British fans had access to more cycling coverage on television this year than ever before.
As well as Eurosport?s coverage of the major tours and Classics, the BBC showed the World Championships on the track and road, the Olympic Games and the World Cup at the weekend.
ITV4?s coverage of the Tour de France was complemented by highlights of the Tour of Ireland and Tour of Britain too.
Sky?s sponsorship of British Cycling offers many possibilities for the future too. A major player in sports broadcaster, Sky wants in on the Olympic Games action in time for 2012 and signing up with Britain?s most successful sport was one obvious way to do that.
Only time will tell whether Sky also bids for the rights to show major events, although cycling?s fans and administrators alike should exercise caution in this respect. Although Sky is a major brand, both powerful and prestigious, it does not guarantee viewers.
Premier League football, the sport which towers above all others in terms of media coverage in this country, is at the heart of Sky Sports? portfolio. However, the biggest audience for a live game this season is the 1.6 million who watched arguably the most attractive fixture ? Manchester United versus Chelsea. More than double that tuned into BBC2?s highlights show Match of the Day later that evening (September 26).
The BBC has delivered big audiences for cycling this season, according to figures obtained from BARB, the Broadcasters? Audience Research Board.
Viewing figures for cycling events at the Olympic Games were routinely above two million, with a peak of 4.45m for coverage on Saturday, August 16, the day Chris Hoy won the Keirin and Bradley Wiggins the individual pursuit.
Audiences for the World Championship track meeting in Manchester (March 26-30) were extremely healthy too, with 1.1m watching Sunday afternoon?s live coverage on BBC2 and 1.7m tuning in to BBC1 on Saturday afternoon to see, among other things, Wiggins and Mark Cavendish win the Madison.
That?s proof that more people can watch cycling on terrestrial television than the biggest football fixture in England on a pay-per-view satellite and cable station.
Figures for the recent World Cup track meeting are not yet available, but the BBC was hoping to capitalise on the post-Beijing feel-good factor surrounding cycling.
ITV4 currently holds the rights to the Tour de France and its mix of live weekend broadcasts and weekday highlights show in an early evening slot brought in between 250,000 and 500,000 viewers. Good audiences, but still some way short of the million Channel 4?s coverage, which ended in 1999, used to deliver. The Tour of Britain also enjoyed healthy figures, peaking at 250,000, but still some way short of the Tour de France figures.
Although ITV4 is a free to air channel, viewers do need to have a Freeview box or similar system to receive it.
British Eurosport is included in some, but not all, cable and satellite packages and it shows more cycling than any other broadcaster.
It is perhaps surprising that the Giro d?Italia delivered the company?s best results ? until you consider that many potential viewers are perhaps lured away by ITV4.
The biggest audience for a cycle race on British Eurosport in 2008 was a mountain stage of the Giro d?Italia ? the one where Russia?s Vasili Kiriyenka won and Britain?s Steve Cummings was fourth. This was a stage held on a Friday, bucking the trend of weekend audiences being considerably bigger.
That Giro stage was the only cycling broadcast among the top 20 most-watched events on Eurosport. A look at that particular table shows why motor cycling so often takes preference over cycling. Motorcycling in one form or other brought 14 of Eurosport?s top 20 audience figures in Britain.
Some of the coverage of the Classics brings very small audiences ? just 40,000 for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for example. However, British Eurosport?s spring schedule is usually a mess. It?s almost impossible to guarantee the Classics will be on when the schedule says they will be.
It may seem obvious, but the lesson for cycling is that the biggest audiences are delivered by the broadcasters with the most reach. And that means terrestrial or widely-available free-to-air stations.
The advent of interactive technology means that at the touch of the red button a wide array of options can be presented to the viewer ? as the BBC proved with its complete live coverage of the men?s and women?s road races at the World Championships in Varese in September.
Viewing figures for these events are not available but the fact remains, as the country switches over to digital television the red button option becomes available to more and more households, whereas pay-per-view channels and those that are technically free but are only included in the more expensive packages can only deliver small audiences.
Below are the audiences for cycling programmes on British television in 2008, according to BARB and the BBC.
