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Commentating the Tour de France is an Ironman sport

Inside one day of the hardest job in sports commentary.

Matthew Keenan is the fastidious one, while Robbie McEwen likes to play a little looser.

Keenan is still studying a notebook of the day’s historical landmark notes while McEwen chats with me. Keenan talks back to the production room through his mic set. They’d been having some technical difficulties.

Keenan says, “I can assure you, Robbie’s not having any problem with the fiber.”

McEwen replies, cheerfully, “Good fiber is the start of a good day.”

Keenan gets a note from the booth: “Are we on at 12, not 12:05? Huh, lucky I went to the bathroom already.”

It’s 11:57, and McEwen is explaining to me why he and Keenan work so well together.

“There was a really easy, natural flow,” he says. “I think the moment when we really clicked and everyone truly knew was our commentary of the 2016 Paris-Roubaix when Matthew Heyman won. Of course we were excited because it was a fantastic race, it was an incredible performance. But also being an Australian, also being one of his last chances of winning at Roubaix, and then winning it. I think we both had the same level of excitement and emotion.

“I think that was the moment a lot of people went, ‘This is the pair.’”

With roughly 10 seconds to go until the broadcast starts, McEwen signals he has to focus and settles his headphones into place. There’s an issue with the monitor so they can’t see a countdown. Keenan has to begin the broadcast off the production truck’s cue while standing up and looking through a window into the neighboring broadcast booth for visuals.

”I have no pictures, I’m watching the Norwegian broadcast,” he says. Then he flips the switch that unmutes his mic for the audience and, after a beat, begins:

“After two days of racing on Belgium roads, it says farewell to the Tour de France, and on Stage 3 it heads home to France itself for the stage finish in the champagne capital of Epernay. Matthew Keenan with you ...”

For the first 40 minutes, Keenan and McEwen take turns talking back to the production truck while the other calls the race. The video feed finally comes through the monitor around 12:05, but Keenan points out that “audio is still going in and out as Robbie speaks.” At 12:09, Keenan narrates for the audience, “... rolling into the four-kilometer start before the racing truly gets underway,” as McEwen tells the booth, “And me, I can’t hear Matt at all.” Keenan then says, “A lot of freezing as well.”

The audio mostly settles down after a half-hour of alternating from crackling, to too soft, to ear-splittingly loud. The two seem to get more comfortable after that. McEwen elongates his cadence a bit when a bearded man with tasteful plumber’s crack enters their maybe-five-foot-wide booth inside a two-story tractor trailer and has to move Keenan around to replace his fritzing personal monitor.

Robbie McEwen is a 12-time Tour de France stage winner.
Ryan Siu

After the stage, both would note that it was a particularly rough technical start, even for a sporting event that’s known for its logistical headaches.

“There was not only no picture, the sound wasn’t working, nothing worked,” McEwen says.

Keenan nods, “That was messy.”

“And when you can’t hear yourself you start to doubt that you’re even on.”

“And it throws your confidence in the way you deliver. That’s what I’ve found.”

“First two stages were no dramas,” Keenan adds.

“Because we were in Belgium.”

Yet nobody watching on television knew the extent of the problems. Only McEwen’s audio issues leaked onto the early part of the broadcast, which he found out through Twitter. Otherwise, in a testament to their calm, practice, and professionalism, it seemed to anyone listening like a routine start to a Tour broadcast.

Cycling has a keen way of dulling the stress response in both participants and anyone who tries to cover it. It’s a perfect sport to laze about to, and Keenan and McEwen have perfected a soft, jovial, cadenced Aussie banter that works on any topic.

Which is good, because early in many stages there isn’t much to talk about.

Matthew Keenan began commentating on cycling at Australian velodromes in 2003 as way to stay connected to the sport.
Ryan Siu

”I don’t think Tim Wellens could find a bigger banana to take with him on the stage today,” McEwen chimes a little after the half-hour mark. “One thing’s for certain: He’ll be getting his carbohydrates and potassium, not cramping. He’s got enough banana there to feed a family.”

