Bespoken Word – comments on commentary

Evie Richards of Team England competes during the Women's Cycling Mountain Bike Cross-country Final of 2022 Commonwealth Games at Cannock Chase Forest on August 03, 2022
(Image credit: Justin Setterfield / Getty Images)

I was going to write something about e-bikes this week, but I’m currently sat here watching the Commonwealth Games on the BBC and the commentary is absolutely dreadful. Together with other changes due in World Cup racing next year that’s got me thinking about how important the quality of coverage is when it comes to repping mountain biking.

Shouting at the TV

I can see why someone at the global broadcast company that supplied the BBC footage just told the track cycling commentary team to drive out to Cannock Chase to cover the two races. It probably makes economic and logistic sense and it’s two less contracts to sign. Plus if you're not bothered by the existential question of whether commentary that falls over in the woods makes a noise or not then, meh, who cares. And even if it was important there’s certainly not enough width on the singletrack to get Clare Balding’s hair through the trees.

New Zealand's Samuel Gaze and team mate Ben Oliver during the Men's Cross-country mountain bike event on day six of the Commonwealth Games at Cannock Chase

New Zealand's Ben Oliver and Sam Gaze cruising to 2nd and 1st places at the 2022 Commonwealth Games MTB XCO (Image credit: Darren Staples / Getty Images)

OK so I'm a precious, pedantic professional Princess who loves talking tech and passionately preaching about riding at people almost as much as I love alliteration. But I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that having uninformed road/track specialists commentating on MTB really undermines the event quality. And that's particularly bitter sweet with what’s otherwise excellent coverage in terms of camera positions, interesting angles the amount of cameras and the course looks really good too. They're even making really good use of various drone shots, but the two droning into the mic clearly have no idea about the basics of mountain biking. They also clearly care less about it than the minimal participation perversion of hamstering round half a wooden play ball with no gears or brakes while wearing a sausage skin and a comedy pointy hat.

MTB Gogglebox

XC start line women

The UK National Women's Elite XCO Race had five times more riders (including four of the Commonwealth Games riders and proper commentators too (Image credit: Niall Henchoz)

So far halfway through the men's event they’ve missed a front wheel puncture that caused a corner stumble and immediate pit stop for an Australian rider right in front of the camera. They’ve become fixated on a flat rock at the bottom of a near vertical roller drop saying that’s why riders aren’t jumping it. Seriously? There’s no way you’d try and jump that to flat and then go straight into a 90-degree left unless you were a trials rider. 

They’re repeatedly saying ‘second group on the road’ when there’s not a single bit of Tarmac anywhere on course. Up until now they’ve completely misread the fact the two dominant New Zealanders, Sam Gaze and Ben Oliver are clearly just out for a nice training ride together way off the front of the race, not involved in some frustrating needle match. I mean, top World Cup racer Gaze is patting his team mate on the back and encouraging him every time they swap over the lead as they go over the start/finish lap, so it’s pretty damn obvious. 

I've been told about the families, teams, results and homes of some of the racers but the level of repetition is absolutely risible. It’s like someone has loaded basic competitor Wikipedia pages into the pull cord voice boxes of Woody and Buzz from Toy Story.

They haven’t once said anything about the bikes being used or tried to inform the general public – who are presumably the main audience here – about any of the aspects involved in mountain biking. They’re certainly not trying to make it sound fun or exciting either or even talk up how lovely the trails at Cannock Chase area. Apart from one brief section where they mostly concentrated on the fact that if you rode there you might be spotted by ‘talent scouts’. Really? 

This could be a golden chance to make the most of Mountain Biking’s three hours of iPlayer channel 7 glory, but the two on the mic are almost making me wish I was watching the mixed pairs bowl qualifying matches on channel 8.

Driven to drink 

And while I’m currently on three separate parallel ‘rant threads’ with other riders/racers about what a missed opportunity this is for our sport. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for massively experienced and established UK MTB race commentators to be watching this. People who genuinely love the sport, can animate it, explain it and promote it and have been doing if for decades. And from a professional point of view, I get that work is work and an extra 'bonus' day on the invoice is nice, but have some respect and step back when you know you'll be out of your depth. I mean that's why I haven't reviewed a DH bike since the original Santa Cruz V10 about two decades ago and I won't paraphrase other people's tests to pretend I've spent time on something just to fill the gap in a buyers guide or 'grouptest'.

And I know I've already said it but the fact that for once the physical coverage is actually excellent and the course is pretty good (if a little ‘green flow trail’ rich) must make it even more painful for the the potential commentators as it’s normally pretty poor. Oh hang on, there’s goes “on the road” again, as my co-ranter Amy has already said, “this would make a good drinking game”. In fact the whole choss ridden chat is enough to drive me to drink anyway.

Rob Warner

Rob Warner's passion and iconic phrases have become a signature part of Red Bull's DH coverage (Image credit: Red Bull Media Pool)

World Cup worries

And while the Commonwealth Games commentary might be about to get the mute button treatment here, that’s just two races that only people who were once forced to play cricket by imperial stormtroopers might care about. The fact that there are only 26 male and 8 female riders lining up for a shot at the Commonwealth gold confirms that it’s way back in terms of priority compared to the US and Canadian World Cup events that bookend this week. What’s more worrying is what might be about to happen when World Cup racing moves from Red Bull to its new home at Warner Bros / Discovery. 

Up until this point I’ve not been too worried as I’m a big fan of what GCN/Eurosport (who are the template for the Discovery model) have done for road race commentary/coverage. I was delighted to hear that my old magazine colleague Ric Mclaughlin and Glentress pioneer Emma Guy were going to be involved in the enduro coverage too. The news that MTB DH commentary icon Rob Warner will be staying with whatever Red Bull are doing and not moving to the new coverage team does make me worry though. TBH it’s not a major loss on the XC in terms of tech insight and I wouldn’t necessarily miss Bart Brentjens much either, but DH without Rob is going to be really odd.

While’s he’s had to calm down significantly since the crazy Freecaster TV days, Rob’s worked damn hard to become a properly pro commentator without losing his legendarily infectious passion for gravity riding and the racers he clearly knows personally. He has a decent go at communicating tech in layman's terms and he’s still coming out with gems like “busier than a wasp at a picnic” to  rack up alongside classic bellows like “LOOK AT THE TIME” and “HOW DOES DANNY HART SIT DOWN WITH BALLS THAT BIG?” too.

It sounds like qualification places for the final in DH are going to be halved again, though whether that’s to intensify and improve the coverage of the top 30 riders we don’t know yet. In fact, we don’t really know much yet all, apart from the fact the launch was pretty glossy and certainly promised a lot of positives. 

The future will be televised

So let’s try and channel some Warner-style enthusiasm ourselves and hope that Evie Richard's Commonwealth gold medal win and more comprehensive coverage and greater visibility on a bigger, much broader demographic stage worldwide via Warner Bros Discovery will have a really positive impact in terms of mountain biking growth, representation and recognition. Not that it’ll increase the already potentially dangerous pressure on trails/access and tolerance caused by new Covid and e-bike enabled riders. At which point we might be wishing they had employed the two commentators from the Commonwealth Games after all.

Guy Kesteven

Guy Kesteven has been working on Bike Perfect since its launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. He’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and he reviews MTBs over on YouTube.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg