Friday, June 24, 2011

Inside the Tour - seasoned TV cycling journalist/presenter

Think pioneers of modern cycling in Australia, and you’ll probably think Stuart O’Grady, Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evans etc.  But you should also think: SBS.  Mike Tomalaris sums it up in a recent blog post to launch Cycling Central’s brand spanking new website:  
“we like to think we’ve been responsible for changing the television viewing habits of Australians around cycling, particularly every July since the "Aussie invasion" to the professional peloton started some 15 years ago.”
While there’s now an even larger hard working team behind and in front at Cycling Central, for years Mike was the lone 'handsome' face of Australian cycling. He saw its potential probably long before network execs at the home of soccer did – and still fights in its corner.  Tourdecouch threw a few questions to Tomo, who’s covered the Tour since 1996, to get a better look inside the tour.   

TDC: So when are you off to the Tour? Do the SBS crew all fly together?

MT:  The SBS crew does travel together for the most part and we literally hit the ground running when we arrive in France Wednesday morning. This year the drive from Paris airport to the Vendee region (the location for the Grand Depart) is some six hours, so after 24 hours in the air, the day of arrival is usually spent behind the wheel of the cars we will use for the month of July.

TDC:  We know riders would get nervous before taking part in the Tour, how about yourself? What do you feel:

MT: I don't necessarily get nervous because there's so much to do in the days before our first broadcast. Making TV for an Australia-wide audience with a crew of just six is time-consuming. The technical aspects of ensuring the pictures are correctly beamed to the other side of the world are significant while the logistics of setting up for the day-to-day operations are equally important. 

We rent space in a truck which is our "office" for the Tour's three week duration. This truck follows the Tour every day and can be found in a compound directly behind the finish line reserved for the world's electronic media covering the race.

Our job in the hours before the first day's coverage is making sure EVERYTHING is in place.

TDC: Describe an average work day there

MT: The work isn't hard. I like to think I have a professional team around me. Besides, all involved in the SBS coverage, whether on location or in the control room at the Sydney headquarters, are genuinely passionate about the sport and the race itself.
The hours, however are long, especially for us on location. You have to remember SBS' modern-day coverage caters for the demands from various departments. Apart from screening live pictures and morning and evening updates and highlights, there's the needs required for the Cycling Central website and the nightly news service. Throw in the numerous radio crosses and blogs and you soon realise the work load starts to stack up. Since doing my first Tour in 1996 I have taken on the role of driving the crew vehicle. After almost four weeks of driving the distances covered averages out around to around 7,000km.

TDC:  What do you do when we're all watching the race are you off filing stories etc,do you get to see any of it?

MT: If there is a "down-time" it's when the race is on. This the time of day we get a quick bite to eat for lunch and plan ahead for features to be shot and scripted for future programmes. It's also the time of day when I normally find an adequate location at the finish line to shoot links for the 6pm highlights show.

I must stress we always have an eye on the race for the scripted voices I provide and send for the nightly news the following day.

TDC: I can imagine on the day you're leaving to come home from France there'd be a sense of relief it's over, but do you suffer post tour lows?

MT: It's very strange the different moods and feelings one goes through when following and working on a three week sporting marathon which takes you to a different location every day. From my experiences I find exhaustion starts to kick-in at around stage 11 or 12. There are times when I awake in my hotel bed (wherever it may be), look to the ceiling and murmur to myself "I don't wanna play this game anymore." Once you break through that initial barrier you can see the finish line, and after nearly three weeks and think "We're almost there." But you know, after we've packed up and farewelled our foreign colleagues, that's when the realisation of not coming back kicks in. Strangely, when I'm on the plane for the flight home the feeling is one of "Gee, I could go another three weeks!"

TDC: So imagine you’re 80. What moment do you think you’ll recall the most?

MT: Personally, the entire 15-year journey has been memorable for me - that's why I keep going back. I can honestly say there has not been one day since 1996 when I have been disappointed. I love television and I love the Tour and I'm so grateful to have been part of the development process which has taken the SBS coverage to where it is today. The network's dedication to the event has done wonders in terms of changing the viewing habits of its audience. More people have taken to bikes, more people are watching according to the viewing rating numbers, and more people appreciate there's more to TV sport than the staple stuff that is served up in July by other networks.

TDC: Do you think you'd ever go the Tour if you weren’t working on it?

MT: Definitely. But the way I'd do it is to take my bike and be part of a tour group that rides in the morning and watches each stage from the comfort of a lounge in bar or cafe in quiet village. I stress that I wouldn't be anywhere near the race itself - far away as possible from the Tour's madding crowds. That would be bliss.

It's probably best to reveal the worst part of covering the Tour and while the mountain stages is where the race is either won or lost for everyone associated with the race it's a frustrating nightmare. The huge crowds that assemble on the narrow mountain roads, the tight security and the cramped space at the finish line makes it very difficult. It also means you're guaranteed to be stuck in a "car park" in the late evening hours after the stage with the hundreds of thousands of spectators who are also trying to get off the same summit.

TDC: Finally, why do you ride? Briefly describe how it feels.

MT: This might sound corny but for me there's nothing better than being in a bunch and feeling the breeze in your face and the warmth of the sun's rays on your shoulders. I've been riding a bike for 10 years (only started riding after covering cycling) - it keeps me young and fit and eliminates the "love handles" I couldn't get rid of when I wasn't training on two wheels.

Next time - Rupert Guinness answers Tourdecouch's questions. 

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