Thursday, 15 September 2011

Behind the Scenes at the Tour de France. . .

So I was waiting in line getting my festival tickets and as you do, started chatting with the people around me. The guy in front had an accent so I asked him what part of England he came from.

"Well not many people know of it, it's a town called Bedford."
"Really?  I just happen to be reading a book by a guy who grew up in Bedford. That's just a bit north of London isn't it?"
"Yes, about 50km.  Who is the author?"
"Ned Boulting. He's a sports journalist; he's written a book about covering the Tour de France."
"Really? I went to school with a guy named Ned Boulting."

It really is a small world. When his wife returned bringing him a coffee, we also established that we'd all eaten in the same small restaurant in the suburbs of Liverpool and that we also shared a similar taste in British films, if our tickets were anything to go by.

Boulting has been covering the Tour for British television since 2003, roughly about the time I too became a fan.  He and I knew very little about the intricacies of the sport - what the heck a green jersey was, how the peloton worked, and why would so many guys work so hard pulling their bodies over huge mountains to help someone else win? You learn as you go, and as things start to make sense, one slowly becomes obsessed with this gruelling and fascinating sport, even despite the constant disappointments around the constant doping scandals.

In his book How I Won the Yellow Jumper, there are reflections on, and encounters with, some of the big names of the sport - Armstrong, Wiggins, Cavendish - but this is really a  look at the army of people involved behind the scenes, from the journalists and photographers, to the caterers, the hotel staff, and even the crazy fans who camp out on the mountains. They all need to eat, sleep, travel from stage to stage, do laundry, and  pee; all of which produces numerous logistical conundrums and frequently amusing anecdotes. The driving in particular is a nightmare - all those narrow, steep mountain roads, with big trucks and dangerous speed demons. And then there are the challenges of interviewing a rider at the beginning of a stage and having to get to the finish line ahead of the peloton (without getting lost on the side streets).  Boulting is also very funny on the difficulties he's had over the years (as most sports journalists can probably attest to) about staking out a reluctant athlete and coming up with intelligent questions beyond "How does it feel?".

What we want now, what TV demands to know, is the stuff that has remained hidden to this point, the stuff the blank stare of the lens cannot hope to unearth. The joy goes without saying; the delight is self-evident. TV wants to find out what the rider has within him: the hidden agenda, the feud resolved, maybe, the personal motivation born from some sense of grief or injustice or anger. Can the rider blurt this emotion out? Can he paint words for us all, which bring back the thrill of watching the win unfold? What can he say to make a good feeling better? And, I return to my initial question: where do I start?
This is an entertaining and informative book that could be enjoyed by someone who has never watched the Tour, or a die-hard fan glued to the TV screen for most of July.

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