Phinney’s invisible exploit: does TV coverage miss the bigger picture?

Television coverage of cycling is getting more and more sophisticated, but we still miss much of the action. Does it matter?

Words by Edward Pickering

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Thursday March 21, 2013

What’s been the most impressive ride of the year so far? Chris Froome beating the other Tour contenders in Oman? Moreno Moser’s tactical masterpiece at Strade Bianche? Richie Porte’s passive-aggressive cleverness at Paris-Nice? Gerald Ciolek’s stealthy smash and grab at Milan-San Remo? Or even Dan Martin’s brave sortie in today’s Tour of Catalonia mountain-top finish?

I’ve enjoyed all of these. The season’s two months and one day old, and the racing has already been absorbing, exciting and unpredictable, which is most of what I ask of professional cycling.

But the ride that I can’t stop thinking about is not one of those listed above.

As I sat on the edge of my seat watching the leading sextet of riders negotiate the final few hundred metres of Milan-San Remo, butterflies dancing in my stomach in anticipation of the sprint, and the realisation that Gerald Ciolek was actually going to win the race growing in my mind, I saw Taylor Phinney approaching from behind.

Successive long-lens television shots had shown a clear road behind the leaders, but suddenly, with just 400 metres to go, the BMC rider was all but upon them.

He was too late to catch the group, by a couple of hundred metres, and even if he had, the effort of the chase would probably have put him out of the sprint, but the American had single-handedly crossed a gap of 15 seconds, between the bottom of the Poggio and the finish line.

Phinney had been marooned in the peloton, a few seconds behind the leaders, as the race took the left-hander to start the descent of the Poggio. By my count, he was the 11th rider through in the bunch. It’s not easy to overtake down the Poggio – there’s little time to accelerate before it’s time to brake for the next hairpin, so he would have been prevented from launching a chase until the race hit the streets of San Remo.

The next we saw of Phinney, after the top of the Poggio, was that shot of him just coming up behind the leaders with 400 metres left.

How had he done it?

Initially, my reaction was that it was a shame we hadn’t seen him crossing the gap. How, while every other rider left in the peloton would not, or could not chase, Phinney found the strength and the willpower to bridge a substantial gap on his own. The sight of one of the emerging stars of cycling in full flight, in an all-or-nothing attempt to rescue the race, would have added another layer of excitement to a tense event, even if the television cameras were rightly focused on the winning group. There’s not a director on Earth who would have cut away from the leaders in that situation.

We miss more than we can ever see when we watch bike races on television. We equally were denied the sight of Peter Sagan tearing himself clear of the peloton through the steep streets of Siena as he forced his way to second place in Strade Bianche. And of Bradley Wiggins, having faltered, closing a 20-metre gap to Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde in yesterday’s Tour of Catalonia stage at Vallter-2000.

There’s a lot of pressure to improve the television coverage of bike racing, with on-bike cameras, or simply more television cameras, so we can add to the information available to find out what’s happening.

But on reflection, I got as much from the surprise of suddenly seeing Phinney popping up at the kill than I think I would have from seeing him on a futile chase, hundreds of metres behind the real contenders.

I can think of other surprises in bike races, which have had the sudden impact of a hammer blow on my perception of events. Fabian Cancellara bridging the gap to the winning break in the Beijing Olympic road race, or the greatest of all, Stephen Roche almost catching Pedro Delgado at La Plagne in the 1987 Tour, when we all thought he was 65 seconds down the mountain.

Phinney’s ride was an incredible exploit. Bike racing is about winning, not placing, but whether the television cameras showed it or not, it’s been my ride of the season so far. I saw him at the top of the Poggio, well down. Then I saw him again as he bore down on the leaders. That I didn’t see how he got from one place to the other hasn’t lessened the impression it left on me.

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