In between busily commentating on one cycling event after another, author Ned Boulting made a guest appearance at Look Mum No Hands! on Monday night. Coming straight from the Dauphiné and via his publishers, he waved around a manuscript of his latest book, Velosaurus, with more red ink corrections on it than a GCSE English paper. He was embarrassed to admit that he'd been chastised for spelling Eddy Merckx wrong, and not the tricky surname. But it was the imminent Tour de France that everyone wanted to talk about of course.
Well what a treat we had - insight, gossip, indiscretions and so many funny anecdotes - it's hard to know where to begin! Ned Boulting is a consummate performer and appeared to love standing on the banquette at the back of the room, sharing stories with us about the pro cycling world. At the end, he answered all our questions with refreshing honesty and good humour. What a great guy!
Topics under discussion covered: who does he tip to win the Tour, previous Tour highlights, Lance Armstrong, David Millar vs Chris Boardman, Matt Rendell, sharing dodgy hotel rooms, and whether team Astana are doping or not.
Boulting began by explaining the unconventional route he'd taken into commentating for ITV back in 2003 when he moved from football journalism to report on the Tour de France. It was a baptism of fire: "It was an extraordinary way to be introduced to the bike race. I had simply never seen a bike race before of any description!" Not surprisingly, Ned quickly slipped up on prime-time TV:
But Boulting bounced back, partly, he explained, because ITV didn't have the money to replace him. He even turned his faux pas into an opportunity by publishing his first book How I Won the Yellow Jumper, shortly followed by Life on the Road Bike. 101 Damnations followed, and now the workaholic broadcaster has penned another volume: Velosaurus.
Boulting's Velosaurus: a Linguistic Tour de France, is: "A must-have - yet completely fake - glossary of essential, though non-existent, cycling terms." It's not out until October and Boulting had just returned from meeting publishers Random House with the original scribbled-on manuscript in hand. Here's an example of what to expect:
Then it was time for the Q&A. The audience, a mixture of mature ladies sitting with their knitting (yellow jumpers?) and younger men probably more often attired in lycra, didn't hold back - Jeremy Paxman would've been proud.
"You mentioned Peter Sagan as the nice guy of the peloton; who's the villain of the peloton, and is it Vicenzo Nibali?" asked one astute questioner.
"Yes. Yeah, what a prick," Boulting replied to the delight of the audience. "At first I just thought he was bland, and now I think he is dislikeable - don't read into that that I think he is a cheat because, apart from the obvious [mimes the infamous sticky bottle routine] apart from that bit of cheating ...I don't think for a second that he is a doper. I mean he might be - I'm not saying that he is not a doper but what I am not saying is that he is a doper, let's just get that clear. But I do think that he's devious and I think that is reflected in the lack of respect that he has within the peloton. I think they are sick of him, the other GC teams, of his antics. He holds himself above them, even from his teammates, that's very clear from his body language. He thinks he's a little bit better than he is."
"With Steve Cummings' win at the Dauphiné, do you think he's booked a place with the Olympic Team or will he move to another pro team?"
"I can't see it really, Luke Rowe I suspect, Geraint Thomas obviously, Chris Froome maybe there's room for him [in the Olympic squad] I don't know... I think Dimension Data is indulging him perfectly. There are very few other teams that would allow him to do what Steve does. It's remarkable. He's bought himself like a golden ticket in the peloton. He does, by his own admission, almost no work for the team. He might as well just go down to Decathlon and buy a Btwin racing jersey with no branding on it whatsoever and just ride around on the back of the peloton on his own because he does not lift a finger for his teammates...He hangs out at the back of the peloton and he has one day off, one day off, one day off and then suddenly you look at the back of the peloton and you go 'Christ, Cummings isn't there!' and then you go straight to the bookmakers, and you know today Steve Cummings is going to win... He's 35 years old now and he's having the time of his life." The inspiration for 'arriviste' perhaps?
After discussing pro cycling, we moved on to the life of the commentator. Boulting gave a hilarious account of the privations of life on the road. The pro teams obviously get the pick of the accommodation in rural France, while the poor TV reporters are left with the dregs. He described his worst experience, staying in the Hotel Celtic in the South of France, which had recently lost its one star status. Sharing a 'flea-pit' of a room with Matt Rendell, he was horrified to discover that ITV had forked out a miserly €8 for the night and that even included breakfast! "In my book that's an absolute record breaker!"
"How do you handle life on the road?"
"One of the fascinations of it [commentating] is watching riders join our team, as Chris Boardman did in 2004 and now David Millar has now done. When they drop out of the athlete bubble and drop into our significantly crappier bubble, to see them kind of adjust, the processes they go through, that actually they're just going to hang around in a crappy, muddy car park for the best part of the day and drive three hours themselves to the next part of the race. That's really interesting to watch. Millar. He's just getting his head round it, the penny's just sinking in. He may have a Maserati to get round France, but that's where the luxury ends! I think he may actually end up sleeping in the Maserati."
There was just time to reveal that he and David Millar will be replacing Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen as the 'real time' commentators on the Tour this year. Much as we love the Ned and Dave show, there was a collective intake of breath at the passing of Phil and Paul. "Does David know enough about 'chateaux'?" one guy wondered - referring to the moments during the racing when there's not much happening so the potential radio silence is filled with historical anecdotes about the landscape.
"Paul, bold as you like, just makes out like he knows! You can almost hear the guide historique opening up [produced by the ASO for the event] 'this is a 17th Century chateau owned by the Huguenot family...' and he just makes out like it's off the top of his head but in a weird way it's quite clever because he's fooling no one. We all know that Paul is just blagging it but it kind of has to be done and some of the stuff he comes out with accidentally is really quite an important part of the coverage...part of the joy of the Tour de France is France.
"One of the most recent races David and I did was the Tour de Yorkshire, also owned and run by ASO, so they produced another guide historique booklet for this race. We got to this first Yorkshire village... where it was famous for some resident called 'blind Jack something' who had done something like invent the cat's eye ... I carried on talking about the bike race, and Millar just elbowed me and started pointing out all these Yorkshire facts. And then he said: 'FACT!' and I went, 'well that's a way of doing it'. I mean it needs a bit of fine tuning, but don't be surprised if we don't get aerial shots of chateaux and a lot of 'FACT!' from Millar, who's taken it upon himself to be the the team historian."
Ned hung around afterwards for "a pint and some banter" as he put it and was soon surrounded by a handful of earnest young cycling fans keen to share and discuss the intricacies of obscure riders about to break into the pro scene, UCI rulings and the prospects of the ASO. Hmmm...perhaps Ned should pen a name for this specimen in his very own Velosaurus. 'Velopseuds' perhaps.
We can't wait for his new book to come out. If it's anywhere near as funny as his last ones we're in for a treat. He also has an upcoming theatre tour, Bikeology, this autumn which, again, if this night is anything to go by, should be hilarious. In the meantime we have the Tour and the Vuelta and Boulting's TV antics to keep us amused. Roll on July 2nd!