in the halcyon days of yore (2008 i believe), when cycling.tv was the revelation, promise and future of interweb cycle racing coverage, their studios on the fourth floor of west point in warple way, london, consisted (and, for all i know, still consist) of a proper studio with a large flat screen monitor, comfy chairs and a couch. the commentating took place in little more than a cupboard, closed off from all extraneous sounds and interference, regularly inhabited by the morecambe and wise of cycling commentary; brian smith and anthony mccrossan.
the studio was the province of rebecca charlton, now working for ipc at cycling weekly and cycling active, who regularly held court with luminaries from the world of cycling who would be sat on the couch and grilled prior to the live action. this was the scary bit, or at least it would have been for me. it's great to come across from the depths of anonymity as an expert in all forms of cycling and most knowledgeable about the more arcane aspects of the genre; but i'm not.
those invited to take part in those pre-race gambits seemed regularly at ease, discussing the finer merits of oscar freire's sprint, bertie's climbing prowess, or whether the par cours under investigation would suit the skills of tom boonen. i, on the other hand, haven't a clue about such things, and went so far as to say so in an article on the post. it doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out what happened next. at least it doesn't if you are familar with the dry wit of brian smith.
as sunday, april 21st 2008 approached, i received the following e-mail from rebecca charlton 'it's time for the request that you've been dreading - how would you like to make a guest appearance on the liege-bastogne-liege show?'. poor ms charlton had no idea that i lived some considerable distance from warple way, but glasgow's mr smith did. i made my apologies by phone, thus avoiding my one potential brush with fame and fortune.
though i'm sure i could have mugged up a few relevant facts with which to avoid embarrassment, it is pertinent to bear in mind that i am a cycling obsessive, and was therefore well versed in the logic and language of the sport. the hapless mr boulting, author of the volume under question, by his own admission, wasn't. ned was, and to all intents and purposes, still is a football commentator, and not one well versed in the world of cycling. or to be more specific, with that of the tour de france.
the scene opens in paris, france, july 2003. mr boulting has been despatched by itv to join the crew covering that particular year's tour de france, and is being briefed by long-time stalwart of the race, gary imlach. it was he who used to stand in obscure locations of the countryside, microphone in hand, relating many of the bizarre exploits of the tour, when channel four commenced tour coverage in the early eighties. particularly knowledgeable regarding all aspects of the tour, imlach is trying to pass on the salient points that ned will need to know when carrying out direct to camera broadcasts.
'lance armstrong. he's the american cancer bloke isn't he? keeps winning it,' i said, feeling that i'd got off to a flyer.
it wasn't that long before i'd exhausted my scant knowledge and was out of my comfort zone. gary had suddenly started talking about the team time trial.
'they have teams?' i offered, genuinely surprised. 'i didn't know that.'
you could say that it's downhill from there on in, and i terms of how ned scraped through his first tour, that would likely be a fairly accurate assessment. in the prologue, close to giving brad mcgee a run for his money, scotland's david millar embarrassingly unshipped his chain while a couple of seconds up on the australian. the director impressed through crackling earphones, that they would be switching over to ned for a poignant roundup of the situation once the prologue was complete and mcgee was in yellow. for his debut words on that tour of 2003, caught like a rabbit in headlights, boulting uttered words like 'some sort of thing with his bike, followed up with the killer line 'kissing goodbye to his chance of winning the yellow jumper.'
there have been many films and sitcoms that gain the bulk of their laughs from placing otherwise competent people in situations where they're quite obviously out of their depth. in this case it's all true. one does have to wonder why independent television saw fit to place mr boulting at the heart of a well oiled and impressive operation covering the 2003 tour de france and subsequent editions. yes, despite his reference to the yellow jumper, mr boulting has been asked back every year since, and is currently working alongside matt rendell, phil and paul on itv 4's coverage of the giro. more power to his elbow.
we should all be extremely grateful that itv had the perspicacity or folly (delete as applicable) to continue sending ned boulting to france every july. the chapters that follow the yellow jumper incident are, in equal measure, fascinating and hilarious all at the same time. boulting seems just as much at ease inhabiting the written word as he is thrusting face and microphone in front of a camera lens. his fluid, self deprecatory style never talks down to the reader, and never assumes that we know more or less than himself. and in the manner of a true comedian, he has a well-honed sense of observation.
as with the great sprinters, despite being the face on camera and the named author of this book, boulting is generous in his praise of those who help him in the day to day, particularly the renowned writer matt rendell, with whom boulting podcasts the real peloton, a similarly irreverent look at the world of professional cycling. such an attribute, amongst others, forestalls any likelihood of this book descending into an ego trip, despite plenty of opportunities to do so. even the hapless david millar, subject of boulting's initial on-screen faux pas is quoted on the cover as saying 'i thought ned was an old hand at the tour. evidently he was clueless.'
lest you think that this is one long joke from beginning to end, boulting is far too experienced a broadcaster/writer to run that one to ground. he deals with the armstrong/simeoni incident, brad's elevation to fourth place in the tour of 2009, and the friendly intransigence of mark cavendish, though recounting each with a degree of panache i would gratefully have as my own. it did come as something of a surprise, however, to discover that though chris boardman is a man of few, well-chosen words, he exhibits just as concise a sense of humour.
every july, those of us with the time and opportunity are glued to the broadcasts of either itv4, espn, or eurosport to watch a blow by blow account of the subsequent three weeks. all we get to see are the stages themselves, interspersed with little vignettes rounding up team tactics, strategies and the personalities of those taking part, whether it be behind the scenes or in the saddle. we take it for granted that if the call goes out for an on-screen interview with one of the favourites, all are singing from the same hymn sheet; rider, publicist and interviewer.
that, it seems, is rarely the case, and a great deal of intrigue and pursuit carries on over a period of anything up to several days in order to gain those few words spared for the fans. and not always in the native language of the interviewer. it takes a certain kind of person to live with that inside the cocoon that is the tour de france circus, and come back for more the following year. and the following year. and all the while, observing little kernels that will give rise to great mirth when recounted in print.
my one hope is that the reproduction of the numerous, and sometime irritatingly placed photographs (not always relevant i'd have thought) will be a tad better in the final published copy. it may just have been better, from a reader's point of view, to have gone the way of the majority, and bundled all the pics into several glossy pages in the middle. however, i guarantee over three hundred pages of enthralling and regularly humourous narrative that will prevent you from watching the tour de france in the same way ever again.
and that's a good thing.
i'm sure that ned won't mind my stealing just a part of his thunder by pointing out that 'olympic gangster' by his good friend matt rendell, is due for release in paperback on 9th june. propitiously, my review copy arrived this afternoon. £8.99
posted wednesday 18 may 2011