'We might not ever see a Giro like that again' - Rob Hatch's 2020 memories
The global pandemic meant Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch had to broadcast the Grand Tours from a makeshift studio at his home in Spain. Felix Lowe hooked up with Hatch for a chat about the unique challenges of 2020 and some of the unforgettable memories it created.
Tao Geoghegan Hart of The United Kingdom and Team INEOS Grenadiers Pink Leader Jersey / Sir Dave Brailsford
Published 27/12/2020 at 10:27 GMT | Updated 07/01/2021 at 09:05 GMT
For someone who usually travels the world commentating on sports events while living out of a suitcase, 2020 has been a sobering year. Grounded from doing the job he loves, Rob Hatch thought outside the flat-pack box to set up a home studio in Mallorca where he managed to cover the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia for Eurosport.
Here, in an interview with Felix Lowe from his studio in Sóller, Rob discusses the early warning signs of the pandemic, his experiences in lockdown and the season re-start. While reminiscing on the Tour and his favourite race, the Giro, Rob also talks about his rare foray into swapping microphone for pen with his essay in the 2020 cycling almanack, The Road Book.
Rob Hatch broadcasting from his home studio in Mallorca in 2020
Image credit: Eurosport
Looking back to the start of the season, had you started commentating on races before the pandemic brought everything to a halt?
The first race I was covering was the Tour of Langkawi in the studio in London. A few news articles started to appear about the peloton entering Malaysia. But there was still disbelief about how big it would be and this denial about it being a strong flu. It wasn't until we got to mid-February and the UAE Tour that it was starting to really affect things. During that period, instead of travelling back and forward between Spain and the UK, I only travelled once or twice.
The UAE Tour was abandoned with Covid positives – the first race to be hit by Covid – and suddenly there was this scramble to lockdown in Europe.
I remember going to Belgium for Het Nieuwsblad and working for the host broadcaster. Suddenly everybody in every movement was a bit more wary. I met people at the airport and there were doubts whether Paris-Nice or Tirreno would happen. When would we all see each other again? I came back to Spain for a few days, then went to London for Paris-Nice. Then it became serious, very, very serious.
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How surreal was Paris-Nice, with every day possibly being the last?
At that time, I was amazed that the race carried on. Obviously, financially it was good for us. But there was part of you that felt it was way more serious than that. What were these guys doing racing? Of course, in the back of my mind, and [co-commentator] Sean Kelly's mind, we were thinking about getting home. We both had to get flights. There was talk of Spain, Ireland and the UK locking down. Would we get home? Would we be stuck in hotels? Would there be an outbreak in the hotel we were staying in at Richmond-upon-Thames?
At that point we were worried – because it was so new and confusing – but we didn't think it would last all year, that there would be a lockdown for months. In the end, the last day was cancelled and we managed to get our flights pulled forward by a day. As soon as I landed in Spain, lockdown was declared.
Bear in mind that over the last decade I've lived in airplanes around the world. But the atmosphere was eerie. Obviously, there was no mask enforcement at that point. Everyone was wearing these makeshift neck-warmers out of fear. Everyone was looking around, hoping people wouldn't be sitting next to them. I got home. One visit to the supermarket, then the police started driving around the area with recorded messages: stay inside your homes. That's how the cycling season began and abruptly ended for me.
During the course of the four-and-a-half-month break, did you ever believe that the entire season would be a total write-off?
I worried it would be. But I was also getting quite annoyed by a lot of people in the industry who, in the first two or three weeks of this, said it should have been a write-off. There was a lot of grandstanding on social media from people who knew nothing. I felt we should let the experts decide if there could be a season. If yes, great. If no, then obviously, it couldn't happen.
At what point did you start thinking about the logistics of setting up a home studio?
We got to May and there was talk of things maybe starting up again. But there was also talk of working remotely. It was the big unknown. So I started really thinking seriously about it. I bought a brand-new computer, a microphone (an old-fashioned lip mic), a sound interface box to broadcast, desks, things like that. And I needed to move into a bigger house to accommodate it all.
Going on-site at the Tour had been ruled out: too complicated and too risky. And the back-up plan – to work from the Eurosport studio – was up in the air because we didn't know when they would be reopened.
