In 2017, 10 years after commentating on the Tour de France for the first time, Matthew Keenan became one of the voices of the global feed for the race. He’ll be back at the microphone this July as he calls the Tour alongside Robbie McEwen.
The commentary of cycling is a big deal, at least it receives plenty of attention during the month of July. There’s often talk about the action on social media but much of the online interaction during the Tour relates to what has been said by the likes of Matthew Keenan, Robbie McEwen, and the many others who have the responsibility of explaining the race to a broader audience.
The partnership brings a strong Australian accent to the Tour and it reminds us that it’s not just the riders who are making cycling more global. It wasn’t too long ago that only two men were responsible for the majority of commentary for the English-speaking world. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen continue to talk about cycling but at Le Tour in 2018 they’ll do so only for the US broadcasters NBC.
Keenan and McEwen provide the call for SBS as well as a host of other networks around the world. For several years they were effectively the warm-up act for Phil and Paul but it’s different now: they are the main commentary team.
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With 12 days to go before the 2018 Tour de France, we caught up with Keenan to find out a little about how he manages the task of talking about cycling to a global audience.
Matthew Keenan and Robbie McEwen (above)… two Australians now calling the Tour de France for the world feed.
Photo: Rob Arnold
Lessons from the early years…
“This is the 12th Tour that I’ve covered. The first one was in 2007 this will be the 12th one, the second where it’s just Robbie and I covering it together as the lead commentators – and it’ll be our third one working on the Tour de France together.
“Calling solo is a hard gig for both the commentator and the audience, particularly in a sport like cycling where it’s a long-format sport. The audience is sure to get sick of your voice when it’s just that one voice all of the time.
“I’m of the view that in cycling, given it is a long-format sport, that we should actually have more of a rotation and a turn-over within the commentary box like what we hear in cricket. It gives fresh perspective, different voices for the audience to listen to, and allows the commentators to go away and freshen up and be fully in command for the key parts of the race.
“With commentary, like anything, practice is key. Commentating is the same as any other pursuit in life; it’s about continually looking to try and improve.
“Some of the key lessons are not getting too caught up in stats and facts and those sorts of things, and just telling the story – letting the pictures tell the story somewhat – and knowing when to shut up… pausing at the right time. Having somebody to work with to be able to do that actually makes it a lot easier.
“It’s when nervous and feel under pressure that you end up actually talking too much. It’s when you’re really calm and comfortable in that seat that you can have the greater level of composure in your delivery.”
Calm or hype: camomile tea or coffee?
“I drink neither during the broadcast, so that I don’t have to duck out and go to the bathroom too often – particularly when it’s a stage that can be six or seven hours. Fluid intake is part of the strategy.
“I generally drink at night but don’t have much to drink, other than an early morning coffee, until after the stage is finished.
“The whole idea is that you go into the commentary box in a position where you won’t need to go to the bathroom for a few hours, so you can keep drinking a little bit as you go along, so you don’t have that dry mouth feeling.
“An important part of the job is getting the hydration right!”
Managing commentary on your commentary
“With anything that you do in a public sphere, you’ve got to accept the fact that it’s going to get public scrutiny. It’s just the nature of the beast. People who sign up for politics, sign their entire family up for politics.
“If you’re one of the athletes, you’re out there in a public space and you’re getting criticised as well; the same goes for the commentators. And it goes back to the theme that… well, at least you’re in the arena having a go.
“There is the challenge of not getting too distracted by any of that stuff – whether it’s positive or negative – and just focussing on what you’re trying to do. You do your best and some people like it, some people don’t like it.
“At the end of the day, we’re not solving the mysteries that will stop people dying from cancer – we’ve involved in the entertainment industry. And it’s about trying to convey something which is my passion, cycling, and it’s a real privilege to have that public voice on something that I love. I hope that people come away from it, the majority at least, being more engaged with cycling than what they were beforehand.”
Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett (above) – still calling the action, albeit for the US audience in 2018.
Taking over from Phil and Paul
“It was a real privilege to get to fill those shoes in some respects… if, of course, we’ve even begun to fill them. They did this job for more than 40 years. I think Phil, this year, will be covering the Tour for the 45th; Paul has ridden it seven times and has been commentating on it since 1986. They’re an institution – they are a key part of all the history of key cycling moments on the road in the English-speaking world for such a long period of time. And they’re brilliant.
