Tourist class hand riders devil of a job

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
AS the Tour de France unfolds, Channel 4 offers nightly updates. The images we have seen this week - of gut-busting exertion up the kinds of mountain road on to which you would be reluctant to take a four-wheel- drive jeep - have testified to the high-calibre self- discipline of the cyclists involved. But then this is what we expect from sportsmen. Still more impressive, it seems to me, is the top-level commitment of the spectators.

No matter how high the cyclists climb, no matter how far from the nearest service station the course takes them, the spectators have got there ahead. What's more, they've still got the energy left to crouch directly in the contestants' racing line, make faces and throw water at them. No reliable research is available, but one feels sure that a quick poll of names and addresses would reveal a sizeable cross-over between this crowd and the people who, in the winter months, gather on perilously icy ledges to shake cow-bells at passing skiers.

The Tour clearly attracts its characters. Unfortunately, the Channel 4 team has thus far only managed to find one of them - a man from Germany who dresses as the devil and finds an impressive vantage point on each stage from which to shake a pitchfork at the cyclists as they stream by. Interesting guy. Channel 4 like him so much, they introduced him to us last year as well. Twelve months on, we are nowhere near a full understanding of his activities.

We are, though, much closer to comprehending the pressure the crowd puts on the riders thanks to what Gary Imlach refers to as "the overhead nutter- cam". Pictures from this revealed to us how, approaching the end of Stage 12 on Friday and concentrating like crazy, Miguel Indurain, the Tour leader, was menaced in succession by a sprinter with a giant Belgian flag, a large man carrying a klaxon and someone who thought it might be a good time to present him with an apple.

As difficult to distract as Indurain, the coverage holds hard to a high- minded conviction that the Tour has nothing to do with tourism. The assumption is that we're here for the cycling - for the whirr of spoke, the clunk of gear, the squeak of Lycra on saddle and the scream of spectator under tyre. The view? Who's looking at the view? True, Imlach is down in the village each day and is occasionally pictured standing in front of a church. He's also wearing the kind of shades which, strictly speaking, you're only allowed to own if you're a Florida tennis coach. But no one on the production team is tempted to think of this as a holiday, or to offer us "La Belle France" in corny cameos. Day upon day of coverage and, so far, not a single shot of a croissant.

Channel 4 sportingly kept a pair of binoculars out for Max Sciandri and Sean Yates, two riders flying the flag for Britain - or rather, to judge from their positions and times (Yates spent the week some 20 minutes and several villages behind the pace-setters), carrying the flag and a pole to go with it. And then, out of nowhere on Thursday, Sciandri bolted through to take a stage. Cue much excited talk about the resurgence of British cycling. Sciandri is a Brit in the best Greg Rusedski tradition - raised in Italy by parents who now live in Los Angeles. He is British, you might say, in the way in which Gazza is Scottish. "You have to all the time look forward," said Max, interviewed afterwards and speaking in one of his several languages.

During Stage 9, one of the pack of television motorbikes that seem on occasion to be jostling with the leaders for a position on the board, overcooked it slightly going into a tricky hairpin at the bottom of a steep descent, and ended up on its side. Those who argue that television is an increasingly intrusive presence at sporting events may well have felt their point of view was backed up by the riders braking and swerving to avoid the debris.

An inquiry is under way into whether this was one of the controversial one-man-operated television camera motorbikes (a recession-driven measure to minimise costs), or whether the driver was simply momentarily distracted by a German with a pitchfork. As we watched the incident again in slow motion, Phil Liggett paid a justifiably earnest tribute to those whose tricky work it is to bring us these pictures.

Had this sequence been shown on Auntie's Sporting Bloomers (BBC1, Tuesday), it would have been greeted by a howl of hilarity from the studio audience (or, to be more accurate, a burst of a tape entitled One Hundred Great Pre-Recorded Guffaws). This was half an hour in the company of Terry Wogan and a montage of sports slapstick - snapping pole-vault poles, horses taking on show-jumping fences nose-first, the usual stuff.

Given that the incidence of sporting cock-ups such as these is slight by comparison with the incidence of cock-ups in the television coverage of them, it might perhaps have been more sporting of Auntie to peep first inside her own bloomers. In any case, the shots of goalkeepers letting in soft ones through their legs should definitely have been suspended pending the outcome of the Grobbelaar affair, which may turn out to cast a different light on their official status as embarrassing moments.