For years, the Flemish public broadcaster has had an internationally acclaimed, well-oiled machine working hard behind the scenes to produce excellent, comprehensive coverage of cycling races. Shooting an entire cycling race... How does that work, precisely? (The original story dates from before the Covid crisis: April 5, 2019.)
Miles of cables
The VRT crew starts early. One day before the race, all of the equipment is installed, under the leadership of the chief technician. Staff run miles of cables and test all of the equipment a first time, in order to guarantee that things will go well during the race.
Chris Willem, Chief Technician & Project Leader: “I make sure that all of the trucks are in place and that all of the equipment is present. If I don’t have much work to do during the race, that means that everything is working well and that there are no technical problems.”
Near the finish line, the Connection & Transmission team puts up an impressive mast measuring 30 meters tall. This mast ensures that the signal makes it from the production truck to the VRT in Brussels. From there, the footage is sent to viewers’ living rooms.
The day of the race
On the day of the race, approximately sixty (or for big races, two or even three times that many) VRT employees gather around the coffee machine. There, they hold a crew call, under the leadership of the director. He emphasizes, in the first place, the importance of safety, both for his colleagues and the riders.
Gunther Herregodts, Director: “In order to be well prepared, I cycle or drive around the race course ahead of time myself. During the crew call, we discuss, among other things, what footage the helicopters definitely need to shoot and which fringe activities could be interesting to show to viewers."
After the crew call, the VRT employees get into gear, and they all take their places. The race will begin soon, and the team shoots the starting line, which they can later use as a starting point in the live broadcast. That way, they can test all of the cameras and equipment one last time before going live on the air.
The beating heart: the production truck
During the race itself, the beating heart of the project is in the production truck. Inside, the director, vision mixer, video shader, LSMers (the people who slow the footage down) and the producer.
Gunther Herregodts, Director: “Cycling races are unique, because they are broadcast entirely, or almost entirely, live. Like the riders, our personnel are hard at work for 7 to 8 hours during the broadcast. That takes a lot of energy and requires a good, trusting relationship with one another.”
Bob Vlaeminck, Video Shader: “Following the race would distract me too much from my duties as a video shader. I focus on the quality of the footage, rather than what there is to see.”
There is a separate space in the production truck set up especially for sound. There, VRT colleagues simultaneously mix the sound from the microphones on the motorcycles and those of the commentators. They also make sure that everyone behind the scenes is connected through the intercom.
Philippe Debie, Sound Coordinator: “Those of us who take care of the sound have experience in this field and love cycling. As such, we know just what our colleagues expect of us. We make sure that the commentators can be heard, but also that a cameraman can hear the director, for example.”
Following the race: motorcycle & helicopter
Generally, three VRT motorcycles ride along in cycling races. One follows the lead group, another stays with the peloton and the last one captures the riders who have given up or crashed. It doesn’t get any closer to the riders in action than that.
Jan De Cleyn, Cameraman on the motorcycle: “I’ve been following cycling races on the motorcycle for 16 years now. It’s incredibly exciting, because I’m really in the middle of the race. Since we are so close to the riders, we can capture really nice footage, giving viewers at home front row seats to experience the excitement.”
Helicopters circle about 150 meters above the race to shoot footage. Not only do they show the idyllic Flemish landscape, they also give a clear overview of who is where in the race. A Cineflex camera, a large sphere, is suspended from the helicopter, recording everything. The camera could zoom in on the brand of a bag of chips on the ground, making for endless possibilities. A VRT colleague in the helicopter operates the camera from the passenger seat.
Johan Schelkens, Cameraman in the helicopter: “In the air, of course, we have a nice overview of the race. That way, we can give the director more information, such as echelons forming in the peloton, or letting him know he can switch to another feed, because there’s a breakaway.”
High above the clouds
The VRT has a fixed agreement with EuroLinX (part of Videohouse) to take care of the mobile connection.
The airplane that flies at an altitude of about 8,000 meters is an important player. Underneath it, there are various antennae that receive the footage from the mobile cameras (on helicopters or motorcycles). Unlike the helicopters, which fly at a lower altitude, the plane isn’t affected by bad weather. What’s more, a plane can receive signals in a larger territory.
The connection via the airplane is an impressive technological feat. Even so, riders don’t stop when there’s a technical problem. Therefore, a team in a truck remains on standby during the race, to check all connections and handle any problems.
To capture the most exciting moment in the race, there are several cameras installed at the finish line. Depending on the size of the race, there may be as many as seven cameras. There is a manned camera, which must follow the winner for interviews after he or she has recovered. Over the ground, there’s a man-operated crane, which must capture the overview shot. The camera on the crane must get the finish line and the arch around it entirely in the frame, at the exact moment when the winner crosses the finish line.
Camerawoman Jenny floats above the finish line to capture the finish nicely.
Jenny Geers, Camerawoman on the crane: “When you’re sitting on the crane, your trust in the gripper (the person operating the crane) is incredibly important. The riders can, of course, only cross the finish line once, so I can’t try again (laughs). For that reason, I look for a point of reference on the road, like a painted road marking, in order to get the entire finish nicely in the frame."
For cycling races, there is another, special camera set up a few meters behind the finish line, which must capture a close-up of the winner. Certainly in a sprint, this is a very difficult task.
Carla Penninckx, Camerawoman (who shoots footage of the winner): "The riders come my way at top speed. At that moment, I must make the right decision and focus my camera on the winner. Next to me, I’ve got a monitor, on which I can see the helicopter footage, to get more of an overview. In the last few meters, the director can assist me, as well. When there’s a mass sprint, it’s not easy to know who will cross the finish line first. If a small group of riders sprints to the finish, joy and despair are a hair’s breadth apart. Since 2019, we’ve been working with Super SloMo, which delivers wonderful footage.”
A camera with a super slow motion function must capture the winner.
The colleagues working behind the scenes of cycling races all share the same passion: a love of cycling. For years, the VRT has been working with an experienced team to shoot cycling races. Some staff members have over ten or even twenty years’ experience in the field. The public broadcaster achieves high quality on both a technical and editorial level.
Viewers often respond positively to the comprehensive way in which the VRT brings cycling races to their screens. And the sports world has noticed, too. Thanks to its experience and international acclaim, the VRT gets to shoot major cycling races. In the past, the VRT team recorded the world championship in Innsbruck and the cycling races at the Olympic Games in Beijing, London and Rio, among others. The VRT has also been invited to shoot at the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo in 2021.