British fans had access to more cycling coverage on television this year than ever before.

As well as Eurosport?s coverage of the major tours and Classics, the BBC showed the World Championships on the track and road, the Olympic Games and the World Cup at the weekend.

ITV4?s coverage of the Tour de France was complemented by highlights of the Tour of Ireland and Tour of Britain too.

Sky?s sponsorship of British Cycling offers many possibilities for the future too. A major player in sports broadcaster, Sky wants in on the Olympic Games action in time for 2012 and signing up with Britain?s most successful sport was one obvious way to do that.

Only time will tell whether Sky also bids for the rights to show major events, although cycling?s fans and administrators alike should exercise caution in this respect. Although Sky is a major brand, both powerful and prestigious, it does not guarantee viewers.

Premier League football, the sport which towers above all others in terms of media coverage in this country, is at the heart of Sky Sports? portfolio. However, the biggest audience for a live game this season is the 1.6 million who watched arguably the most attractive fixture ? Manchester United versus Chelsea. More than double that tuned into BBC2?s highlights show Match of the Day later that evening (September 26).

The BBC has delivered big audiences for cycling this season, according to figures obtained from BARB, the Broadcasters? Audience Research Board.

Viewing figures for cycling events at the Olympic Games were routinely above two million, with a peak of 4.45m for coverage on Saturday, August 16, the day Chris Hoy won the Keirin and Bradley Wiggins the individual pursuit.

Audiences for the World Championship track meeting in Manchester (March 26-30) were extremely healthy too, with 1.1m watching Sunday afternoon?s live coverage on BBC2 and 1.7m tuning in to BBC1 on Saturday afternoon to see, among other things, Wiggins and Mark Cavendish win the Madison.

That?s proof that more people can watch cycling on terrestrial television than the biggest football fixture in England on a pay-per-view satellite and cable station.

Figures for the recent World Cup track meeting are not yet available, but the BBC was hoping to capitalise on the post-Beijing feel-good factor surrounding cycling.

ITV4 currently holds the rights to the Tour de France and its mix of live weekend broadcasts and weekday highlights show in an early evening slot brought in between 250,000 and 500,000 viewers. Good audiences, but still some way short of the million Channel 4?s coverage, which ended in 1999, used to deliver. The Tour of Britain also enjoyed healthy figures, peaking at 250,000, but still some way short of the Tour de France figures.

Although ITV4 is a free to air channel, viewers do need to have a Freeview box or similar system to receive it.

British Eurosport is included in some, but not all, cable and satellite packages and it shows more cycling than any other broadcaster.

It is perhaps surprising that the Giro d?Italia delivered the company?s best results ? until you consider that many potential viewers are perhaps lured away by ITV4.

The biggest audience for a cycle race on British Eurosport in 2008 was a mountain stage of the Giro d?Italia ? the one where Russia?s Vasili Kiriyenka won and Britain?s Steve Cummings was fourth. This was a stage held on a Friday, bucking the trend of weekend audiences being considerably bigger.

That Giro stage was the only cycling broadcast among the top 20 most-watched events on Eurosport. A look at that particular table shows why motor cycling so often takes preference over cycling. Motorcycling in one form or other brought 14 of Eurosport?s top 20 audience figures in Britain.

Some of the coverage of the Classics brings very small audiences ? just 40,000 for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for example. However, British Eurosport?s spring schedule is usually a mess. It?s almost impossible to guarantee the Classics will be on when the schedule says they will be.

It may seem obvious, but the lesson for cycling is that the biggest audiences are delivered by the broadcasters with the most reach. And that means terrestrial or widely-available free-to-air stations.

The advent of interactive technology means that at the touch of the red button a wide array of options can be presented to the viewer ? as the BBC proved with its complete live coverage of the men?s and women?s road races at the World Championships in Varese in September.

Viewing figures for these events are not available but the fact remains, as the country switches over to digital television the red button option becomes available to more and more households, whereas pay-per-view channels and those that are technically free but are only included in the more expensive packages can only deliver small audiences.

Below are the audiences for cycling programmes on British television in 2008, according to BARB and the BBC.

BBC

Viewers Event Date
4.45m Olympic Games track cycling (Hoy wins Keirin, Wiggins wins pursuit) Sat, Aug 16
1.7m World Track Championships on BBC1 Sat, Mar 29
1.18m World Track Championships on BBC2 Sun, Mar 30

British Eurosport

Viewers Event Date
198,000 Kiriyenka wins Giro d?Italia stage 19 Fri, May 30
143,000 Griepel and Cavendish one-two Giro stage 17 Wed, May 28
140,000 Moncoutie wins at Pla de Beret Vuelta a Espana Sun, Sept 7
133,000 Cavendish wins in Toulouse Tour de France stage 8 Sat, Jul 12
130,000 Ricco wins at Bagneres, Tour de France stage 9 Sun, Jul 13
123,000 Devolder wins Tour of Flanders Sun, Apr 6
114,000 Sella wins at Marmolada, Giro stage 15 Sun, May 25
105,000 Steegmans wins final stage, Tour de France Sun, Jul 27
97,000 Contador wins Vuelta a Espana stage 14 Sun, Sept 14
94,000 Sastre wins at Alpe d?Huez, Tour stage 17 Wed, Jul 23
91,000 Burghardt wins Tour de France stage 18 Thu, Jul 24
82,000 Dessel wins at Jausiers, Tour stage 16 Tue, Jul 22
78,000 Boonen wins Paris-Roubaix Sun, Apr 13
78,000 Luis Leon Sanchez wins Tour stage 7 at Aurillac Fri, Jul 11
76,000 Valverde wins Tour de France stage 1 Sat, Jul 5
73,000 Bennati wins Giro d?Italia stage 9 Sun, May 18
72,000 Ricco wins at Super Besse, Tour de France Thu, Jul 10
72,000 Final Tour de France time trial Sat, Jul 27
72,000 Men?s Olympic Games road race Sat, Aug 9
70,000 Cunego wins Amstel Gold Race Sun, Apr 20
69,000 Cancellara wins Milan-San Remo Sat, Mar 22
67,000 Chavanel wins Tour de France stage 19 Fri, Jul 25
65,000 Women?s Olympic Games road race Sun, Aug 10
62,000 Ricco wins Giro d?Italia stage 8 Sat, May 17
61,000 Sella wins at Pampeago, Giro stage 16 Sat, May 24
58,000 Slipstream win Giro d?Italia stage 1 Sat, May 10
58,000 Ricco wins Giro d?Italia stage 2 Sun, May 11
55,000 Hushovd wins Tour de France stage 2 Sun, Jul 6
41,000 Boonen wins Vuelta a Espana stage 16 Tue, Sept 16
40,000 Valverde wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège Sun, Apr 27

EUROSPORT?S TOP 20
The top 20 most-watched sports broadcasts on British Eurosport this year, up to the end of October.

Viewers Event Date
269,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP June
229,000 Volleyball, Olympic qualifier January
229,000 Tennis, French Open May
220,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP March
220,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP September
218,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP June
214,000 Football, African Nations Cup February
208,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP March
204,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP September
203,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP April
202,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP August
200,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP May
198,000 Cycling, Giro d?Italia stage 19 June
196,000 Motor cycling, Superbike World Champs August
194,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP March
192,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP April
191,000 Snooker, UK Masters January
188,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP June
186,000 Motor cycling, Moto GP August
184,000 Tennis, ATP Tour January

Notes
All figures courtesy of BARB (Broadcasters? Audience Research Board). Only programmes ranked in the week?s top ten for each channel are included. There is no data available for the week ending July 20, the middle week of the Tour de France.


ITV4
All Tour de France, unless stated. Live and highlights programmes included. ITV 4 showed a nightly highlights programme for the Tour de France, Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland, plus selected weekend Tour de France stages live.

Viewers Event Date
502,000 Burghardt wins at Saint-Etienne Thu, Jul 24
496,000 Dessel wins at Jausiers Tue, Jul 22
487,000 Luis Sanchez wins at Aurillac Fri, Jul 11
467,000 Piepoli wins Hautacam stage Mon, Jul 14
459,000 Ricco wins at Super Besse Thu, Jul 10
448,000 No. 4 for Cavendish at Nimes Fri, Jul 18
438,000 Cavendish wins his third stage in Narbonne Thu, Jul 17
411,000 Sastre wins at Alpe d?Huez Wed, July 23
393,000 Arvesen wins at Foix Wed, Jul 16
380,000 Chavanel wins at Montlucon Fri, Jul 25
362,000 Dumoulin wins stage 3 Mon, Jul 7
358,000 Cavendish?s first win, at Chateauroux Wed, Jul 9
348,000 Freire wins at Digne Sat, Jul 19
307,000 Schumacher wins Cholet TT Tue, Jul 8
290,000 Gerrans wins at Prato Nevoso Sun, Jul 20
285,000 First rest day wrap-up show Tue, Jul 15
273,000 Ricco wins at Bagnères-de-Bigorre Sun, Jul 13
266,000 Second rest day wrap-up show Mon, Jul 21
250,000 Petacchi wins Tour of Britain stage 6 Fri, Sept 12
248,000 Berges wins Tour of Britain stage at Burnham Tue, Sept 9
234,000 Boasson Hagen wins Tour of Britain stage 5 Thur, Sept 11
231,000 Valverde wins stage 1 Sat, Jul 5
198,000 Tour of Ireland, final stage and wrap-up show Sun, Aug 31

Notes
The Tour de France was the most-watched ITV4 programme during all three full weeks of the race. In week?s two and three, the Tour accounted for seven of the top 10 most-watched programmes on the channel.