If London was going to be behind the curve coming out of lockdown, then we had to be ready to work on those other races which were happening before the Tour, but maybe remotely, because we knew travel could be complicated.
Once I moved house in August, I fitted out the studio and tested new programmes with Eurosport and GCN. It's stressful with technology, hoping that it's going to work. I needed a new internet connection. Now it's the best in the world: I've got 600 mega bites, fibre optics…
Luckily at the headquarters of Eurosport, Discovery, they were already well into devising a system that would work. There was a real will in the industry to make it. We tested and we were ready to go again. In the end, it all paid off for me. Most people hadn't invested in a home set-up like I had – but they don't live abroad and they were expecting to go back to the studio.
So who was where when it came to the Grand Tours?
We had Carlton [Kirby] and Jonathan [Harris-Bass] in London at the Discovery studios in Chiswick, with Dan [Lloyd], Brad [Wiggins], Brian [Smith] and Sean [Kelly] in Bath at the GCN studios. None of the commentators or presenters were on site but we did have Bernie [Eisel] in the field.
Then I was in Spain and Orla was in Amsterdam, where she lives, at the Dutch Eurosport studio. Unfortunately for her, her quarantine was brought in less than two weeks before the Tour, so she had no choice really. A last-minute plan had to be formulated for The Breakaway. It was good that we could both stay on air and stay a part of it. We're very grateful and hope we did it justice.
How frustrating was it when people complained about some of the technical glitches?
A few of the guys had complaints about breathing. But that wasn't their fault – they were using new kind of headset that was extra sensitive. It's understandable – when you're watching something, you want it to be perfect, especially if you've been waiting for so long. We've all watched our favourite sports and not been happy with things.
But we have to cater – pandemic or no pandemic – for everybody's tastes and talk about things that even to us may sound basic. If we don't make it accessible to everybody then we're not going to get any more viewers. In terms of technical stuff, because I had invested a lot in my set-up, I was quite pleased how it sounded. I was heartened to hear when people didn't actually realise that I was broadcasting from home in Spain.
The way it was this year, we decided early on to be honest with people, instead of trying to maintain the illusion that we were in France or at least actually all together. I think it added to the camaraderie and interaction between commentators and viewers this year that we disclosed where we were. I think people could empathise and it was a way for everyone to realise that we were in it together. Everyone's been suffering this year – it's been a nightmare for us all.
Behind the scenes at the Giro d'Italia with Rob Hatch, Sean Kelly, Brian Smith and Jonathan Edwards
Image credit: Eurosport
Did you miss not being on site for the major races?
Yes. For me, being on site and travelling is the best thing. It might sound sad, but my work is my life. I'm very privileged and lucky to do what I do because I realise that a lot of people would love to do what I do and will never have the opportunity. So I do like being there, even if the travelling is tiring and you do want a break.
This year, working from home, meant there was no disconnect. I had to work hard at going out for a coffee or a run. I think I only managed three bike rides during two Grand Tours – I just didn't have the time. I felt guilty not sitting in front of my computer, not watching The Breakaway, not being on Twitter, not doing more notes. I didn't deal very well with shutting off.
Next season – because this is clearly going to go on well beyond the roll out of a vaccine – I'm hoping that by the time the Giro comes we can work from a studio. It would be nice to be back together for Paris-Nice, the Monuments, the Grand Tours. But I'm not counting any chickens. There will no doubt be loads of events I'm going to have to cover from here because we won't be on site soon, unfortunately. To be honest, even when we can travel again, I don't see myself coming over for a Wednesday afternoon spring classic anymore.
Did you have any idea that things would be so unpredictable once the season got going again – that youth would trump experience?
There was a lot of talk between journalists and ex-riders that it was going to be different, but we didn't know how much. There was a lot of speculation. No one has yet reached an agreement why the racing was so different. There were lots of different factors, including a psychological one. Do we really know what's going on in the heads of sportspeople? There are so many different things behind the scenes that we're not aware of. There was certainly more time for coaches to plan and more time for people to do new things. I think everyone just got on with it the best they could. It might become clearer next season.
