Phil Liggett remembers the early days of Tour de France coverage in the United States, which would involve him traveling to Paris at the end of a stage, recording voiceovers all night and then rejoining the circuit for the next stage.
Those days, though, are ancient history. The Tour has been aired live in the U.S. since 2001 with Liggett providing play-by-play. The coverage has also evolved to include pre-race and nightly highlight shows.
The NBC Sports Group will air more than 350 hours of coverage across NBC, NBCSN and the NBC Sports Gold online streaming package. Despite the challenges of live coverage, Liggett said it is a lot easier compared to the weekend highlight shows that used to be the only way to view it.
“There is nothing that beats doing it live,” said Liggett, who will be covering his 47th Tour when it begins Saturday. “Sitting in the commentary box is like being in a 727. You can’t wait to take off and see where things land at the end of a stage.”
As technology has evolved, broadcasters have found it easier to add new elements. This year’s Tour will include cameras on the bike of up to eight riders that can transmit live. They have been tested the past four years, but would only show footage at the completion of a stage.
Cameras can be mounted under the rider’s saddle and on the front under the handlebar. The cameras could provide additional insight into late-race moves or crashes.
Steve Porino will also have a camera focused on him as he reports during each stage while traveling aboard a motorcycle on the course.
Commentator Christian Vande Velde will ride several key stages in advance, wearing special raptor sunglasses to preview critical course points. The sunglasses will also show Vande Velde’s speed, how much energy he is using and the rate of pedaling. The sunglasses utilize the same technology U.S. fighter pilots have in the visors of their helmets for telemetry.
NBC will also use a virtual graphics Telestrator, which will produce augmented reality graphics that will allow commentators to move around and analyze cyclists. Depending on its use, it is the type of technology that could be extended to coverage of other sports.
Joel Felicio, who is the coordinating producer for NBC, said planning for the Tour begins in October. Most of the video that Felicio uses comes from France TV Sport, which provides the main feed, but his challenge each year is figuring out how to introduce new elements to the broadcast.
Felicio also has a challenge that few others have, which is producing live broadcasts from 21 different locations.
“There’s trying to figure out commercials, when to go to commentary and using different elements but not missing the key move. There’s also trying to keep everyone interested for six hours,” he said.
This will be the first Tour since 1985 that Liggett has not done with Paul Sherwen by his side. Sherwen died Dec. 2 at age 62 due to heart failure. Bob Roll moves into the commentary box along with Jens Voigt, who competed in the Tour from 1998 through 2014
Chris Horner, who competed in the Tour seven times, will also debut as an analyst. Horner is the most recent American Grand Tour champion after capturing the Tour of Spain in 2013.
“I think this is the most open race in years,” Liggett said. “There are a lot of young riders that have the potential of this being one of the best Tours in recent memory.”
This story has been corrected to clarify that NBC Sports Group is airing more than 350 hours of coverage instead of 250.