Video killed the radio stars…

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by

Tadej Pogačar’s 81-kilometre solo sortie to victory at Strade Bianche was hugely impressive, but was it boring? Peter Cossins reflects on how such exploits can fail to evoke excitement in the age of television and streaming

In the aftermath of Tadej Pogačar’s decimation of his competition at Strade Bianche, I ended up in some social media back and forth with fans and fellow journalists, who were less than thrilled with the way in which the Slovenian’s 81-kilometre solo to victory ended any prospect of excitement in a race that has traditionally served up so much. It was “dull” fare, one said.

After asking another colleague whether similar epic breakaways by the likes of Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault were equally dull, I got a one-word response – “Yep” – plus a link to a Twitter post they had put up following Remco Evenepoel’s breakaway win in the 2022 World Championship that said: “We are living in Remco’s world now and it’s boring. Great achievement, so impressive. A performance for the ages. But ultimately, really boring.”

“Theo Koomen was like a fan doing the commentary… His commentary on the radio was ten times better than watching on TV.”

servais Knaven

I can see their point, but don’t agree. Like Evenepoel, Pogačar has tossed away the script that’s been established for particular races and put together his own – at the Tour de France, the Tour of Lombardy and the Tour of Flanders, most notably. It may not be exciting in the same way that Lotte Kopecky’s duel with Elisa Longo Borghini had been a few hours earlier at Strade Bianche, but it’s hugely impressive and captivating. Writing in Sunday’s post-Strade edition of L’Équipe, Alexandre Roos summed it up perfectly, saying of Pogačar: “He’s not really competing with his rivals on the bike, but is engaged instead in a combat with history, for memories that are never erased…”

Giving more thought to this kind of all-crushing domination, a couple more things occurred to me. The first was that we don’t see the peloton’s biggest stars racing against each other enough. Strade Bianche may fancy itself as the sixth Monument, but the line-up didn’t feature Evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel or Primož Roglič, the other stars who are currently the peloton’s big six. The sport needs to change this, whether it’s by a revamp with the One Cycling project or by some other means.

When tennis found itself in a similar situation in the late 1980s, it responded by establishing nine Masters events, which are below the Grand Slams in terms of prestige, but a level above the other tournaments in the calendar. The result? Rivalries that were vibrant and persisted. Roger Federer faced Rafa Nadal 40 times, while Nadal has played Novak Djokovic 59 times. These players were better than their peers, but tennis has thrived because they’ve played each other so often.

I was also struck – and this was widely expressed in the comments I received during and after Strade Bianche – by the impact that live TV coverage has on racing. While the exploits of Coppi, Merckx and Hinault were primarily described in print, on the radio or with heavily edited TV highlights, Pogačar’s take place in full view. We see it all, from his initial attack, his steady time gains, the vain attempts to bridge up to him, his smiles to the camera as victory nears, and his final success in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, where a sudden blaze of sun illuminates him as he crosses the line.

In a way, the live broadcast of feats such as this underline why cycling has struggled to maintain its status in the TV and streaming ages. The sport’s popularity was at its zenith when Alexandre Roos’s predecessors at L’Equipe, La Gazzetta dello Sport and Miroir du Cyclisme were able to evoke Pogi-like exploits to a public that depended on them almost totally for insight.

Yet, rather conjuring up the great writers that graced these titles, the name that sprang into my mind was that of Theo Koomen, the Dutch radio commentator who covered the Tour between the 1960s and 1980s and played a very significant role in Alpe d’Huez’s coronation as “Dutch mountain”. Writing about Koomen in my book on “cycling’s greatest climb”, I said how he “aimed to give listeners the full atmosphere and flavour of whatever event he was reporting on. He wanted them to feel like they were inside the stadium or on the Tour finish line, resulting in theatrical performances that often bore little relation to the action he was watching but made for riveting listening.”

I spoke to Dutch ex-pro and directeur sportif Servais Knaven about the commentator, and he admitted that he could recall listening to Koomen’s commentary of Peter Winnen’s 1981 victory on the Alpe when Knaven was just 10 years old. “He was like a fan doing the commentary… His commentary on the radio was ten times better than watching on TV.” Koomen was immensely popular, not because he embellished the racing action and the Dutch audience didn’t know, but because he embellished it and they did know.

His former colleague Mart Smeets, a well renowned and highly respected sports broadcaster, told me he had no time for Koomen’s style, but understood how he arrived at it. “Radio is all about creating a world that nobody can see. I have to say that he did that in a tremendous way. He could build up stories beautifully. But television became his biggest enemy.”

In some ways, road racing has suffered the same fate. It’s not adapted to the demands of live coverage to the extent that other sports have. It’s often boring, and I’ll cite two recent races to support this: the Jebel Jais stage of the UAE Tour, 175km of mundanity until Ben O’Connor’s winning flourish with 900 metres to the line; and the finale of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, which featured three rider racing around Belgian housing and industrial estates prior to Wout van Aert inevitably outsprinting his two rivals. It seems many would add Pogačar’s Strade Bianche success to that list.

Let’s end, though, on a positive aspect of Saturday’s racing in Tuscany. Watching Kopecky, Longo Borghini, Pogačar and their peers, I was reminded how much more thrilling racing tends to be when you’re at the roadside. The crowds at Strade Bianche are bigger every year and this season’s introduction of a circuit towards the back end of the race enhanced that experience. It meant that fans could see the riders four times across the two races.

Those who thronged Le Tolfe and the other gravel climbs witnessed not only the exploits of those three great riders, but also the tenacity and struggles of all those who trailed in their wake. I felt my pulse racing on each occasion they climbed through the massed ranks, wishing that I was there, watching the racing as it’s meant to be seen, in the place where feats such as Pogačar’s remain thrilling as well as impressive, and will never be forgotten.

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