Watching the Tour de France on TV is addictive. Case in point: My laid-back father-in-law, who casually tuned in several years ago, now carves time out of his summer schedule to catch a few hours each day of the three-week jaunt through the French countryside and mountains.
Like most die-hard race fans, Jim Sr. tunes into the Outdoor Life Network, which has brought the race to viewers for five years.
"Once they see it for a few days with someone who's knowledgeable, that's it. They're done," said Bob Roll, one of OLN's commentators. "It's a soap opera. . . . Once people understand the basic motivations, then they are able to get into the characters."
OLN, a cable and satellite channel, normally divvies up its programming to showcase sports such as fishing and rodeos. But this month, it's all about cycling. The network provides live coverage each morning, shows replays in the afternoon and packages a program for the masses in prime time. The evening show includes highlights of the day's race along with features on the riders, bikes, mechanics, coaches, race history and more -- all of the insider information that turns a fan into a fanatic.
The network's live coverage features Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, cycling veterans who call the race, put it in context with other cycling events, and muse about French culture and what-ifs at the finish line.
Al Trautwig and Roll take the helm in prime time. Trautwig is a longtime sportscaster, and Roll, a former racer, is the cycling expert -- a quirky color commentator along the lines of John Madden on "Monday Night Football." Roll's signature is his pronunciation of the race as "Tour day France."
"What our job is, really, is to explain in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy during the race," said Roll, author of "The Tour de France Companion," a guidebook that explains the intricacies of the race.
"If you stand by the side of the road, it's great to be there, but the racers go speeding by in two seconds," Roll said.
Watching the event on TV is the best way to see the action during this year's 3,607-kilometer race (about 2,240 miles). On television, you get views from cameras on motorbikes, in helicopters and at the finish line. You also have a better shot at witnessing cycling's "ouch" element.
"Crashes are an inevitable part of 200 guys going down a road that's big enough for 11 guys," Roll said. "When you have a three-week race . . . you can't call for a reserve to come in" as you can in many other team sports.
OLN had close to 1.5 million viewers last year, about double the viewership of two years earlier. "The knowledge of the sport has grown," Roll said. "It's not just a niche, small, esoteric, archaic sport from Europe."
While OLN has been redefining Tour de France coverage in the United States, celebrated cyclist Lance Armstrong has been redefining the race itself: The cancer-beating Texan, the only man to win six times, launches his quest for a seventh victory in as many years. After that, he says: retirement.
Armstrong's appeal and comeback story only add to the sport's addictive nature. People relate to him on a variety of levels, whether it's cycling, overcoming cancer or his rock-star girlfriend Sheryl Crow.
The so-called Tour de Lance might seem to be a race for second place, but the cycling world knows anything can happen. Riders average more than four hours per day in the saddle over 21 days, and the daily stages are races unto themselves. Much of the race consists of colorfully clad riders -- with the overall leader in the yellow jersey -- who pedal down straightaways while camera crews get creative with closeups of grimaces and gears. So it's up to sportscasters such as Roll to engage viewers with colorful commentary.
Roll will be safely ensconced at each day's finish line during all the action. His plan: Drink by day and travel by night, when he must go to the race's next stop.
"I like the red wine when I'm in France," he said. "It's supposed to be good for your blood pressure."
TOUR DE FRANCE
Daily through July 24 on OLN
WHERE TO FIND COVERAGE
* Outdoor Life airs live coverage each day, usually beginning at 8:30 a.m. During mountain stages, coverage often begins earlier. Expanded coverage airs nightly from 8 to 11.
The network also airs taped midday, afternoon and late night coverage. For a complete programming schedule, visit www.olntv.com.
* Discovery (the new sponsor of Lance Armstrong's team) and its sister networks air one-minute highlights at 8 and 11 p.m. daily through the end of the race.
* CBS airs one-hour highlights of each week on July 10 at 3 p.m., July 17 at 5 p.m. and July 24 at 2 p.m.
SOURCES: OLN, DISCOVERY, CBS; DISCOVERY CHANNEL PHOTO