Thursday, September 30, 2010

Some Theories on Announcing

Sleep is the ultimate elixir.

The mood is elevated and the stress is coming down thanks to patching together some sleep last night.

Yesterday, with Cancellara winning his fourth world time trial title, it finally hit me the stunning grandeur of this experience. I think it hit me when I saw fans hanging on fences to get a glimpse of the man they call “Spartacus.”

For so long, I’ve lived by the mantra of “it’s only a bike race” to calm myself when announcing.

Anxious to simply get working, I hit the office about 8:30 yesterday, grabbed a start list and started studying as much as I could. My crew call was for noon, with the race set to start at 1 (or 13:00).

I got there at 10 a.m. and found Bill and Greg, our sound guys. They simply had the feeds running on the television monitors and already a crowd of about 500 folks were around the finish line. I had burned some CDs.

The first thing about my announcing attitudes is that I learned as much from Joe Strummer as I learned from Phil Liggett. When The Clash played the Harvard Square Theater, Strummer arrived to discover a movie theater totally inappropriate for his show. Her personally removed the first 11 rows of seats and put them in the alley. After the show, he personally put them back.

The lesson is that you do what needs to be done. And you need to be comprehensive about what makes the production work. As a result I’ve been on ice-over trusses, up in trees, under stages, and up high in ladders. I’ve suffered hits to the head, cuts, bruises, some mild electric shocks and nearly suffered a self-immolation on Lemon Hill trying to fix a generator.

You see the day before I noticed they had no music playing. None.

So I asked Bill what the rules were for music or such.

“They didn’t tell me anything, really,” he said, appearing somewhat bewildered.
“So we can do what we want?” I asked.

He just smiled.

This venue has probably 100 speakers. More speakers are quieter but you can really impact a crowd. I realized I needed not one, but two wireless microphones. One at the finish, one at the start, to make it all work.

Working with Bill, I put on a bed of music and started testing the wireless mics for their range. I also started live conversations with every course marshal, stage worker, security guard and timing official. In short, I was getting passports from everybody who works so hard to make this event happen. When the crowds thickened up, these guys all gave me carte blanche.

My colleague is Rik Fulcher, a really pro announcer who knows loads of material on cycling. He’s THE announcer in Australia, which is a cycling mad country.

He arrived on time and started writing down bio info on everybody to race. When I told him I would prefer to be in the street, he offered some resistance, noting he would not be able to hear me. I looked to a pair of headphones and said I’d be right back.

Bill smiled and said, he could put the feed right into those phones. I returned and said, you’ll be able to hear me in there.

Rik had the splits, the scoreboard, the television feed, and the bios. I had a start list. Together we made a great pair.

But WAY too many announcers believe it's about WHAT you say. Like it's some high-speed trivia pursuit contest. Trust me, there is always some guy in the crowd who knows more than you. Our job is to inform, educate, and then entertain, and in that order. Many can do the first two elements better than I.

So I choose to make it about HOW you say it. How much inflection you can bring to it. The announcer licenses the audience to respond accordingly.

Us talking about the television feed over the PA meant we would be simply duplicating what the television guys were doing. In short, we were putting ourselves out of a job. So while Rik handled the inside stuff, I could talk about stuff NOT on the cameras. And I could do what I love to do: work the crowd. I goofed on accents, I made fun of Australian rules football (Magpies versus Saints in the Grand Final Saturday, mind you) and I ridiculed their lack of enthusiasm….Until it all changed.

You also have to make them like you before they will listen to you. A simple voice over the speakers simply becomes a sound, like the adult squawking in Charlie Brown cartoons.

Eye contact with the crowd is extremely important. Working with kids, with families, with riders, with directors - especially when you can make some grouchy East European team boss wink and smile - changes the tenor of the relationship. The crowd then hangs on your every word. Then you can ask them do things. Like .... freakin' get excited.

So those are a few of my theories on announcing...Just a few. I'm holding some secrets back.

The way this time trial worked is like nothing else I’ve ever seen….and despite the UCI’s peculiar ability to sanitize most events, this format proved fantastic for the fans. The riders started about 300 meters from up the hill from the finish, leaving at two minute intervals, and completing two laps on a 22.4 k circuit. This is where it got cool. They sent them off in batches of 10. After the first 10 left they would not start the next batch until the top of the hour, leaving at 13:00, 14:00, 15:00 and 16:00 hours.

Confused? So was I.