|4.45m||Olympic Games track cycling (Hoy wins Keirin, Wiggins wins pursuit)||Sat, Aug 16|
|1.7m||World Track Championships on BBC1||Sat, Mar 29|
|1.18m||World Track Championships on BBC2||Sun, Mar 30|
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|198,000||Kiriyenka wins Giro d?Italia stage 19||Fri, May 30|
|143,000||Griepel and Cavendish one-two Giro stage 17||Wed, May 28|
|140,000||Moncoutie wins at Pla de Beret Vuelta a Espana||Sun, Sept 7|
|133,000||Cavendish wins in Toulouse Tour de France stage 8||Sat, Jul 12|
|130,000||Ricco wins at Bagneres, Tour de France stage 9||Sun, Jul 13|
|123,000||Devolder wins Tour of Flanders||Sun, Apr 6|
|114,000||Sella wins at Marmolada, Giro stage 15||Sun, May 25|
|105,000||Steegmans wins final stage, Tour de France||Sun, Jul 27|
|97,000||Contador wins Vuelta a Espana stage 14||Sun, Sept 14|
|94,000||Sastre wins at Alpe d?Huez, Tour stage 17||Wed, Jul 23|
|91,000||Burghardt wins Tour de France stage 18||Thu, Jul 24|
|82,000||Dessel wins at Jausiers, Tour stage 16||Tue, Jul 22|
|78,000||Boonen wins Paris-Roubaix||Sun, Apr 13|
|78,000||Luis Leon Sanchez wins Tour stage 7 at Aurillac||Fri, Jul 11|
|76,000||Valverde wins Tour de France stage 1||Sat, Jul 5|
|73,000||Bennati wins Giro d?Italia stage 9||Sun, May 18|
|72,000||Ricco wins at Super Besse, Tour de France||Thu, Jul 10|
|72,000||Final Tour de France time trial||Sat, Jul 27|
|72,000||Men?s Olympic Games road race||Sat, Aug 9|
|70,000||Cunego wins Amstel Gold Race||Sun, Apr 20|
|69,000||Cancellara wins Milan-San Remo||Sat, Mar 22|
|67,000||Chavanel wins Tour de France stage 19||Fri, Jul 25|
|65,000||Women?s Olympic Games road race||Sun, Aug 10|
|62,000||Ricco wins Giro d?Italia stage 8||Sat, May 17|
|61,000||Sella wins at Pampeago, Giro stage 16||Sat, May 24|
|58,000||Slipstream win Giro d?Italia stage 1||Sat, May 10|
|58,000||Ricco wins Giro d?Italia stage 2||Sun, May 11|
|55,000||Hushovd wins Tour de France stage 2||Sun, Jul 6|
|41,000||Boonen wins Vuelta a Espana stage 16||Tue, Sept 16|
|40,000||Valverde wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège||Sun, Apr 27|
EUROSPORT?S TOP 20
The top 20 most-watched sports broadcasts on British Eurosport this year, up to the end of October.
|269,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||June|
|229,000||Volleyball, Olympic qualifier||January|
|229,000||Tennis, French Open||May|
|220,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||March|
|220,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||September|
|218,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||June|
|214,000||Football, African Nations Cup||February|
|208,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||March|
|204,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||September|
|203,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||April|
|202,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||August|
|200,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||May|
|198,000||Cycling, Giro d?Italia stage 19||June|
|196,000||Motor cycling, Superbike World Champs||August|
|194,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||March|
|192,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||April|
|191,000||Snooker, UK Masters||January|
|188,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||June|
|186,000||Motor cycling, Moto GP||August|
|184,000||Tennis, ATP Tour||January|
All figures courtesy of BARB (Broadcasters? Audience Research Board). Only programmes ranked in the week?s top ten for each channel are included. There is no data available for the week ending July 20, the middle week of the Tour de France.
All Tour de France, unless stated. Live and highlights programmes included. ITV 4 showed a nightly highlights programme for the Tour de France, Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland, plus selected weekend Tour de France stages live.
|502,000||Burghardt wins at Saint-Etienne||Thu, Jul 24|
|496,000||Dessel wins at Jausiers||Tue, Jul 22|
|487,000||Luis Sanchez wins at Aurillac||Fri, Jul 11|
|467,000||Piepoli wins Hautacam stage||Mon, Jul 14|
|459,000||Ricco wins at Super Besse||Thu, Jul 10|
|448,000||No. 4 for Cavendish at Nimes||Fri, Jul 18|
|438,000||Cavendish wins his third stage in Narbonne||Thu, Jul 17|
|411,000||Sastre wins at Alpe d?Huez||Wed, July 23|
|393,000||Arvesen wins at Foix||Wed, Jul 16|
|380,000||Chavanel wins at Montlucon||Fri, Jul 25|
|362,000||Dumoulin wins stage 3||Mon, Jul 7|
|358,000||Cavendish?s first win, at Chateauroux||Wed, Jul 9|
|348,000||Freire wins at Digne||Sat, Jul 19|
|307,000||Schumacher wins Cholet TT||Tue, Jul 8|
|290,000||Gerrans wins at Prato Nevoso||Sun, Jul 20|
|285,000||First rest day wrap-up show||Tue, Jul 15|
|273,000||Ricco wins at Bagnères-de-Bigorre||Sun, Jul 13|
|266,000||Second rest day wrap-up show||Mon, Jul 21|
|250,000||Petacchi wins Tour of Britain stage 6||Fri, Sept 12|
|248,000||Berges wins Tour of Britain stage at Burnham||Tue, Sept 9|
|234,000||Boasson Hagen wins Tour of Britain stage 5||Thur, Sept 11|
|231,000||Valverde wins stage 1||Sat, Jul 5|
|198,000||Tour of Ireland, final stage and wrap-up show||Sun, Aug 31|
The Tour de France was the most-watched ITV4 programme during all three full weeks of the race. In week?s two and three, the Tour accounted for seven of the top 10 most-watched programmes on the channel.