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….



  1. "Cycling, my underground renegade sport" Well said Mr Fries, Well said...see you at the cross races!

  2. I look forward to hearing the occasional, and I mean very very occasional announcing by you at PCF. Professional Cycling = Professional Entertainment. Nothing more nothing less. You're the best!