Then it became beautifully apparent. The guys came through to start the second lap. After the last guy went through, the next batch of ten would start. So as I was calling the start ramp, Rik was calling the finishes. The thing worked miraculously for as I could work the crowds on the arrival of so many great riders – Sylvain Cavanal, Bert Grabsch, Michael Rogers, David Zabriskie, et al - before the cameras got there.

So as I Rogers roared to a best time of day finish, Cancellara entered the stage with the magnificence of a lion. The whole thing electrified the crowds.

So you know how the racing went; read Velo News or another site of your choosing. Millar rode the ride of his life but Cancellara simply crushed the event to win his fourth world title.

Rik and I pulled off a pretty production, despite the fact I made about three major mistakes. Just the mis-calls that happen and nobody seemed to mind…it’s just this stage is so big. There were probably 30,000 people there for a Thursday afternoon time trial.

Walking around the podium ceremony and ensuing scrum with fans and media, I finally registered just how big of a deal the world championships could be. At one point, as I am conditioned to do in America, I thought there had to be a guy somewhere that could beat Cancellara.

“Like where?,” I asked myself. “Jupiter?”

This is the best of the best on the entire planet. And then I realized why fans hung on the fences simply to get a glimpse, a photo, an autograph of Cancellara. Cycling, my underground renegade sport, actually had a serious crowd control problem.

And I had this freakin’ all-access badge to cut through all the gates and security. And because of my passport established earlier, I simply walked through with a smile.

I was expected at a UCI gala in Melbourne. But the ride for the event never materialized.

Honestly, I was delighted on behalf of my body and my voice to skip the thing.
Despite going face down into the pillows last night at 8 (or should I say 20:00?) into a deep slumber, I awoke at 11:30 (23:30) to sheer terror.

I have so many nagging details of my life – namely Providence, which is next weekend – which are making it difficult to shut off the engines of my brain. And my body is totally confused between a three-hour time change to Las Vegas, then back two hours to Wisconsin, then the18-hour time change to Australia that is has simply decided to sit down like some mule and refuse to move of the Eastern Daylight Savings Time. I sat up for four drowsy hours, having no sleep meds, booze, or any chemical means to shut things down.

Finally, about 2 in the morning, I got it under control and went back down. I awoke at 5:30, having put together two patches of 3.5 hours. Not enough….but enough.
This whole thing seems glamorous, but it honestly is not.

Today, with the U23 road race, I’ll bring it down a notch.

But just a notch….


