Cycling broadcaster Carlton Kirby on why stats aren't everything
The veteran commentator discusses the challenges of his job, criticism from fans and the reasoning behind his divisive style on the mic.
A football match lasts 90 minutes. A rugby match lasts 80. A basketball game just 48.
A single stage of the Tour de France, meanwhile, can last for more than six hours.
Even the shortest days, such as the 117.5km stage 14 of the 2019 edition – won by Thibaut Pinot, who is in the online betting to win this year’s race outright – last for more than three.
For a commentator, filling that time is hard enough, but the nature of the sport makes their job even tougher.
Much of the action takes place at the beginning and the end of the day. In between the attacks, the breakaways and the finishes, commentators often have hours to fill and little action with which to fill them.
“Commentating on cycling is not like snooker or tennis,” says Carlton Kirby, principal commentator for Eurosport’s cycling coverage, who has worked in the sport since 1996.
“In tennis you never talk through a point because the crowd don't. In certain sports, you have to respect the action, and then you comment on it. That makes for a really easy job, as far as I'm concerned.
“There are some other sports, like cycling, where the commentary has to be complete. There are no gaps - you might shut up for five seconds or so to listen to the crowd, but that's it.”
Concentrating for hours on end is hard enough, but commentators also have to deal with directors in their ear, constant radio announcements and a frenzy of other action around them.
“Quite often you are talking while being handed a note, being spoken to by the director, and listening to race radio at the same time as well,” says Kirby.
“There’s an awful lot of distractions to keep on top of, so if you happen to be looking at your notes when somebody has a moment and you don't see it, it's not your fault.”
Kirby laughs. “But try explaining that to Cycling Weekly and their letters column.”
It only takes a quick Google search to understand what Kirby is alluding to here – there are fan forums calling for his removal from Eurosport, and even a petition requesting the same, citing ‘inane chatter’, ‘terrible jokes’ and ‘unnecessary screaming.’
But there are also plenty of fans who appreciate Kirby for his knowledge and enthusiasm on the mic.
The growth of social media – and people voicing their opinion – means that criticism is never far away, but that is something Kirby is at ease with.
“It's not like the written press where you can write something out and finesse it and shave it,” says Kirby. “I don't have that gift. Once I've said something, a couple of hours later it's hitting Saturn. It's gone, it's irretrievable.
“There is no editing process, except between brain and larynx. Once it's out there you're done, so you'll just have to forgive me if I make the odd gaffe.”
While Kirby and his team would normally head across the channel for the Tour de France, the current situation means he will be covering the 2020 edition from the Eurosport studios in London.
Being on site in France would obviously be preferable, but – unlike other sports – the practicalities of cycling commentary don’t change too much when doing so remotely.
“When you're on site, even though you're there, you're still watching a monitor,” Kirby says. “You're at the finish line, essentially watching the TV - albeit with extra screens.”
That doesn’t mean his job hasn’t been made a whole lot harder, though. The sights and sounds of the race, and the concentration of expertise in a full press room can offer up some valuable nuggets for a commentator.
“Being on site gives you an awful lot of extra material,” he says. “Especially on a long transition stage, that material is going to be gold.
“If it's one of those days where it's going to end in a sprint and you need to cover 240km, then it's going be a bit of a drag. The break's going to go up the road, they're going to be allowed anything up to 15 minutes of an advantage and everyone else is just having a chat - including us.”
“When you're on site, you get up in the morning, you feel the atmosphere, you get the buzz. Breakfast is all about what was said off-camera, picking each other’s brains.
“All the other commentators from all the other nations and all their information are in the same room, so you often get people saying: 'Have you heard this?', with loads of things to share. Info-wise, being on site is amazing.”
So, an encyclopaedic knowledge and behind-the-scenes gossip are two essential ingredients for commentating on cycling, and on Grand Tours in particular.
There is, however, one other thing that Kirby believes sets the very best apart: commitment.
“You cannot do this half-heartedly. If you only do it sporadically, it's obvious,” he says.
“Some commentators won't commentate, they'll fall back onto stats. Anyone can log into Pro Cycling Stats and start pretending that they're highly knowledgeable about some guy who's in the breakaway.
“‘Oh, I seem to remember he rode for Crédit Agricole back in the day.’ Fuck off! That is not commentary, that is bullshit. That is essentially just reading off plan. And you can hear it.
“If anyone starts giving you any palmarès, they're not commentating, they’re reading off a list. I could sit there and start giving you stats, I could start giving you tech. Stats and tech are the stock-in-trade of the uninformed.
“You'll get an awful lot of history coming out, which is completely useless as far as I'm concerned, for the entertainment value of the day.
“I'd honestly rather be talking about a chateau that is going by to make the day move along, rather than talk about what some guy didn't win when he raced seven years ago for Skil-Shimano.
There will, of course, be those who disagree – not that Kirby minds.
He has found a style that clearly works for him and, after 25 years on the mic, many others, too.
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