Cycling fans everywhere were dealt a blow this week when they learned via Twitter that the voice of cycling, David Harmon, from the home of cycling, Eurosport, would be taking an extended break. Following my exclusive, lengthy chat with him last weekend in the warm Niçois sunshine, he shares his thoughts on a wide range of cycling-related topics, in this first of a two-part interview, with more on why and what he’s going to be doing while he’s ‘on a break’ to follow in the second instalment later today.
I’ve done all that’s been asked of me by Eurosport for a decade and they have given me a wonderful career but I’m off to rediscover the love
— david harmon (@spokesmen) April 20, 2013
What a lovely morning. Tour of Turkey beckons and a much looked forward to 2 month break. Nothing till the TdF…bliss
— david harmon (@spokesmen) April 21, 2013
Thanks for all your messages, I’m overwhelmed. It’s just a break. I’m not retiring but I am being more selective. Exploring freelancehood.
— david harmon (@spokesmen) April 22, 2013
Sheree: Until I spent those days last year with Eurosport at the Tour de France I truly hadn’t appreciated what a difficult job you have reporting on-site from, quite frankly, a shoebox. I now appreciate why you prefer commentating from the studio.
David: Of course, it all depends where it is. If we do the Tour from the studio in Paris, Sean [Kelly] and I can ride around Longchamp and then go into work. Plus it’s easier to get back home, a big consideration when, like me, you’re away pretty much from mid-February at the Tour of Qatar to the end of September at the World Championships. I appreciate it’s a job people would pull your right arm off for but I had only a few days here and there at home last year and, when you have a family, it’s too much.
Sheree: And those few days at the Tour were so full-on. The average television viewer simply has no idea and, of course, many think they can do a better job. Though I doubt few could manage to identify the riders as easily.
David: That’s the common denominator for all commentating jobs, whatever the sport. And maybe they are well-informed, but talking at length and putting it all together is quite another matter. When I was growing up my heroes were those on Test Match Special (cricket) and I like to think that in my almost 20 years as a commentator – six years motor racing and 11 years cycling – that I have modelled myself on and drawn inspiration from their style of commentary. I started with 24-hour Le Mans where there are plenty of gaps to fill.
I’ve never dried up. No, that’s not – true I did once in a 52.2km time trial in the Vuelta a Espana which was essentially Denis Menchov versus Roberto Heras on a closed stretch of motorway. I just shut up and stopped talking. Even Sean said “I’m losing the will to live!” It was very dull.
Sheree: Sean comes up with some great one-liners!
David: I think at the Tour, the three-handed commentary with him and Carlton Kirby works well. Carlton’s a complete nut-case and a real raconteur and Sean’s very good company. Our challenge is to make the race viewable for everyone. It’s important not to dwell too much on technical matters and difficult issues otherwise people switch off.
Sheree: You mean doping?
David: Exactly, although I’ve never held back. I’ve been quite forthright and consistent in my opinions and, if I do change my mind for any reason, I explain why. In terms of keeping it flowing, it helps that I have a wide range of interests – reading, art, history and so on – and I’ve done things other than cycling and commentating. My first love was archaeology, long before the Indiana Jones movies. I started helping out at digs when I was 14-years-old and was running them for English Heritage and other similar bodies by the time I was 18.
Sheree: That would explain your various comments about architectural and historical places of interest during the Tour and, indeed, other races.
David: It’s about having a conversation with the viewers. You have to remember over 50% of Eurosport’s viewers tune in during the Tour not because of the cycling but to see the scenery, the mountains in particular. They find it exciting, interesting and novel. With the other races it is generally just die-hard fans, but the Tour’s different.
Sheree: During the Tour I make notes about lovely places I’d like to visit.
David: Me too. For example Vézelay (the UNESCO World Heritage site in Burgundy) is one of my favourite French villages. It’s all part of the charm of the Tour and I feel very lucky and privileged to be part of it.
Sheree: You’re becoming known to a much wider audience as cycling fans all around the globe tune into cycling via the internet and their channel of choice is Eurosport’s English-speaking channel.
David: It’s amazing we have viewers tweeting us from all over: Japan, India, the Philippines, Canada, Australia, everywhere. It’s all very interesting.
Sheree: So, back to your strengths as a commentator …
David: It all boils down to my ability to talk about nothing much for ages. I used to be a choir boy at Westminster Abbey and have done lots of public speaking so I’m quite happy speaking into a microphone, something which many find really off-putting. I can also assimilate information quickly which is coming at me from various sources: the internet, race radio, my producer Sean. Providing, of course, there’s no technical problems. Recently at Paris-Nice we only had a live feed and a functioning microphone about two minutes before we were due to go on air. I thought I was going to have to ape [former Eurosport commentator] David Duffield who once famously commentated via phone from a café.
Sheree: How is ‘Duffers’?
David: He’s still around, in his mid-80s now, still loves cycling and is just enjoying his retirement. I really must catch up with him.
Sheree: I only started watching cycling in 2004, not long after you started commentating and just before he retired. More and more people seem to be getting involved in commentating?
David: There’s been an explosion of ‘experts’ in recent years but it’s all grist to the mill. I consider myself fortunate to have served a lengthy apprenticeship with the third-greatest cyclist of all time. He wouldn’t work with me if I was rubbish.
Sheree: Sean. You and he have built up an excellent rapport as you have with both Magnus Backstedt and Brian Smith.
David: I can adapt well when I’m working with people I like. Of course, as I always tell Sean, I’m riding for him. He’s the guy who knows what it’s all about. It’s not the other way around. Lots of commentators rule the roost, not me. It’s the same with Magnus and Brian although they’re both very different riders from Sean, have enjoyed very different careers and bring tremendously different perspectives.
Sheree: Isn’t Magnus now doing triathlons?
David: Ironman. He’s so competitive, he just can’t give up. I’m off to the Tour of Turkey at the weekend which will be my first away trip with Magnus. It’ll be fun, we’re slightly like brothers.
Sheree: After the horrendous weather conditions in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco this year my husband has put in a request for the Tour of Turkey next year.
David: The weather was dreadful, wasn’t it? Sean always used to ride the Tour of the Basque Country as preparation for Paris-Roubaix. He’d say that if you could survive there, Paris-Roubaix was a doddle – flat race with just cobbles!
I tell you who caught my eye there, the young lad from Caja Rural. He was good, a proper old school rider.
Sheree: You mean Omar Fraile. He’s garnered plenty of column inches in the Spanish press, definitely one to watch for the future. I was impressed with Nairo Quintana, I hadn’t appreciated he was quite such a good time-trialist.
David: He’s technically very competent, handles the bike beautifully and I was very impressed with him on the stage he won [stage four into Eibar-Arrate – Ed]. He’s a tough rider – [Alejandro] Valverde’s going to have to watch himself. Mind you I was equally impressed with Valverde when he rode in support of Rui Costa last year at the Tour de Suisse. He was a brilliant super-domestique. He gets a hard time because he’s part of that generation living in denial, but he’s done his time.
Sheree: I found myself nodding along in agreement with the video interview you did for Cyclismas where you talked about doping, Lance, UCI …
David: They’re nice guys at Cyclismas and I confess I had drunk half a bottle of wine before doing it but it’s mostly from the heart, even the bit about Pat [McQuaid]. I like him, I think he gets a hard time and he has to deal with a very critical press, rightly so. However, I have no time whatsoever for Hein Verbruggen, he’s on the gravy train and prepared to put up with anything.
Sheree: Well Pat’s no different from others in similar positions.
David: That job’s a poisoned chalice. It’s like being England football manager where everyone thinks they can do a better job.
Sheree: But all the talk of a new dawn in cycling seems to have faded: Change Cycling Now, the Independent Commission …
David: Just hot air! Change needs to come from within the UCI. They’ve plenty of good people but they have an incredibly small staff, stretched too thin. It’s the same in every department which is why they get so much criticism. Doubling their staff numbers would be a good move.
Sheree: Staying with that interview, I loved your description of Lance as a “one-beer chap”.
David: In my opinion that’s all he is and that’s all I’ve ever had or ever wanted with him. I’ve never really taken to him. There’s no animosity on my part, not like [Paul] Kimmage but I just don’t think he’s a very nice chap. I get the impression if you were stuck with him at a party he’d completely dominate the conversation – you’d have one beer and move on.
Sheree: I must confess all the riders I know are modest, almost self-effacing.
David: Not all of them. Think about the second-best rider of all time, Bernard Hinault, he knows his worth as a rider but he’s French, he can get away with it.
Sheree: Ah, I’ve met him. He’s charming but he has a twinkle in his eye that Lance doesn’t.
David: Lance was very cold-blooded and very successful at what he did. Everything was organised with the precision of a military campaign. People were so surprised at the scale and extent of his treachery. But they were pretty much all doing it. Lance just did it the best. If you look at some of the Tour classifications – 2005, for example, at least 23 out of the 25 names have been or alleged to have been involved in doping. I think that probably makes Carlos Sastre the most successful Tour rider of all time – nice guy.
Sheree: You’re right, I’ve met him too. He’s a sweet chap.
This interview with David’s exclusive news concludes in part two, which you can read here.