It seemed like paradise, a luxury cabin in a national forest, topped with a satellite dish. Upon our arrival last Thursday afternoon, I seized the remote, accessed the program guide and punched in 151, the Dish Network home of the Outdoor Life Network. Onto the screen popped this:
Attention: This is a subscription channel which has not been purchased....
And my world became just a little darker.
Normally I would not care if the cabin I was renting had a TV, let alone a dish. But these are not normal times for me. On the first day of July—the first day of my new life—the cable guy came by my house. When he left, I had the Digital Bronze Package, by which I do not mean that I suddenly resembled the upright figure of my old third-place Punt, Pass & Kick trophy. I had a new cable box that granted me, at long last, access to OLN, the network that was providing live coverage of each stage of the Tour de France. OLN was also showing replays throughout the day.
How ideal, I thought. I could descend from my home office for five or 10 minutes at a time, get a sense of how the race was going, then get back to work. I would remain productive, make all my deadlines, and stay abreast of Lance's quest for a four-peat. The staying abreast part worked out well. Painful though it is to admit, I had a better handle on this Tour than I did while driving around France covering two Tours for SI. (It didn't help that in 1995 I missed the end of a stage because I could not remember where I'd parked my car in the city of Bordeaux.)
This total Tour immersion came at a cost. Other areas of my life suffered. (I was three hours late sending in this column, for instance.) Nor did things go swimmingly on the home front. My wife, who has taken to referring to OLN as "the Contraceptive Channel," gave me heat for flipping on the tube when we had company two weekends ago—as if our guests didn't prefer history in the making to our banal small talk!
What was it about the network's coverage that drew one in? During my OLN-less exile in Idaho, where we went for a wedding, I discussed the network's appeal with like-minded souls. "It's Liggett and Sherwen," said Dave Benson, a hydrogeologist mornings by walking down the street at 6:30, wearing slippers and carrying an empty coffee mug, to watch the race with his neighbor. "They absolutely bring it to life."
He was referring to former pro riders Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, a pair of Brits whose comprehensive knowledge of cycling is matched only by their gift for dropping delightfully unique and memorable phrases into their OLN commentary.
"Here is Hincapie, who has worked so hard for Armstrong, having to throw his massive carcass over the grade!" That was not Sherwen, mind you. It was Stu Bone, a San Francisco technology salesman and amateur bike racer, doing his Sherwen impersonation. Bone admitted to having hosted OLN parties during the Tour. "We pretty much dork out over that stuff," he said.
Liggett and Sherwen can give you gooseflesh talking about an approaching feed zone. So their company was essential for the truly critical moments of the race, such as Armstrong's heading into La Mongie in stage 11, on July 18, when then race leader Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano could not hang.