse.