ASPEN - When the world's best male cyclists grunt up and scream down Independence Pass near Aspen in August, camera crews will be in a much better position this year to catch the action, a top official with the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge said this week.
Shawn Hunter, CEO of the event, said a lot of planning and money has been devoted to improving the quality of the television coverage of the 2012 race. A twin-engine, fixed-wing aircraft with a camera will follow the race this year, he said, and a second twin-engine airplane will be on standby in case the first experiences technical difficulties.
"If there are any difficulties, we can go to a second aircraft with a second camera," Hunter said Tuesday.
Last year, a single-engine airplane covered the race and experienced difficulty following the race when cold, rainy weather settled over the central mountains. There were long periods where live action wasn't available on the thrilling climb and the descent of Independence Pass, when the lead exchanged a handful of times. Viewers could only listen to announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen describe the scene. Their frustration over the lack of images was evident in their voices.
A twin-engine plane should be able to "withstand" flying in challenging weather better than a single-engine plane, according to officials with the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge. The presence of the plane should allow the constant feed of live coverage.
Hunter said the coverage last year also suffered because the camera was mounted on the plane at an angle that wasn't effective in the mountains. In addition, the camera "froze up" when the aircraft flew over Independence Pass, he said.
In addition to the two aircraft, a helicopter will be used to cover the race, he said. Cameramen on the back of motorcycles also follow the action and send signals back to the aircraft to complete the coverage.
"We all learned a lot from last year's coverage," Hunter said. "We like to think we're one year smarter."
NBC and NBC Sports Network will provide 29 hours of coverage over seven days starting Monday, Aug. 20.
Cliff Runge, a longtime pilot in the Aspen area who isn't affiliated with the race or coverage, said use of a big, powerful helicopter capable of operating at high altitudes will be key to good coverage. Twin-engine planes have an advantage of being able to fly at high elevations, which could help in cloudy weather like last year, he said. A disadvantage of twin-engine aircraft is they fly so much faster than single-engine planes. They could have difficulty maneuvering in terrain like Independence Pass, he said.
The pro cycling tour in Colorado inevitably presents coverage issues, Hunter said. First, cycling is significantly tougher to cover than other sports, such as football, soccer and baseball, because the action moves fast over long stretches and through natural terrain.
"We don't have a set course of play," Hunter said.
Second, the elevations of Colorado present greater challenges. At 12,095 feet above sea level, Independence Pass is about twice as high as the top elevation of the Tour de France, the preeminent bicycle race.
Hunter said there is a "great team behind our production this year." That team is meeting regularly to strategize about the coverage.
The U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge debuted last year. This year it returns with both a finish and a start in Aspen on two consecutive days. The race will feature the 131-mile Queen Stage between Gunnison and Aspen in Stage 3 on Wednesday, Aug. 22. After descending the pass and ending in Aspen on Wednesday, riders will start Thursday with the demanding climb up Independence Pass' west side on a 97-mile route that ends with a grueling climb into Beaver Creek.
Hunter said he anticipates huge crowds in Aspen this year with the town being an overnight stop for the tour.
"We think they're going to be huge," he said. "Aspen did a phenomenal job (last year). That's why it's being awarded a finish and a start."