By Robbie Broughton
“This Climb is a like a slap in the face with a wet kipper. This is the Kanarieberg, and they’re not singing I can tell you.”
I’d always enjoyed listening to Carlton Kirby’s commentary. I know that he splits opinion among the cycling fraternity, but I’ve always liked his passion when he calls a finish. And the lead-up to that point is always full of humour, curious facts and crazy language-mangling – he’s the master of the pun and the overblown mixed metaphor. Compared to the other commentators around he’s colourful and amusing. So shortly after launching our cycling website, Ride Velo, he seemed like an excellent character to interview for a profile piece.
My first chat with Carlton over the phone gave me some indication of what I might expect. What I’d thought was going to be a quick conversation about logistical arrangements of when and where to meet turned into a half hour chat that covered the history of Eurosport, his various car troubles and some very detailed instructions of how to get to the “Feltham Institute for Young Offenders”, AKA Eurosport HQ.
I’d only ever seen a small head shot of Carlton – in my mind he would be a short, cheeky chappy so I was surprised when a 6 foot 4 inch grinning giant appeared in the reception area. And what followed were a couple of hours of stories of Pacific atolls, lucky escapes on the Dakar rally and hysterical impersonations of his co-commentator, the legendary Sean Kelly. My cheeks hurt from grinning and laughing so much and I went home knowing that I had a gem of a piece to write for the website.
The article pretty much wrote itself – he’d given me such good content, and the response was great. Many people suggested on social media that he needed to write a book about his life. So it was that this unknown writer who was still working as a full-time teacher made the cheeky suggestion that I write one with him. To my surprise and delight he said we should give it a go.
So began a series of recorded conversations, usually in Carlton’s kitchen in Teddington. Fortified by countless cups of coffee and almond croissants, Eurosport’s one an only would spout forth an unedited, often indiscrete and sometimes outrageous monologue, interspersed with the occasional, “By the way we can’t put that in the book.”
Head frazzled and hands shaking from caffeine overdose I’d drive home, pondering on how to weave Carlton’s tales into a meaningful and cohesive book. The problem was that we’d begun with the idea that it should just be about cycling – after all that’s what he’s known for. But Carlton’s brain doesn’t work like that. Anyone who’s heard his commentary on TV will know that he’ll ping off at random tangents. One moment he’s talking about Chris Froome’s form, the next he’s extolling the virtues of the local sausages and their method of production. Often I’d begin our ‘chats’ by saying, “Ok, CK, let’s just concentrate on cheating – then I can write that up as a chapter.”
“Sure, sure,” he’d reassure me. For five minutes he’d stay on task but wouldn’t be able to resist an anecdote about getting lost on the Dakar Rally when he’d gone for a dump in the desert, followed by a hysterically funny account of his days as a rookie reporter at Radio Norfolk. The trouble was that he was so damn entertaining and funny it felt wrong to bring him back.
And back home, as I’d type up the transcript, my shoulders shaking with mirth all over again, it just confirmed that the material he was coming up with was just too bloody good to dismiss.
Autumn morphed into winter and Carlton’s kitchen got colder. We had a few sample chapters which I began to tout around to various publishers and agents. Our problem was that our idea for a book was just too vague – part biography, part cycling book, we were neither one nor the other. Reluctantly we decided to ditch the life story and concentrate on the cycling. My challenge was to shape Carlton’s hysterically funny stories on the road with the likes of former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and classics legend Sean Kelly along with a cast of barrier boys, motorcycle cameramen and over enthusiastic security guards into a linear story of some sort.
And what to call this great opus? Who knew it was so hard to come up with a title? We worked our way through countless options: Wheelsucker, When Cycling Goes Wrong, In the Wheels of the Peloton, On the Rivet, The Inside Track and, Carlton’s favourite for a while, A Bit of a Cycle Path. Thank God we went with Magic Spanner – a phrase that Carlton coined to describe a rider getting mechanical assistance (and more) from the team car.
But the stories were just so good: Carlton locked out of his hotel bedroom, naked; rants about lazy monks and mankini-clad fans; crazy drives around the hairpins of the Alps: Hells Angels parties at the Giro; weird fans like ‘Antler Man’ and Skippy the cycle bum; the crazy Tour de France caravan. It seemed there was a bottomless pit of hilarious anecdotes, each one a gem of its own and I wrote each one up snorting with laughter.
And then there was his authority that comes with decades of broadcasting about cycling – his encounters with Cavendish, Wiggins and Froome; how to call a sprint finish from a black and white monitor with a towel draped over your head; his insider’s view of how the business of professional cycling works, not to mention the little tricks that border on and sometimes transgress UCI rules.
We fashioned our own way of working whereby I’d write up sections and chapters which he’d then ‘Kirbify’ with more wit, humour and a cheeky turn of phrase – exactly what you get from his TV commentary but with a polished edge.
Eventually it was Bloomsbury who came up with an offer and our agent, the charmingly old-school Heather Holden Brown who guided this pair of publishing virgins through the incomprehensible contract. Thanks, Heather.
I’m not sure how we did all this while Carlton continued his hectic work schedule of commentating on three Grand Tours, Six Day racing and numerous other cycling races, while I found myself relocating to Mallorca. Amidst the ups and downs of our chaotic lives of ageing parents, building work, posting hundreds of Kirby codec poster tubes, long-suffering families and spouses and the need to earn some money we somehow, through Skype, Whatsapp, email, the old fashioned phone, and flying visits between London and Mallorca, somehow, pulled it off.
It’s been quite a transforming process for me on a personal level. For one thing I’m now known as “The Bobster”. And for someone who never really liked puns or over-blown similes and metaphors I find myself even taking delight in Carlton’s ‘Crap Gag Friday’ Tweets. My favourite pun never even made the book – when I asked him what we should call the house we were buying in Spain, out came the reply without a moment’s hesitation. “That’s easy, Bobster…Finca Bob.”
It’s been a great ride, CK, and I’m looking forward to saddling up for the next one. That biography may take a while to write up though, so I think we’d better get into gear and start the long climb. See you at the top.
Magic Spanner: The World of Cycling According To Carlton Kirby is published by Bloomsbury on 13th June. You can pre-order your copy on Amazon.
Carlton Kirby and Robbie Broughton will be appearing at Look No Mum No Hands, 49 Old Street, London EC1 9HX on 19th June