When you are a fan of cycling, ‘either/or’ questions confront you at every turn. Armstrong or Ullrich? Shimano or Campag? Ban for life or reconciliation?
Making a decision between two things is the life of the cycling fan, but there is one which dominates the landscape of cycling fandom like no other. The million dollar big daddy.
ITV or Eurosport?
Those who choose ITV will be familiar with Ned Boulting. Boulting provides the roving-reporter-in-the-field role, running around in the post race frenzy of cyclists, managers and soigneurs trying to grab the riders and put microphones in their faces.
Boulting’s book is a collection of his experiences reporting at the Tour de France, a job he started in 2003. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about it is Boulting’s self admission that prior to 2003 he knew nothing about cycling whatsoever. Football was his game, and he was rather bemused to find himself in France following around a load of shaven legged nutters on bikes.
Boulting’s inexperience with cycling was clear. In one excruciating passage, he describes how he was sent to get an interview from David Millar after the 2003 Prologue Time Trial. Millar was in the lead at the second check point, before his chain came off, destroying his chances of victory. In a cringing few paragraphs Boulting manages to relay the pressure involved with being an on-the-spot journalist, and the absolute need for prior research.
As Millar crossed the line, he continued straight to his team bus. Boulting’s cries of ‘Dave!’ were lost in the crowd. He had nothing, and Gary Imlach was coming to him in 20 seconds time. He can’t remember exactly what he said, and has never watched the tapes back, but knows he finished with the line – ‘…kissing goodbye to his chance of winning the Yellow Jumper .’
This statement, which makes up the title, provides a great starting point. It perfectly frames what is so good about the book. First and foremost, it is funny, extremely well written and largely self-deprecating. Boulting possesses a turn of phrase that is laughably good. He writes about subjects, rather than chronologically, but we get an overall sense as readers that he is growing into understanding and enjoying the sport.
The book is at its best when Boulting gives true insights into the behind the scenes goings on at ITV. His descriptions of the people he works with are very funny indeed. The three other guys that he works with in close proximity every day make up the bulk of the anecdotes, getting up to adventures with hire cars driving up Alp d’Huez, or staking out team hotels of a morning. One of these three is the cycling author Matt Rendell, who Boulting acknowledges as being crucial to both his own understanding of the sport and the quality of the coverage that ITV put out. Rendell can speak numerous languages and knows a number of the cyclists, making it far easier for Boulting to get interviews.
What is funnier however is Boulting’s description of the guys who front ITV’s coverage. Whilst bordering on caricature,it is really very funny indeed. Gary Imlach, who anchors the programme is painted as a true professional, dedicated and hard working, and comically disinterested in anything Ned has to say. Phil Liggett, who commentates on all the races, is described as a silvery,wise old fox, who cannot ever remember Ned’s name. However, it is Boulting’s descriptions of Chris Boardman that steal the show. Moments where the two are put together are fantastic. Boardman is described as obsessed with ‘marginal gains’ (a phrase he coined for British Cycling’s desire to make everything they do better), applying them to everything he does. This could be from sweeping up, to beating Boulting in every run they ever go out on together, to pitching a tent for Boulting to sleep in on the side of an Alpine mountain.
How I Won The Yellow Jumper does provide another more serious purpose than being a collection of amusing anecdotes about the hijinks of the ITV team. It gives readers a really great idea of what the cyclists themselves are actually like when the cameras aren’t running. Boulting gives a useful introduction to the main stars of the book at the beginning, and describes a number of encounters with them. In particular, Boulting describes his many interviews with Mark Cavendish, their Tour de France experiences running parallel to each other.
As an English reporter, Boulting was entrusted with doing the post race interviews with Cavendish for the worldwide footage. After Cavendish won a plethora of stage wins, he has interviewed him a great number of times. His description of what the Manxman is really like is very interesting. Boulting describes him as a really prickly character, and a very difficult man to read – it all depends on the man you get on the day. Sometimes Cav is great fun, and others, he is as difficult as possible.
And from this insight into Cavendish, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a sports reporter. Boulting makes no excuses for annoying the riders with his constant presence and his desire to get a soundbite – they are not his friends, and he has a job to do. In the wake of recent revelations surrounding doping, it is refreshing to hear a journalist state that fact. It must be incredibly hard for sports journalists not to fawn over the men and women they report on, who do remarkable things every day, and Boulting highlights this useful consideration.
How I Won The Yellow Jumper is a great read for those who love the Tour de France and that special feeling you get when the summer comes around and it is back on TV. It is an informative and in places reflective read, providing the view from the other side of the camera. What’s more, it’s just really good fun.
If you watch Eurosport, read it and you’ll watch ITV next time around.