“Phil is one of the greatest broadcasters of all time, not just in cycling but across all sports. And, of course, people are going to miss them.
“Those who are in the US are lucky enough to still hear Phil and Paul and they’re still magnificent.
“For me to get a chance to sit in the commentary box next to those guys is a real honour because I’m like everybody else who is probably reading this interview; I grew up with them being the voices of the Tour – being the voices of all cycling, really.”
Commentator or a journalist?
“I’m a commentator. A journalist is more someone who is doing the investigative reporting and so on. I see myself more as a commentator than a journalist or reporter.”
How did he come to the job?
“I came to commentary through racing. I started racing in my mid-teens in 1990. Before then I wanted to race for a few years, but my parents weren’t keen on letting me race because the guy who got me into the sport was tragically killed when he was riding to work; his daughter was my childhood sweetheart.
“Through racing I spent a couple of seasons in Europe, finished in the top 10 at the national championships… those sorts of things. I was a reasonable domestic cyclist but was no good at the next level, internationally. I was nowhere near good enough to make it as a pro – it was a far-off dream that I chased nonetheless.
“I came back to Australia to go to university and get a real job. I wanted to stay involved in the sport, so I applied for a job as a co-commentator at Hisense Arena… at that point, with the ambition of one day commentating on the Jayco-Herald Sun Tour – and things just blossomed from there.
“I got lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and I made the most of those opportunities. Quite a few of the key ones, actually, were generated by both Phil and Paul. I’ve been really lucky and I’m indebted to those guys.
“Before I worked for ASO at the Tour de France, there was David Basheer. Before him there was a guy from New Zealand, John Caldwell – he did that role for one year.
“I got a call to go and commentate on the Tour of Qatar in February of 2007 and they said, ‘Treat this as an audition to do that role that David Basheer had done in 2006… as the lead-up to when Phil and Paul came on at the Tour de France.’
“Obviously I jumped at that chance. I didn’t think I did a very good job because I was so nervous at the prospect of getting a chance then to commentate the Tour… then I got called back to do Paris-Nice, then I got called up to do the Tour itself.
“I spent 10 years in that apprentice, understudy role.
“David Basheer’s first love is football – or soccer – and, as a result of following his passion, he’s now the main broadcaster for Australia at the World Cup, calling all the Australian games alongside Craig Moore. I think, as a combination, those two have been absolutely brilliant and I’ve really enjoyed listening to them.
“I think, as a broadcaster, you’ve got to commentate on sports that you care about otherwise you’ll be completely exposed – because the people who are watching, they really care. And if you don’t care at least as much as them, you’ll be shown up as a fake.
“I go into cycling with as much passion as anybody who is watching it and I absolutely love the sport and that’s why it’s the main sport that I commentate on.
“There has been opportunity for me to commentate on other sports and I haven’t done it because I haven’t cared enough about those other sports.
“Triathlon, I’ve commentated on that quite a bit and I really love it. And I’d love the opportunity to commentate on tennis because that’s my second favourite sport actually. I also play a lot of tennis so that’s something I’ve love to do.
“But in Melbourne [where Keenan lives] AFL is the dominant sport, and probably the best way to make money as a broadcaster. But I don’t love it the same way that I love cycling or triathlon or tennis… so I’m not doing it based on what’s going to provide the best economic outcome. What’s the one that I love the most? It’s unquestionably, cycling.”
Keenan has been calling the Tour de France since 2007.
Taking cues from other commentators
“You learn something from every commentator that you listen to but those play-by-play type sports, like football – all the football codes – are vastly different to cycling because you get an opportunity to have regular crescendos. You have goals on a regular basis that you can come up for, whereas with cycling you don’t have the same pattern of commentary.
“Sports that you can listen to which are the long-format style includes cricket and baseball; you can learn quite a bit from them.
“I love listening to Martin Tyler commentating on his own about cycling. There are broadcasters right across the board who you listen to… one of those who I got some tips from was an American who just does the LA Dodgers games. He retired last year but he usually commentated on his own and I was really interested to hear how he did that. What he did was he had his statistician in the room with him and he commentated as if he was just talking to him alone.
“His approached helped make the audience more informed and the more informed you are, the more you enjoy the coverage.
“When it comes to ego, that applies to all aspects of life. There’s a great radio show in Melbourne on a Saturday morning which has a segment that is called ‘The third-person self-congratulator’. It picks up all the journalists or commentators that insert themselves into the story.