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The performance of Ineos Grenadiers at the Giro was something to savour and quite uncharacteristic…
That Giro – I'm not sure we'll see anything quite like it again. I hope we do – whether it's Ineos or another team. The way that they rode was absolutely incredible. It's difficult to say you're going to ride like that, though. That sort of riding wasn't done by design. It was taking each day as it comes, let's get what we can from the race. One, we don't know if it's going to even get to the finish, two, when they started riding like that, their guy [Tao Geoghegan Hart], who ended up winning it, was still quite a way down. He'd been saving himself to ride for someone else, so there was the psychological shock there, too.
That performance is something we'll talk about for ever – the way it came together – it wasn't until the second rest day when, sitting down, I thought, hang on, he can win this.
Rohan Dennis was man of the match at the Giro, as well as Filippo Ganna – for different reasons.
Ganna was good for the team, obviously, especially the morale his wins brought. But it was Dennis who really did the damage – that ride on the Stelvio physically and psychologically did the damage for the other teams. And then to be there again a couple of days later at Sestriere – that was scarily good.
Rohan Dennis - Giro d'Italia 2020, state 20 - Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
Obviously, he's been the world time trial champion, he's won stages before and worn the leader's jersey in every Grand Tour. He's been talked up for years. But there was always the sensation of knowing he was better and waiting for that huge, huge performance from him – a lot of people expected it a few years ago as a leader. But, wow, I'll never forget those rides. He was an absolute pleasure to watch. I was really happy for him.
We associate you with spoken commentary and your love of correct pronunciation. But this year tried your hand at a bit of written journalism. Did you always know, while covering the Giro, that you would be writing it up for the Road Book?
No I didn't. It was very much a last-minute idea. To be honest, if I'd been approached before I'd have been too stressed to deal with it – too wrapped up in doing the commentary. When a Grand Tour is on, I can't function as a human being because all my energy is tied up in the race.
I wrote it immediately after the Giro – the week after, when it was all still fresh. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. It's not something that I do particularly often. Mainly when I've written it's been for Spanish publications. I haven't done much writing in English. But I really enjoyed it – and I really hope people enjoy reading it.
Your essay on the Giro splices some of your lines of commentary with a written review of the race. Can you talk us through this stylistic choice?
In terms of technique, those bits of commentary were the starting points for me. I tried to go through my notes and remember what happened each day. Off the back of two Grand Tours and the Worlds, everything was a bit of a blur. And this existence of not leaving the house too much apart from going for the odd run or to meet up with one friend on a Friday for a quick beer… it was a really important thing to take those lines as a starting point, and it helped me write it. I'm not somebody who's done a lot of written journalism because I'm broadcasting for the whole year.
How much of your soundbites are planned and how much is ad hoc?
It depends. At the end of the Giro, for example, I spent hours the night before going through what I would say if Jai Hindley won, or if Tao Geoghegan Hart won. Conscious of the fact that we have viewers all over the world – and that we were exclusive in both Australia and the UK – I wanted to make sure their thoughts were represented. And also try to stay true to my own style, which is quite neutral.
For anyone who knows me, I'm not particularly attached to a flag or a nation. I've lived in lots of different countries and I just want to be entertained no matter who wins. I do normally have an idea in my head before I speak. And we knew that one of two people was going to win the race. And I wanted to make an effort – more for their families – and this is a bit like the name thing, when I want to get people's name right out of respect for them and their families if they're watching.
But when Tao Geoghegan Hart or Jai Hindley watches it in 10 years' time, or their families or fans, I want them to be proud of what they hear, and I want them to feel like the moment's been done justice. So you feel quite a bit of pressure when that happens.
Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart | Giro d'Italia 2020
Image credit: Getty Images
However, for the Tour, nobody expected what happened. I had nothing prepared for Tadej Pogačar. Sometimes you have ideas in your head. I think it's better not to plan word-for-word because it can sound wooden. It has to be natural. But you can do yourself a favour thinking of something in advance. As a broadcaster, you also have to have the ability to read the moment and describe the moment, which is more what happened at the Tour.
A lot of the time, people think we should just talk and not get excited. I know people disagree with this, but I feel the most important thing about broadcasting is getting those moments for archive. To ensure that, you need a good strong voice, otherwise it won't sound right. It's something you have to work on.
Broadcasting is a skill, contrary to what a lot of people believe, and if you don't have the tools then you're not a broadcaster. It's like me saying I want to be a footballer but I'm no good at football. You have to have the voice. You have to find the right language, read the race, have knowledge of your subject. But I would say the most important skill is getting those moments right.
The bad thing, from my point of view, is when there's something you could have done better. After those moments, you're asking yourself whether you got it right, and it's difficult to switch off. It's like taking an exam – every day. It's exhilarating when it goes well. But it can ruin your day, your week, your month, when you don't meet the standards you set yourself.
What was the most memorable thing about the shift in calendar in 2020?
I thought, visually, it was different. Certainly in the Giro you could start to see that the shadows were longer, the light was different, certainly the mountains were different. I would say that, in terms of the calendar, I was actually quite disappointed. I thought that Grand Tours and classics should never, ever clash.
It proved to be a great World Championships, but I disapproved of the fact that, when the conversations took place, the Worlds seemed to be immovable objects. There didn't seem to be too much will for accommodation. And for me they got in the way a bit. I'd have still had them, but maybe at the end of the season.
From a spectator's point of view, I thought it was strange to have to decide which classics to watch. And from my point of view, I was suffering quite a lot because it took away a bit of work. But given the situation the world was it, we were extremely lucky to be able to do some work, so that's not something I'd complain about.
Again, it's not a huge criticism of the people who devised the calendar. It was just an unfortunate product of it. Everyone did their best and it was great that we could have as many races as we had. But in terms of the planning, I just thought the Monuments going up the Grand Tours, and the Grand Tours clashing with each other for a few days – that should have been something that wasn't contemplated.
Jai Hindley, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Rohan Dennis | Giro d'Italia Stage 20
Image credit: Getty Images
Did anything work better in 2020 – perhaps a dusty and hot Strade Bianche?
Who doesn't want to look at Tuscany in the summer? You need your eyes tested if that's the case. But Siena is beautiful any time of the year. In terms of the calendar, there's a few things that I would have changed anyway before the pandemic. I know this isn't universally popular, but I would always have the Ardennes and hilly classics away from the spring and have them around Lombardy time. Definitely. Because that's the kind of race that forms a season within a season.
The cobbles should be together and the hilly classics should be together. The Ardennes week would fit better alongside the hilly Italian classics towards the end of the season around the Worlds. In terms of the Grand Tours, I'd like them to all stay three weeks. Making them shorter is a no-go because they're unique and the length is part of the test. As we saw with the Tour and Giro this year – day 20 and day 21, you have to be able to race all the way to the end. It's part of the essence of the sport. Whether you televise all of it from start to finish is a debate for another day…
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Can you give us a final take-away from a unique season?
It was just strange not seeing anyone – not just my co-commentators, but the off-air staff such as production staff, technicians, managers. People at home only see or hear the on-air personalities. But there's a lot more behind the scenes. I also missed my colleagues from other channels and media.
For many hours of the day, doing what I do is a solitary job anyway. You may be alongside someone, but you're concentrating and in your own world. Without the strict medical and social protocol part of it, we've always been living in bubbles anyway in Grand Tours for years. You only take notice of what's going on outside the race once it's over. The week afterwards is always very surreal. Usually, I get ill because I'm exhausted, and when you stop, your body just gives up.
And this year, there was an overlap between the Giro and Vuelta, which made it even more discombobulating…
I felt the same. I was working on the Giro and, from a professional point of view, I tried to watch the end of the Vuelta each day, but I didn't want to pay too much attention to it in case I got it mixed up with the job in hand. So I didn't get into the Vuelta as a fan until the second week.
Just in time to see your fellow Lancastrian, Hugh Carthy, win on the Angliru…
Yeah. Him and his butter pies.
Thanks to Rob Hatch for talking to Eurosport after what was the most unconventional of seasons. To read Rob's essay in the Road Book you can order the 2020 cycling almanack here.