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Capturing the grind behind the glamour, with a laugh and a smile
on 7 June 2011
It took Ned Boulting two decades to graduate from commenting on potholes on Chiltern FM to reporting about the `yellow jumper' at the Tour de France. He has come a long way since those early days as a drowning Tour ingénue, and now knows everything there is to know about French service stations, cheap hotels and which yogurt-based drinks to avoid.
He has also learned a bit about cycling too. `How I Won The Yellow Jumper' is his story of the grind behind the glamour of covering cycling's biggest race. It is a tale of one man, a suitcase full of smelly socks and his noble steed, a battered Renault Espace, on an annual three-week odyssey from Grand Départ to Bedraggled Arrivée.
If you watch ITV's annual Tour coverage, you will be familiar with Boulting's dry style as he brings us short feature segments and gleans reactions from exhausted pedallers in the post-stage media melée in which pointy elbows and a willingness to stick your nose in where angels fear to tread are as vital tools of the trade as the ability to mangle a variety of European languages.
He is to Gary Imlach, ITV's inimitable and unfeasibly polished front-man, what Jens Voigt is to Andy Schleck. In his deceptively imitable every-man style, Boulting has carved out a niche as the team's super-domestique. He plays a vital role, putting in the hard kilometres that help make ITV's coverage so enjoyable.
Here Boulting conveys the real beauty of the Tour and why he has fallen in love with its utter lunacy. It is not about the stars who make the headlines, or the Alpine backdrops or the race's unerring capacity for human drama. The beauty is all in the details, whether it is the countless hours spent hanging around hotel foyers hoping to pounce on an elusive rider, or the litany of woe that is part and parcel of decamping from one random town to another on a daily basis. It is the little insights that matter, such as his random walk with the legendary Eddy Merckx while staking out his son Axel, or his pre-Tour mission of stocking up on easy-iron shirts to try to avoid the `crumpled chic' look he ends up modelling every year.
Boulting's gift as a writer is twofold. Firstly, his open acceptance that so much of the reality of covering a three-week, 3000-kilometre race is mundane and faintly ludicrous. And secondly, he writes exactly like he presents, delivering deadpan wit which makes you laugh before you even realise he has cracked a joke. Most of all, though, he does it with an obvious love of the sport without being blind to both its darker and sillier sides.
Eight years of covering the Tour has taken Boulting on a journey from novice to expert and from jobbing reporter to passionate fan. That story unfolds here without airs and graces, in the manner of an entertaining chat down the pub. True to his reporting style, his writing gives the effortless impression that anyone could do his job - until you realise that this in itself is his greatest skill.
Most importantly, he now knows it's not a yellow `jumper'. It's a tank-top. And not an easy-iron one either.
If you want glamorous anecdotes and bon mots about the stars of contemporary cycling, look elsewhere. But if you want to know what the day-to-day reality of chasing a bunch of skinny men in lycra skin-suits around France is like, then look no further. `How I Won The Yellow Jumper' is an unpolished gem from an unsung hero. Chapeau, Ned.