As I settle in to watch some of this year's Giro d'Italia on satellite TV, I feel lucky to have enough time to spare to watch road races unfold live, rather than relying on "highlights" (inevitably focussing on the end of the stage, not what happened to set up how that played out).
Highlights was all there was, when I first started watching the Tour de France on TV in the mid 1980s. I don't think I had time for it when I was an undergraduate, but when I was a postgrad I picked it up again, in the early 1990s when all you got was a half-hour programme which Channel 4 used to move all over the schedule to fit around other things. Phil Liggett used to commentate over the highlights and the theme music sounded like this. Then they added Paul Sherwen as co-commentator and Gary Imlach as reporter and the coverage expanded into the very high quality coverage - several hours of most stages live, plus lots of reporting - which ITV2 now shows. (Liggett and Sherwen are the best commentators, though Boulting & Miller are promising, and Eurosport's combination of Hatch & Kelly isn't bad - much better than Eurosport used to manage, though unfortunately they still employ the utterly incoherent Kirby for minor races.)
Since getting satellite TV I've been able to watch a lot more races, particularly those of the one-day classics that happen on the weekends, and sometimes the longer races such as the Giro, the Vuelta and the Basque Country. When I went freelance in 2006 that freed me up a lot more to watch cycling when it was on and work when it wasn't. Plus the TiVO (before TiVO UK broke my "lifetime contract" and turned it into a brick) and the Sky+ mean I can catch at least the highlights every day, by recording it and watching it when I'm free. No more do I have to combine watching the race and other activities just because they clashed.
There has already been some exciting racing this year. Liège-Bastogne-Liège was gripping, and the final stage of this year's excellent Tour de Yorkshire was as thrilling as any grand tour, combining fantastic scenery with a full-on day of racing. In fact I would rate it among the top 10 stages of cycling I've ever watched, for tactics and excitement. Others in my top 10 would include the last mountain stage of the 2015 Tour de France, when Quintana distanced Froome but had to go slow to take his teammate Valverde with him, and while he did, Porte made an amazing comeback to help Froome; and a stage in the 2011 Tour (I think; up the Col du Galibier?) when Andy Schleck excecuted the perfect example of putting multiple team members up the road in different groups, then riding across to them to get their help one after the other.
I also remember Lance Armstrong's amazing win at Hautacam in 2000 or so, but I guess I have to strike that from my top 10. I admired it at the time, but later I had to learn to hear "amazing solo climb far better than he normally rides" as "cheating". When Floyd Landis went from far behind to far ahead one day in 2006, it was obvious. Now, whenever one rider outperforms the rest by far, it's grounds for sad suspicion. However, it rarely happens any more; and an outstanding athletic performance is one that results in a gain of a few seconds, day after day.
In any case the athletic side of cycling was never my primary interest in it. (Nor, as lots of my friends seem to assume, does it have much to do with staring at 200 fit men in lycra for hours.) What interests me most is the tactics. In cycling, tactics are essential but they can be complex, at both the team and the individual level. Sunday's Tour de Yorkshire stage was a classic example, as Team Sky used features of the course, and the wind, to divide the pack again and again until it was down to two, and one of them was their rider Nico Roche. Unfortunately, the other was supreme tactician Thomas Voeckler, who chose the perfect moment to ride over him and take the win.
One of the things I like best about road-race cycling is that the tactics can unfold gradually, over many hours each day and over many days. You have time to think about what tactics may be behind any move and what may happen next. With no clear favourite, this year's Giro looks set to be interesting.
Cover photo: CC-BY-ND Adam Wyles