“It’s done in gest and it’s quite fun; one of the hosts of the show has won the title – the ‘Third-person self congratulator’.
“I think in my role as the broadcaster, as opposed to the ex-athlete, it can never ever be about me. I’m just commenting on the sport. And I hope my social media feed reflects that. I don’t do social media updates on what I’m doing, there’s no photos of me generally. It’s basically what I’m covering that I want to talk about… not me.”
Working with Robbie McEwen
“It buys you some goodwill having a guy like Robbie in the commentary box with you because he brings instant credibility to it. He also brings phenomenal insights.
“One of the strengths of Robbie as a bike rider was how smart he was and he has been able to apply this to commentary – plus, he’s got that blasé attitude that some sprinters just naturally have and it means he’s no fussed if someone agrees with him or disagrees with him. He’s going to have his opinion regardless. He’s also got the maturity to acknowledge when he’s wrong.
“I think he’s a brilliant broadcaster. He was a fantastic cyclist and I think he’s almost the equal as a broadcaster and he’s a treat to work with.”
After his racing career, McEwen quickly adapted to a different job in cycling…
Talking about chateaux or countryside…
“Before the Tour we get a book which covers every single stage. It’ll have a reference point: ‘X amount of kilometres to go…’ and a little it’ll have a little bit of history on each of the landmarks. It’s at the discretion of the French broadcaster as to how long they spend focussing on those attractions on the route – it might be a really long time if there’s nothing happening in the race, or they might skip over them altogether if there’s a lot of action.
“For a lot of people who watch the Tour, they’re watching it for the scenic elements of the race. That’s something I’m not very good at talking about as a broadcaster and I’m trying to improve. It’s something that is really important for the Tour de France.
“I’m there primarily because I love the sport but I also love the fact that we do get to travel and cycling takes us to these amazing places and that is part of the appeal.
“The World Cup is great; that’s on in Russia at the moment, but I haven’t seen anything of Russia – I’ve just seen a whole bunch of football stadiums.
“The same with tennis: Rolland Garros was fantastic but I didn’t see much of Paris when the French Open was on. The same with Wimbledon, we won’t see much of London…
“That’s what separates cycling from all those other great sports – it takes you through the countryside – so we’ve got to get that stuff right as well. That’s something that I’ve always been working on and I’ll be working on it forever.”
Relationship with riders…?
“I really try not to become close with the riders. As a journalist or a commentator, you need that professional distance because invariably there are going to be moments when your commentary might be critical or it might be glowing but it shouldn’t be influenced by your relationship with them.
“When riders retire, well that changes a little bit. But I don’t think there’s any value in a journalist or a commentator trying to be friends with any of the riders.
“My relationships since I’ve started calling the Tour de France haven’t really changed at all. There are some riders who I knew through my time in cycling; Cadel Evans, for example, he and I rode for the same club when we were kids, so I had that pre-existing relationship with him before I started commentating. Simon Gerrans… his wife and I started racing at Northcott velodrome on a Thursday night so I had a pre-existing relationship there.
“You see riders come up through the juniors so you may have a soft-spot for them and want to see them successful but you certainly can’t get too close.”
Managing talk about doping…
“It’s ongoing isn’t it? The fact that we’ve still got this issue hanging over the Chris Froome case with the Salbutamol, it feels as if the doping conversation is never going to go away. And it will never go away because people will invariably always try and take a shortcut.
“I just wish we were better at solving these cases far more quickly so we’re not in a position where there’s a cloud over the race, before it even starts, as to what will happen with Chris Froome – if he does win, or if he doesn’t win, what’s the outcome?
“I just have doping fatigue. It’s one of the great challenges of the sport and it breaks my heart that it keeps happening in cycling.”
The challenge of commentating with an asterisk
“As we approach the Tour of 2018, there is a caveat on everything you say about Chris Froome. And if you don’t say it, well, you’re remiss in your job. And if you say it too often, well, you’re making a mistake as well. So, getting the balance right is going to be difficult.
“Froome shouldn’t be racing. The case should have already been solved. He should have been handed down his suspension which would have been somewhere consistent with Diego Ulissi and Alessandro Petacchi, who were in the sort of the same situation with their offense as what Froome has done, and the Giro d’Italia would have a completely different outcome.
“The case should have been resolved by now.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold