Le Tour de France: Live Stream it All Online

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Yesterday was a rest day for one of France's annual traditions, the mega-cycling race know as Le Tour de France that visits large swaths of France over a 20-day period. Riders used the day to catch their breath before shifting gears to today's punishing mountain stage that includes an aggregate 5000-meter vertical climb. 

Team mechanics and video technicians, on the other hand, spent the day tweaking their respective highly expensive kit. Whether it's £6,000 bicycles or equally expensive camera rigs, a rest day gives the mechanical- and broadcast-engineers a chance to tweak the media circus equipment for increased international attention over the Tour's final week. Between now and Sunday, attention heightens not only for the massive climbs in Pyrenees but also in anticipation of the final stage, on July 22, that includes racing past iconic Parisian symbols such as the Arc de Triomphe.

Growing up watching the Tour, I was in awe of both the riders' fortitude and the broadcast requirements that went in to covering more than 3,200 kilometers of cycling: from crashes in the hills to sprints to the finish in flatter land, broadcasters on several continents rely on a team of operators manning gyro-stabilized cameras in helicopters, roadside cameras in make-shift shelters, and even roving cameras. The latter is a more recent addition to the live coverage, teaming a camera operator, straddling the back seat of a motorcycle, with a highly skilled driver who needs to hold the motorcycle steady while the camera operator leans in for close-ups during downhill runs where even the leg-powered cycles reach speeds of 80 kilometers per hour. 

Watching this year's coverage, however, from the flat terrain of the northeastern Netherlands, it struck me just how the transition to digital video broadcasts have changed the game in positive and negative ways -- and how streaming delivery might be able to help fill in some of the gaps. 

On the positive side, the quality of HD broadcasts on Eurosport -- coupled with witty dialogue from a team of British and Irish announcers with Tour riding experience -- offers a perspective I'd missed watching John Tesh deliver monotone Tour coverage in the States.

On the other hand, I miss Tesh's music videos: five-minute snippets of his ambient electronica synthesizer compositions accompanies by video clips that condensed a whole day's Tour in to a montage to rival the "thrill of victory and agony of defeat" from ABC's Wide World of Sports. 

Tesh did these videos for two reasons, one practical and one commercial. In his day, the ability to live-broadcast from every angle of a typical 200 kilometer day's stage was virtually impossible. So the videos were both a recap of sections of the course that weren't part of the live stream, as well as a way to introduce cycling to American audiences that wouldn't sit through five hours of footage of long-legged, lean cyclists bunched together in shots that often only showed the helmets on their heads.

Even today's wall-to-wall coverage doesn't cover the whole of the experience, with the first half of a five-hour stage being covered as if live, but with only the initial rolling start and a few highlights ever used for broadcast. The start and highlights from the first half of the stage are edited in to a three to four minute synopsis that's shown when live coverage commences a few hours later.

As with lesser-known sports in the United States, or even the initial rounds of games during next month's Olympics, a significant amount of effort goes in to covering the events as though live broadcasts were a possibility. 

For the Olympics, there's been a successful awareness of the lucrative market for niche sports, with many of these sports streamed online while also being shown on alternate channels (Eurosport 2, for instance, in the EU).

Cycling has its own share of well-heeled fans. However, despite the fact that it appears a sizable international audience might watch a live stream of the first half of major stages, neither the Tour nor any other major cycling event has yet moved to stream the non-broadcast portions of major stages. 

A few years ago we covered an effort to use Adobe Flash Player to provide interactive coverage of a California bicycle race, where rider locations were overlaid on an interactive map. 

While this kind of simulated "Pole Position" overlay might augment a live stream -- or even a live broadcast -- it's not enough on its own to quench the cycling audience's thirst for extended live coverage. 

Think of cycling fans as a more refined version of those who tune in to NASCAR just for the Bristol night race for its crashes. 

After years of U.S. riders dominating the Tour, at least until Floyd Landis's 2006 win was negated due to a failed drug test, the Tour has to find ways to move beyond the scandal and grow its base audience. I contend that streaming the Tour might help do just this, even within a U.S. market that's reeling from the potential of well-known riders being caught up in performance-enhancement scandals.

If nothing else, what would Tour officials have to lose by putting the first half of each stage online, then driving audiences to the telly for the finish? 

Even if the streaming coverage were devoid of wall-to-wall announcing -- including the off-the-cuff commentary that accompanies chattering-class announcing during the long, flat stretches -- streaming the non-broadcast portion offers a cost-effective way to cater both to the rabid fan and the newcomer. 

Or to put it in NASCAR terms, it's catering to those who might tune in to just one race per year -- the Bristol Motor Speedway's August night race -- just because it's full of crashes.

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