ITV cycling commentator Ned Boulting talks to Telegraph Men about life at the Tour de France, from encountering loony fans to Chris Boardman’s streamlined packing advice
Following the Tour isn’t always as glamorous as you think
“When I’m commenting on the Tour de France – and this makes cycling very unique – we can’t actually see the event itself. There is no way round that. David Millar and I are in a homemade, botched-together, tiny little commentary booth in the back of a truck in the middle of a field in France, and we’re surrounded by dozens of other trucks with cables sticking out the back. That’s the reality of it: we are in an airless, windowless, soundproof booth in a truck, watching the telly.
The only privileged access we have is to the race radio which provides us with information the cameras might have missed – like a rider puncturing or a crash at the back of the peloton – but other than that we are fumbling around in the dark just like you are at home.”
Expect the unexpected
“Just when you think you have seen it all at the Tour, in the blink of an eye something completely new happens and this is one of the greatest joys of the Tour.
"I will never forget the sight of Chris Froome running up Mont Ventoux after his crash (in 2016). You could watch the Tour de France for the next 100 years and you won’t see that happen again.
And then there was that collapsing arch which knocked Adam Yates off his bike last year. It was the maddest thing. The timing of it - a split second either way and he might have got through or come to a halt and wheeled around it – but it got him with pinpoint accuracy. Even at the Giro d’Italia we saw Tom Dumoulin potentially losing the race because he needed to have a poo.
There are no codified rules for these kinds of incidents because no race is ever identical. The Tour is always different because every route is unique and the 180 riders in the peloton are always different. The Tour is like an infinitely vast Rubik’s cube which we get to play with each year and it is completely fascinating.
"Something will happen this year. I don’t know what it will be, but something will happen. In 2007 Marcus Burghardt got upended by a Labrador. I rest my case.”
Don’t count on much sleep
“When I worked as a presenter and reporter the Tour de France, before I moved into commentating, it would always involve very early starts, standing around in a car park in the drizzle somewhere, outside a rider’s hotel, waiting to door step an angry Mark Cavendish as he got on the team bus. We would then try to get ahead of the team bus and get to the start which involved a lot of hanging around and pushing yourself through crowds so I could gather as many interviews as possible. We would then jump in the car and get ahead of the race so we could get to the finish line to help get the highlights show together. We would just about get there in time to watch the last 10km and then dive into the melee of post-race interviews.”
You drive hundreds of kilometres every day
“The Tour is not like any other event; it is not enclosed in a stadium and it plays out over hundreds of kilometres of open road. And you can’t drive the race route itself very easily so you have to drive around the whole race. We would drive hundreds of kilometres every day. My record was on a stage in the Massif Central when we drove 780km in a single day.”
Brace yourself for barbecue envy
David Millar talks often to me about how towards the end of the Tour de France he would get barbecue envy. He would be riding in the groupetto on the final climb on stage 19 and all he could see and smell were barbecues. He would just be tortured by the notion of a cold beer and a grilled sausage. The longer the race went on, the more the barbecue envy grew.”
Riders are just like you and me
“What is abundantly apparent when I literally bump into the riders at hotels is that they are simply like you and me. They are flawed, normal, fallible human beings with foibles, quirks, different senses of humour and mood swings. The difference is the bit that television packages up: their extraordinary abilities and strengths. But in every other respect they are just like you and me.
"Up close, it is their hyper-normality off the bike that impresses you more than anything else. They are not Superman. They can be obnoxious on occasions as well. But that’s all part of the package.”
The fans are always surreal
“I once wrote about a character I saw in 2014 as I was just driving from a mountain in the Pyrenees. I rounded a corner and became aware of a British bloke standing in an enormous inflatable tutu with gigantic inflatable breasts, waggling around unsteadily on his feet. At that moment, some young French lads came up to him and kissed each of his inflatable breasts. He blessed them, gave them one of the 27 or so different hats he was wearing and on they went. It was one of the most surreal sights I have ever seen.”
When I was doing my Bikeology live tour, a guy came up to me and said: ‘You wrote about me in your book.’ It was him. And he was just a normal bloke from Stoke-on-Trent or somewhere like that. But that is what a day drinking at altitude in the sunshine does for you.”
A commentator has three responsibilities
“I think of my viewer as me ten years ago. It has taken me an awfully long time to crack the code of cycling and I am still only partially there. I think my job is to extend a welcoming hand to viewers who have questions. If you sit back and watch the pictures wash over you, you are only getting 5% of the race.
It is helpful working alongside an insightful commentator like David Millar because I feel like I have started watching racing in ultra-high definition. So my primary aim is always to explain as much as I can.
My second role is to impart the excitement I feel. I am a fan of road racing. I want to share my sense of joy and wonder. Thirdly - and this is part of my commentary I still need to work on - I want to enjoy the journey with the viewer. The Tour is a celebration of a country and a culture and we should never forget that. The star of the race isn’t the yellow jersey, it’s France itself. When the race goes a bit sleepy and we can kick back and enjoy the landscape I have to shut up and let the mountains, sunflowers and chateaux speak for themselves.”
Always listen to Chris Boardman’s packing tips
“This is my 15th Tour and I have got no better at packing. I unzip my case and realise I have packed seven jumpers when I only need one. But the best practical travel advice I ever got was from the incredibly efficient Chris Boardman. We all have so many things to charge up – phones, speakers, laptops – so you need continental adaptors. But Boardman says rather than take lots of adaptors and hunting around for plugs, just get one continental adaptor and take one of those four-plug extension pins. It’s such a simple thing but such a good idea. He told me that in 2005 and I keep forgetting every year.”
The memories last a lifetime
“This feels very flag-waving from a British perspective but I will always remember seeing Mark Cavendish chalk up his first victory in Chateauroux (in 2008). God, we had no idea what he would go on to achieve, but we didn’t see it coming. I knew he had a colossal reputation. But it was my fifth Tour de France and I never even contemplated the notion of a British rider winning a stage that wasn’t a time trial or a prologue.
I will never forget my sense of wonder. Cavendish was clearly delighted but it was also a matter-of-fact achievement because to him it was an inevitability. And it was extraordinary to see that sense of fulfilment up close.
I was also on Mont Ventoux in 2013, just inches away from Chris Froome when he sealed the deal by dispensing of Nairo Quintana on the climb. To win in the yellow jersey on Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day was very special. But to see him stagger off his bike and be given oxygen to recover, right under my nose, that is an image that will live with me forever.”
Ned Boulting is taking Bikeology to the Edinburgh Fringe and then touring the UK this autumn. Tickets available from www.bikeology.co.uk