”Oh, it is the original sports food,” Keenan notes. “Who needs all the packaging? And mother nature has done it best.”

Commentating the Tour de France mandates having a sense of humor, and it’s the same joviality that helps them roll with the punches. Mic problems are far from their biggest worries. The job requires long hours. Most stages are six or seven hours long, spread across 21 stages in 23 days. Keenan and McEwen were hired by the Tour’s organizers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO, for short) to work the official English language feed, which supplies NBC Sports Gold and SBS in Australia, among others.

They work without commercial breaks, which means no prescribed bathroom breaks, either. Keenan calls that fact by far the most physically demanding part of the job.

“A man’s not a camel,” he says. “Luckily, they have a port-a-loo very close to the commentary tribune, and you know the moments where you’re not going to be able to go for a nature break. The last 30 kilometers or the last 50 kilometers, it’s out of the question. But if you’re going through a period where it’s a little bit dull, you take an opportunity and you duck out.”

If it’s a particularly important stage, Keenan will make sure he’s as dehydrated as possible before he goes into the booth, and that way he can take sips of water to keep his mouth wet without having to leave his post. As of yet, he has never missed a significant move or crash while he was out using a facility, though he knocks on wood in case he’s jinxed himself.

Keenan compares commentating cycling to an Ironman sport. Anyone would be hard-pressed to think of a harder commentary gig, a fact that Keenan takes great pride in.

“Part of the charm of the Tour de France is the physical torture of it. Just how difficult it is, how long and unrelenting it is,” Keenan says. “And I like the idea of being able to broadcast that and be a small part of it, and bring it to people from a much more comfortable seat than it is on the top of a bike.”

Listening to a broadcast gives a bad impression of where they’re sitting. By the sound of Keenan and McEwen’s dulcet jocularity, you might think they were on a veranda shooting bull over cocktails. In reality, they’re packed in a beast of a trailer that’s parked roughly 1.5 kilometers from the finish line. They’re nearly shoulder-to-shoulder in a cubicle that sits in a long row of cubicles where other broadcast teams are yammering away in their own respective tongues. The walls are covered in rough gray fabric. Behind them is a corridor that’s maybe two feet wide, just enough that anyone going through has to be careful not to bump their chairs. Which is often, because the door to the trailer opens right on them.

Tour stages usually start some time between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. local, so lunch has to happen on the fly. Shortly into the broadcast, a production assistant sneaks in and slides meals packed in covered cardboard trays under their chairs. They look good — a piece of beef, a carrot/cauliflower/broccoli mash, tomato and mozzarella salad, couscous, a piece of Brie, bread, an apricot, and zucchini.

At 12:49, a roughly minute-and-a-half ASO-produced video segment on French rider Julian Alaphilippe airs, giving the guys a brief break to scarf down their nicely-packaged meals. Keenan eats as much as he can before putting his tray back under his seat. McEwen keeps his on his lap as the segment ends. The two begin talking again, and McEwen slices into the beef as he notes that German rider Max Schachman is “having a very good season.”

The production village before Stage 3 of the 2019 Tour de France, finishing in Epernay.
Ryan Siu

Keenan is married to the job, almost literally.

“I spend about half the year in a hotel room,” he says. “My wife is hilarious; she says, ‘We’ve been married for 12 years, together for six.’”

Cycling is an almost year-round sport, and Keenan covers practically every level of it. He covers ASO’s biggest races from the ground — Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, and the Vuelta a España. The rest he covers remote at the Sydney office for SBS with McEwen, including the spring classics — like, Tour de Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Amstel Gold — the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the World Championships.