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Geelongings in Australia


First off, let’s get this straight. Australia can be a cold place. I am looking out over the Pacific Ocean, having seen the sky melt from ink to purple to pink to blue…. And I’m convinced that I should be in a state of delight.
I write this from a Sheraton on the harbor of Geelong, which is bike crazy about the UCI World Road Championships where I’m serving as the UCI’s official announcer. Beats me why a bunch of folks who speak French want to fly a guy from Boston to Australia to talk about bikes. But they did and I’m honored.
Outside it’s about 45 degrees, but warming under the sun. Inside there’s a great buffet. Graham Watson is sitting at the table next to me.
And this is all so very, very, incredible. They gave me an “infinity” badge….meaning I get a little emblem on it that is not a numeral but the sideways eight…We’re talking all-freaking access.
Let me get to the candy to keep you reading.
This is my life since Sept. 20:
Fly to Las Vegas, room at the Palazzo large enough to hold a small criterium, and getting to call a thrilling edition of ‘Cross Vegas. After working the floor for three days, I fly to Madison, Wisc., chatting with Swiss pro Christian Heule and Velo-News editor Neal Rogers on the way. Room at McGovern’s (too small to hold my suitcase, let alone me and Will Matthews and I) in Sun Prairie, Wisc., an adorable town. I call two of the seminal cross races in U.S. history with Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers simply crushing a world class field in the opening rounds of the Greenware USGP. After a night in Chicago with Chris Dimmick and his wife, Laura, I board a flight to Australia.
Have I not dropped enough names and places for you? It gets better.
I arrived yesterday in Melbourne after 24 hours of flying – which is hard to fathom but true - only to be whisked away by Colin Paul, a great fellow, in a UCI-badged Skoda to Geelong, about 70 k away.
Australia is stunning. Imagine putting the Netherlands in California. And despite all the men looking like total rugby bad-asses, everybody is so kind.
So why am I lonely and cold and depressed?
For starters there is the simple element that every parent can understand: hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.
“What?,” you ask…..”Richard Fries, tired and lonely?”
I arrived to find not a soul who knows me. Most of the organizers speak French. I go to the finish line to start announcing but the place is in a state of fenced-off lock-down. This massive garrison is bracing for an onslaught of 500,000 cycling fans. But for this Wednesday time trial a crowd of maybe 6,000 had gelled along the start-finish stretch.
After receiving six different instructions on where to go, I walk 10 blocks back down the hill – right where Colin had dropped me off initially – to find the office. I finally charm my way past a few desks and get my accreditation. Finally I stumble back up the 10 blocks to get to the announcing booth.
Throughout all this I’m listening to a pair of Australian voices with minimal inflection. I know we think of these folks by way of the ‘Croc Hunter and Crocodile Dundee…but there was none of that. And there is no music. It’s like an event in Oz but you have no idea where the hell the Wizard is actually standing…we only hear the voice.
I finally get access to the cage around the booth. The effort cost me 90 minutes.
When the door swings open to the Tissot timing box the visual is akin to the bridge of the death star in Star Wars. (Makes me wonder how Ted Bowles on his own could start, finish, and accurately time the entire Florida state time trial championships with nothing more than a folding chair, orange cone, clipboard and bullhorn. (Of course he did have Jean Bowles by his side.)
What first impacted my senses, however, was the assault on my olfactory senses. Never have I been hit by a communal case of halitosis such as this. Twelve men and one UCI female had been in this tin box for several hours.
Not one said hello. And nobody wanted to speak English.
Remember that I said “lonely.”
Finally I spotted a friendly face, a young man from the UCI who actually liked my announcing at the ‘Cross Worlds. He smiled widely and showed me to the announcer.
I wound my way through all this electronic spaghetti and computer screens to find Rick Fulcher. His knowledge of cycling is encyclopedic. And we have this massive amount of data on three screens – splits, bios, and the live television feed – to complement the digital boards and Jumbotrons on the street.
I sat down just in time announce the last half of the Under-23 men, including the arrival of Taylor Phinney.
Despite my best efforts to pronounce the name “TAY-lor” the Aussies – via live, TV, and radio – the name keeps coming out of their mouths as “TY-lor.”
Boom. He sets the fastest time, knocking an Aussie, Luke Durbridge, out of the lead. He fends off a German, Marcel Kittel, who ended up in third. Phinney wins his third rainbow jersey , providing all American cycling fans with an immediate replacement for Lance Armstrong.
But in the booth, the experienced seemed sterile for me. About the only thing I could draw satisfaction from was that I saw Wittel riding – and without any splits or bios declared him one of the fastest kids on the course. And he was.
Part of cycling is to appreciate the basic element of riding well. Like watching Tiger Woods swing a golf club or Kobe Bryant stroke a jumper. There is far too little appreciation – and articulation – of what makes a rider smooth. We are too focused on power measurement and heart rates and gear ratios.
Tomorrow I’m going to talk a little bit about my beliefs on announcing, some of which are why I’m here.
We knock out the U23 podium – a meticulously formal affair – and take a break. From there we launch into the women’s event. They alter the course for the women. Where the u23 men did two laps on a 15.9 k circuit, the gals did a single lap of 22.8 k.
Again we spout off a lot of data but I get to talk about Evelyn Stephens, who won Fitchburg in her rookie year of elite racing. She blasted out the fastest time only to be knocked down a spot by the legendary Jeannie Longo of France. But the big guns fired with Emma Pooley of Great Britain going a lot faster. Amber Neben got close, but New Zealand’s Linda Villumsen bested her to sit in second. The final rider to start, Judith Arndt of Germany, would push her down by two seconds to snare the silver.
Whereas the Aussie announcer did the u23 podium, I got to do the women’s ceremony.
Then it’s done. And I’m alone: alone for dinner; alone in a room; alone and tired. And it’s cold.
So I collapse into bed at 7 p.m. I might as well be in Columbus, Ohio. I’m without my home; my coffee shop; my family. I’m homeless.
My phone starts ringing at 1 a.m. by some East Coast folks who know not where I’m at. And with that I’m awake, haunting the lobby and catching up on my e-mail – just about all of which is bad news – and setting my teeth on writing this horrible blog entry.
Finally the lobby blooms to life with all that if fabulous about cycling. Italian, Dutch, and French mix with the Aussie English.
A UCI marketing person takes pity on me and spends a few minutes at my table. I discuss my breaking from tradition, putting on some music, and getting out of that booth with the “publique”.
“I think that’s what they want,” she replies.
Game on.
I’ll tighten up the blog entry tomorrow. I’ll let you know what happens. I promise.
And I owe you some reportage from the ‘cross scene too.
Thanks for indulging me.