Why I get up at five a.m.

25 04 2010

Being a fan of pro cycling can be a test of fortitude.

First, there are the doping scandals. Because of the cheats, every unlikely or heroic performance is eyed with suspicion. I’m still bitter about Floyd Landis’ fall from grace after his epic ride in stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France.

And then there’s the barbs from friends who question my faith in the sport every time a doper is exposed or fesses up to his sins.

The list of riders selected for doping control at the end of Stage 13 in the 2009 Giro d'Italia.

Then there’s the challenge of following the races.

Sites like cyclingnews and velonews are great for race previews and post-race analysis, and pezcyclingnews does a great job capturing the atmosphere and hubbub surrounding a pro race, but the real thrill is being able to watch the races.

TV is pretty much a non-starter. OLN, the Canadian version of Versus, seems steadfast in its belief that the entire pro cycling season begins and ends with the Tour de France, despite my countless email campaigns over the years to convince them otherwise and pick up the Cyclism Sundays coverage from their US cousin.

That leaves the internet, which can be a bit of a crap shoot at times.

For years I subscribed to cycling.tv. Their service started with free webcasts of Belgian semi-classics and interminable loops of the Tour de Fasso. As they started adding more significant races, they started charging a subscription fee. But being able to watch legendary races like Paris-Nice, Amstel Gold and the Tour of Flanders live, with entertaining and insightful english commentary made it worth ever penny, even as the fee inflated from $30 to $100; watching Paris-Roubaix for the first time as it happened almost brought tears to my eyes.

Heck, even the constant technical challenges as they re-engineered their site, usually just before a big race like the Giro d’Italia didn’t shake my loyalty.

But the past couple of years, cycling.tv seems to have lost its way. They promoted races for which they couldn’t secure webcast rights; big gaps started to appear in their schedule. Even worse, their customer service went down the tubes. They implemented negative-option billing meaning unless you told them you didn’t want to renew your subscription, you were debited annually, sometimes twice. And they routinely ignored inquiries about their diminished coverage, billing issues and technical glitches.

I hung on for as long as I could. I believed in the concept, only the execution was faltering.

But when significant races like Paris-Nice disappeared this year or were reduced to audio only coverage (seriously, cycle racing on radio is almost as bad as golf on radio), and they refused to post a schedule of races they would show, I pulled the plug.

That leaves me scrambling around the web on race mornings, looking for stable feeds, ideally with english commentary. Sites like cyclingfans and steephill are great for compiling links to the various feeds that are out there. But those feeds are often geo-restricted, meaning you can’t watch a broadcast from Belgian tv unless you are in Belgium. And the rogue web re-casters who capture those feeds and make them available worldwide on their own sites can be shut down as quickly as they’re rooted out by slavish lawyers enforcing copyright laws.

Here’s where the old world of traditional broadcasting clashes with the new reality of the world wide web. Sure networks like Eurosport, RAI or Sporza pay the UCI  and race organizers good money for exclusive rights to broadcast races to tv viewers in the countries they serve, but if they’re also putting those feeds up on their websites, where’s the harm in letting someone in a faraway country access it? Chances are they can’t otherwise see it, that’s why they’re trying to watch on the web; so it’s not like they’re scalping a significant audience from other rights holders.

And making races available to as many people as possible, as easily as possible, can only build the sport, as well as loyalty to those providers; what I wouldn’t give to be able to watch Eurosport HD on my plasma, rather than a compressed stream in a five inch window on my Mac. Some of those newfound fans might eventually travel to attend races they’d only seen on the web, boosting tourism and fattening the bank accounts of official souvenir vendors and race sponsors.

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