He started calling local velodrome races in Australia in 2003 as a way to stay in the sport. He claims his cycling career wasn’t much — “I was good at raising other people’s confidence” — but he enjoyed calling the races enough to try to make it his day job. He worked with legendary commentator Phil Liggett on Australian races, and Liggett eventually introduced him to ASO. In 2007, Keenan took over commentating the first half of Tour stages by himself, before handing off to Liggett and his partner, the late Paul Sherwen.

The experience was a good test of mettle. The first half of Grand Tour stages are notoriously dull, and Keenan was all alone in the booth. The Tour’s commentary production feels surprisingly barebones, and was even more so then, Keenan says.

“I just had a 30-second countdown, and the pictures come up, and you start talking. And then I would get a 10-second warning when I was to hand it over to Phil and Paul,” Keenan says. “So I felt quite lonely. That was one of the bigger challenges, you’re out there on your own, and wondering is anybody listening.

”But as soon as you made a mistake, that’s when you found out.”

Fans would sometimes tell him to be more “conversational.”

“Well that’s difficult when you’re on your own,” Keenan laughs. “And I couldn’t understand that feedback.”

But Keenan had no lack of enthusiasm, and was willing to do the homework necessary to buff out any rough edges. Liggett and Sherwen were instrumental in both his and McEwen’s careers, which Keenan felt was remarkable given how competitive the industry can be, and how few opportunities there are to commentate the highest level of the sport.

He took pointers from them. For the Tour, Liggett and Sherwen used a database they updated together throughout the season with notes about every rider. Now, Keenan keeps his own database that he deliberately refuses to fill with race results. He fills it with color, instead — riders’ personal and family histories, injuries, anecdotes. Keenan is obsessed with a well-composed broadcast.

”I used to put a note on the TV monitor — and it’s just ingrained now — but the first dot was ‘add value to the pictures,’” he says. “So don’t tell people what they’re seeing, but why they’re seeing it.

“Dot point No. 2 was ‘let it breathe.’ Sometimes it’s better just to be quiet and hear the crowd cheering from the side of the road. And the third dot point was ‘light and shape.’ Look for some variety. You can’t be serious all the time, you can’t have the same tone of voice all the time.”

Liggett and Sherwen were the two best mentors he could hope for. The two worked together for 33 years as the voices of the Tour de France. To English-speaking fans, their voices sounded like cycling, and it’s hard not to catch the same iconic cadences while listening to Keenan and McEwen. Like when the riders cross over from Belgium in Stage 3 and Keenan announces, with measured whimsy:

“And Robbie …”


“... The Tour de France …”

Pause again.

“... is in France.”

Sherwen passed away in his sleep last December, and his absence is acutely felt in the technical village, where broadcast crews from all over the world set up each day to cover the Tour. Inside the SBS production truck before Stage 3, producers reminisce about what he meant to them and the Tour. Jan — who works for Free Lens, a French independent audiovisual production company that SBS partners with for every Tour de France — says Sherwen took care to get to know them, that “he knew that it was a production. He was with the crew.”

Catherine Whelan, SBS’ head of sports programming, says one of Sherwen’s best qualities was that he was interested in everyone, and when he passed, stories about his generosity came from an overwhelming number of people, “not knowing that so many other people had these beautiful connections with him.”

“Our team, we still think, ‘he’s going to turn up.’ But that’s not the case,” Whelan says. “Everyone was affected very deeply. And the thing about Paul was everyone felt special to him, because he made everyone feel special.”

Outside the SBS production trailer before Stage 3 of the 2019 Tour de France.
Ryan Siu
Inside the SBS production trailer before Stage 3 of the 2019 Tour de France.
Ryan Siu

Keenan calls Sherwen the most influential mentor he’s had in commentating.

“One of the great things that I learned from Paul is, everybody makes mistakes,” he says. “You will deal with critics. But just remember that you’re the one that’s in the chair. Back yourself, and don’t try and be anybody else. Just try and be the first version of you, not the second version of somebody else.”

McEwen and Keenan became a team in 2015, calling the spring classics together in Sydney. McEwen is an all-time great sprint cyclist, winning 12 individual stages in both the Tour and Giro d’Italia, as well as two national road race championships across a 16-year professional career. He too worked his way up in the profession, at first doing spot segments, and then excelling enough to become a color commentator.

Like Sherwen did, McEwen analyzes every stage from the mindset of a racer — something he’s particularly suited fo, having a reputation as an undersized and tactical rider. He says that if not for Sherwen, “I probably wouldn’t be doing this today.”

“I enjoy it,” McEwen says. “I really like analyzing the race. I like following the action and commenting on it. It’s kind of like a game.”

“And he’s awesome at it,” Keenan adds. “He was really bad on Stage 1. He said the breakaway would get caught with 10K to go. It got caught with 9.6.”

Through working with Sherwen and Liggett in the past, and with Keenan now, McEwen says he’s learned “a helluva lot.”

“Not about what I should say, because I have my own idea of what I want to say about the race, and what I’m looking at,” McEwen says. “But more how broadcast works, and then fitting into a team that was an established team who didn’t need a third wheel. And then along with that how commentary really works to make it flow.”

SBS’ decision in 2017 to give their primary Tour call to Keenan and McEwen after three decades of Liggett and Sherwen incited backlash in Australia, but neither pair felt any apparent animosity. Sherwen, Keenan says, kept up a daily tradition, in which he’d drop a handful of peanut M&Ms on Keenan’s desk and silently walk away as Keenan sat prepping. Keenan would only see the hand.

“The M&Ms? I can get anywhere,” Keenan says. “But the hand I can’t ever get back.”

Keenan and McEwen’s partnership perhaps shouldn’t work as well as it does. And not just because they have clashing personality traits. Spending hours upon hours per day with the same person in close quarters for three weeks — no matter who that person is — would crack most people.

Including driving, the two sit two feet away from each other upwards of 10 hours a day, breathing each other’s air and cataloging each other’s tics.

Yet they claim that their relationship was fairly simple from the start. They didn’t spend much time spelling out ground rules, really. Just one:

“The night before our first Tour de France commentating together, we had dinner, and [Robbie] says, ‘OK Keen-o, I need you to know, I don’t do schedules,’” Keenan says. “[I said,] ‘Well, the race is going to start at a certain time.’”

Driving worked itself out fairly quickly. Unlike the riders, Keenan and McEwen don’t have lux buses to escort them 2,000-plus miles to and from host towns all around France.

“In terms of somebody to travel with, I do the driving if we’re on big highways and it’s going to be an easy evacuation,” Keenan says. “But Robbie doesn’t have the patience for my patience when we’re in the mountains. So if it’s a tricky evacuation, Robbie’s the one that drives, and that probably saves us about an hour each night.”

They do find ways to carve out personal space. The best time is in the morning before each stage, when both try to sneak in exercise. Keenan will alternately go for a run one day, and do three sets of the seven-minute workout circuit on YouTube the next. McEwen rides as many kilometers of the end of each stage as he can, which doubles as reconnaissance for when he commentates the finish.

Sometimes McEwen pulls up to the booth just minutes before the broadcast, which occasionally bites the team.

“There was one day our first year together, [Robbie] had to do a corporate ride beforehand. Because the ride went slower than expected, he got in about an hour and a half after I’d started,” Keenan says. “So the boring part of the stage … and he comes in smelling like someone that had a long shower, and he’s got the aftershave on, with a plate of food in front of him, and passes me a note saying, ‘hunger flat.’”

“He sat there for the next 15 minutes and ate lunch in front of me without commentating. It was just brilliant.”

Finding something endearing in each other’s foibles is a big reason Keenan and McEwen work so well together.

“There’s so much respect there,” Whelan says. “Matt has so much respect for Robbie as the champion racer that he is. Robbie has so much respect for Matt because he understands how hard the job is that he does. Matt is like a teacher and a mentor to him as well.”

