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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  6/1/2003

Gotta Love OLN

Editors note: OLN is now The Versus Network.

This year, for the first time ever, we got to see almost all of the Giro d'Italia live on our very own TV screen. Instead of tuning in to "Good Morning America" or the "Today" show first thing in the morning, we would click to the Versus (formerly Outdoor Life Network OLN). From 6:30 am until about 9:00 we'd watch the Italian cameras bob and weave while Bob Roll, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen described every nuance of the stage di giorno.

Previously we had a cable connection which only offered VERSUS as part of a prohibitively expensive "expanded" package. So we had to be satisifed with the meager coverage of just the Tour de France on CBS and/or ESPN. Not only were the broadcast times inconvenient for active cyclists, but also the "highlights" we got revealed so little, and were reported by such cycling-ignorant sportscasters, we figured we might just as well look for the results on the official Tour de France web site.

Then this winter we took advantage of a special satellite television promotion to save a few bucks per month and lo and behold – Versus is on the basic package. And it covers a huge chunk of the Euro racing season.

What a line-up! Paris-Nice. Fleche-Wallone. Liege-Bastogne-Liege, with Tyler Hamilton capping a U.S. victory for the first time in history. That three-km solo breakaway to the finish? We got to witness it live.

Somehow we missed the five-stage Tour de Romandie. I guess we're just not used to checking for bike races on American TV. So we didn't see Tyler win that one, becoming, as one online bike newsletter called him, the "darling" of the 2003 Euro racing scene.

But we caught most of the excitement of the Giro, with two Brits, Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, alongside all-American Bob Roll. sitting in Atlanta watching along with us and offering commentary.

I'll probably remember the 12th stage with its 27% grade on Monte Zoncolan for a long time. Supposedly washed-up Marco Pantani was giving chase to stage leader (and eventual Giro winner) Gilberto Simoni. One of the tifosi surrounding him dumped water on him and his domestique. But no amount of outside help was going put Pantani anywhere near Simoni on that hill.

That last kilometer took place at a relative crawl. As Roll put it, "I think it's the longest last kilometer we've ever seen in a bike race."

Just as knowledgeable as Sherwen and Liggett, "Bobke" is the real Stateside entertainment. VERSUS must recognize his appeal because they put together some great promos of Roll speaking Italian (he raced for an Italian team and is pretty fluent). But you can understand what he's saying in the role an old, faded Italian racer turned tifoso. He rides up a hill spouting the history of the Giro, then stops, crawls on the side of the road and points to a spot: "Here is where Fausto beat them all. Right here!"

And the Subaru commercials! By now you've probably seen at least one of them on network TV, but I first caught them sponsoring VERSUS's Giro coverage. Lance driving a different Subaru model in each spot. And looking great doing it, even with his face splattered with mountain bike trail mud.

Meanwhile, there's more than just racing coverage to watch. Recap programs like "Defining Moments of the 2003 Giro d'Italia" air one to three weeks after the major stage races. "Road to the Tour de France," packed with fascinating race history, began airing at the finish of the Giro. I caught the one focusing on Eddie Merckz and was surprised to learn more about him as both person and professional than I'd ever read or heard before.

As you can tell, there's no doubt in my mind that VERSUS is a boon to the American bike racing fan. There's just a couple of eety-beety rants I need to get off my front jersey panel:

Yikes! No Dauphine Libere coverage?

How come VERSUS isn't covering the Dauphine Libere the second week in June? It's the first Euro stage race that Lance and the U.S. Postal Team are riding this summer. Everyone wants to see how Lance does in this pre-Tour show, especially since Tyler and his CSC team will be there giving them a run for their (extremely high-priced) euros.

Hmmm. Perhaps it's those high-priced euros that are preventing American media presence at the D-L. But then VERSUS doesn't have a "presence" in any Euro race. It buys a direct satellite video feed of the race from the local producer. Commentary by the Liggett/Sherwen/Roll team is shot in a studio in Atlanta. So the race organizers must have priced the D-L feed out of VERSUS's budget. Or they flat refused to participate in response to recent American dissing of the French. Qui sait?

When did you say that show was supposed to be on?

When VERSUS denotes Eastern Time for a live broadcast, do they mean the same broadcast happens three hours earlier out here on the West Coast? Usually it does, particularly the live coverage, which we get at 6:30 am when it's posted for 9:30 am ET.

But sometimes we tune in and get bull riding. Nothing against such an all-American sport but it's just not our cup o' joe, if you catch my drift.

When they label an air time as "ET/PT," it would appear to mean Eastern Time and Pacific Time. So how come the bicycling shows that are listed as running on Thursday nights at 9:00 pm ET/PT aren't on here in the San Francisco Bay Area? Like when we eagerly tuned in at 9:00 pm Pacific Time to learn first-hand which teams were invited to the Tour de France. What we got was Mt. Everest coverage. And no word in promos or onscreen program guides as to when the bike program would actually air locally. If it ever did.

Often I find out about race coverage and regularly scheduled programs from other sources, like this email newsletter. Their listings always carry the caveat: "Check your local listings for exact times in your area." So I do, but that doesn't always work.

One Thursday morning a couple days before the end of the Giro, I checked out the VERSUS schedule via DirecTV's onscreen "Guide." It revealed the following:
6:30-8:00 am "Bicycle Racing"
9:00-10:00 am "Bicycle Racing"
12 noon-1:30 pm "Bicycle Racing"
5:00-6:00 pm "Bicycle Racing"
8:00-9:00 pm "Bicycle Racing"

Whoa! That's an awful lot of bike racing. Normally there were just two broadcasts of the Giro per day, a live one at 6:30 am and a repeat at noon. Too bad I was out on the bike for the other times; maybe I'd discovered a late spring classic or two? But no bicycle program was listed for 9:00 pm, even though VERSUS promos announced the Bob Roll/Paul Sherwen "CycleSport" show for 9:00 pm ET/PT.

I found no help on the VERSUS web site. In fact, I couldn't even bring up a schedule without clicking on a ton of different links trying to figure out what they all mean.

BTW, if you bookmark VERSUS's home page, you'll probably be mystified when trying to find it in your Favorites or Bookmark list. Looks like web developer/webmaster used an Adobe GoLive template to build the thing and forgot to enter an HTML "title" for it. So what your Bookmark or Favorites list will show is "Welcome to Adobe GoLive!" Real professional, VERSUS!

Maybe that's the secret to VERSUS's success. They're not the polished pros you see on ESPN or the traditional networks. They just trudge along with the downhome stuff the audience can't get enough of. Stuff like the Tour de France! (Warning: This link is to the 2002 Tour. As of this writing, VERSUS has yet to post a 2003 link.)

If you've got VERSUS, tune in on July 5. If you don't, maybe it's time you signed up for the cable or satellite service of your choice in order to get it. It's worth it, lack of professionalism and all.

So thank you VERSUS. Thank you for opening the window to bicycle racing as it should be viewed. And for the Brits and Bobke and for making it pay.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an "All-American Boy" as cycling champion doing his down-home Texas macho thing. Anyone who tuned in expecting bull riding might just stick around to watch him run away from those Euro bulls.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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