Racing heats up with 50 kilometers to go in Stage 3. As the Tour’s publicity caravan — a parade of branded floats that goes out ahead of the riders every day — roars past the booth blasting top-40 electronic music, Keenan and McEwen are dug in, leaning forward to try to pick out on the monitor who is positioning themselves in the peloton to chase down the breakaway.

Belgian rider Tim Wellens makes a solo move out of the break and Keenan’s voice goes with him, crescendoing in volume and pace. Keenan lifts out of his seat and points at the screen, though the gesture won’t be seen by anyone. With under 43 kilometers to go, he stands up slightly and wiggles his hips to imitate Russian rider Ilnur Zakarin’s riding style, and at the same time knocks his cell phone charger off the desk.

Keenan is excellent at orchestrating with his voice. He reacts quickly to the action, and just as quickly downshifts when needed — sometimes within the same sentence. He sees Belgian rider Oliver Naesen pull up and shouts into the mic, “THIS IS A MECHANICAL FOR OLIVER NAESEN …” then immediately hits the brakes when he sees it’s a false alarm, saying in staccato rhythm, “... and he does. not. panic.”

With 30 kilometers to go, Keenan and McEwen fist-bump for the first time. The stage is turning out to be a firecracker. Wellens is still at the front, and though his chances of winning the stage seem slim, McEwen predicts that he can still take the next summit to earn King of the Mountains points if he has a minute and 30 seconds on the peloton.

Even in the midst of the action, they keep the quips up.

“That is the Abbey of Saint-Pierre,” Keenan says. “That is in fact the place where Dom Pérignon passed away in September of 1715.”

“The man who didn’t invent, but maybe perfected champagne,” McEwen says.

“The marketing of it,” Keenan adds.

With 16 kilometers to go, Keenan notes that Slovakian rider and cycling bad boy Peter Sagan, one of the pre-stage favorites, is looking comfortable, then he grabs McEwen’s shoulders and gives him a shake. The two began the day sitting a comfortable distance from each other, but have inched closer and closer over the last 34 kilometers, until their shoulders are nearly touching.

“[Sometimes] we start punching each other,” McEwen says after the stage. “We’ve both come home with bruises.”

With 15.7 kilometers to go, Alaphilippe, the French rider, bursts from the peloton and quickly catches Wellens to become the stage leader, and Keenan and McEwen are practically in each other’s laps. Keenan announces, “This is panache!” with a hard Aussie accent on the French pronunciation of the last syllable as osh. Their coordination becomes a wonder to behold.

They swear they never practice nonverbal communication, yet they never talk over each other, having developed a sense of the verbal cues that tell them when they can and can’t cut in. At 12.3 kilometers to go, Keenan rushes forward to say something, but cedes to McEwen.

The two have an entire language of hand signals. For example, while McEwen is talking with 3.1 kilometers to go, Keenan silently points to Alaphilippe’s on-screen time gap to the peloton and widens his hands to say to McEwen that Alaphilippe’s lead had just grown by a few seconds.

Just before the final turn, McEwen calls Alaphilippe’s move a “masterpiece.” It’s clear that no one will catch Alaphilippe on the stage, but he’s gunning for the yellow jersey as the overall race leader. Keenan makes the call, “to the cheers of the crowd, he looks across the shoulder. He’s racing for every second. With a bit of bobble in his legs, he’s had a spring in his step. And it’s Alaphilippe who wins!”

Alaphilippe needed 16 seconds to take over the maillot jaune. He gets 25, and McEwen says, “In-croyable from Julian Alaphilippe … he laid his cards on the table and said, ‘come and get me if you can —’”

Then he stops himself short. The cameras cut to Alaphilippe tearfully hugging a teammate, and Keenan throws his right hand up in a “pause” motion. For the next eight seconds, they let the picture speak for itself.