BEST OF BRI­TISH: NED BOULT­ING

As cy­cling com­men­ta­tor and bon viveur Ned Boult­ing pre­pares to take his lat­est one-man show on the road, we joined him on his reg­u­lar com­mute across Lon­don to hear how the Tour de France in­spires him and tak­ing to the stage scares him

Cycling Plus - - CONTENTS - Words Paul Rob­son | Pho­tog­ra­phy Joe Branston

We go for a ride with the com­men­ta­tor, writer and racon­teur as he pre­pares for his the­atre show.

IFyou weren’t with me, which way would you go now?” Ned Boult­ing asks us as we sit at an un­marked junc­tion on south Lon­don’s Qui­et­way 1 cy­cle route. He has a point, as our baf­fled si­lence con­firms. “I use this Qui­et­way every day, and of course it’s bet­ter than noth­ing, but a hand­ful of small signs not al­ways placed where you need them and a few painted bikes on the road that are al­ready fad­ing isn’t enough: they should have a pur­ple line painted all the way along the route from start to fin­ish. If we’re go­ing to get peo­ple to use these fa­cil­i­ties we have to make it as easy as pos­si­ble.”

The ITV cy­cling com­men­ta­tor, au­thor and CP colum­nist will chan­nel his for­mer col­league and pas­sion­ate in­fra­struc­ture ad­vo­cate Chris Board­man a few times as we cross Lon­don from Green­wich Park to Eal­ing Stu­dios, where he will later be com­men­tat­ing – “shout­ing rid­ers’ names” – on the Vuelta a Es­paña with ex-pro David Mil­lar. It is an in­di­ca­tion of just how pas­sion­ate he is about cy­cling in all its forms, not just skinny pros rac­ing each other up moun­tains.

But it was skinny pros rac­ing each other up moun­tains, and the not-seenon-TV cir­cus that fol­lows them around France every sum­mer, that in­spired the Tour de Ned stage show that Boult­ing will be tak­ing on the road around the UK this au­tumn. Although this is his se­cond one-man show – and third tour af­ter two jaunts with the more gen­er­ally fo­cused Bike­ol­ogy – the process does not get any eas­ier.

“I am very much on my own,” he ex­plains, “pac­ing up and down in the green room while the au­di­to­rium fills up, lis­ten­ing to the noise of it, and I’m paral­ysed with fear by the time I have to go on stage. I haven’t got used to it at all.

“Hope­fully within the first 30 sec­onds you’ve got a laugh un­der your belt and you can sort of re­lax into it then, but you’ve got to get through that mo­ment, there’s no other op­tion.”

Can he at least step out with con­fi­dence in the ma­te­rial? “I spent yes­ter­day re­hears­ing to a room full of no­body so I gen­uinely don’t know if the ma­te­rial is any good. When I’m on stage what comes out of my mouth comes out of my mouth, a bit like now, so the show is im­pro­vised around a struc­ture, and this time the struc­ture is the Tour de France.”

Stage win­ner

There is one thing that com­forts Boult­ing as he eyes up his jaunt around the UK, and that’s the back­ing of his au­di­ence. “I’m re­ally lucky in that, yes, it’s a com­edy show and I want peo­ple to laugh through­out, but I’m not a stand-up co­me­dian deal­ing with an au­di­ence that’s up for a scrap. The au­di­ence that comes to my shows has by and large bought into it be­fore it starts. It’s a bit like do­ing a best man’s speech, ev­ery­one in the room wants it to be good so they can have a laugh, so they’re kind of on your side.

“That said we do get a bit of heck­ling, but I love it. I’ve been a heck­ler in the past, af­ter a cou­ple of drinks, think­ing that it gives me power to be able to

dis­rupt the guy on stage. But what I re­alise now is that the guy on stage has much more power than the heck­ler, be­cause they’re a lone voice and there are usu­ally 499 other peo­ple in the the­atre that are kind of on your side. You have to be care­ful with how you ex­er­cise it, but you have the power to bring about im­mense cru­elty. It’s so dif­fer­ent from any­thing else I do, par­tic­u­larly tele­vi­sion where I don’t see my au­di­ence and don’t hear from them un­til they give me a kick­ing on Twit­ter later.”

With that in mind, what pos­sessed him to put him­self in the po­si­tion of walk­ing out alone in front of any­where be­tween 500 and 1000 peo­ple every night?

“Like so many things that have hap­pened in my life, tak­ing a one-man show about cy­cling out on the road wasn’t my idea,” he laughs, “some­one had it for me. It seemed like the time was right for it, but it was one thing won­der­ing out loud if this idea would work and an­other to ac­tu­ally sit down and dream up what you might do on stage for two hours, all on your own, about cy­cling.

“With most of the things I do the found­ing prin­ci­ple is that it ab­so­lutely has to be fun. I want peo­ple to walk in with a smile on their face and walk out with an even big­ger one, and cel­e­brate the ab­sur­dity, in par­tic­u­lar, and the strange­ness of this sport.

“I don’t know why cy­cling has be­come so po-faced, but it has, hasn’t it? You can’t cy­cle un­less you’re su­per-skinny, you’ve got a

“I’ m very much on my own, lis­ten­ing to the noise of the au­di­to­rium fill­ing up, and I’m paral­ysed with fear by the time I have togo on” Ned Boult­ing

hip­ster beard, it’s in black and white, and you’re go­ing up some im­mense climb in the south of France or rid­ing in the rain. As long as you’re suf­fer­ing, that’s cy­cling, and ev­ery­thing else is piss­ing around. But that’s not my ex­pe­ri­ence of cy­cling. What we’re do­ing to­day is cy­cling, that’s nor­mal.”

Tales from the Tour

De­spite this, while Ned’s pre­vi­ous shows fo­cused at least in part on ev­ery­day cy­cling, over a cof­fee mid-com­mute he ex­plains why this new show zooms in on the Tour. “The se­cond-half of the Bike­ol­ogy show had fo­cused on the Tour de France and I had sensed the au­di­ences’ in­ter­est,” he tells us. “I re­alised that what peo­ple wanted to sit back and rem­i­nisce about as au­tumn and win­ter closed in was July and the Tour. It also never ceases to amaze me how cu­ri­ous our loyal view­ers are about what goes on be­hind the scenes be­tween these char­ac­ters they’ve come to know: Gary Im­lach, Chris Board­man, David Mil­lar, Matt Ren­dell and my­self. I don’t know why, but I’m happy to lift the cur­tain.

“The race is the star of the show, but the race forms the skele­ton and ev­ery­thing that hap­pens around it is the flesh that gives it shape and hu­man form.”

If we’re look­ing to cel­e­brate the “ab­sur­dity” of cy­cling, is the peak of the pro­fes­sional sport the right place to go look­ing? “Every year when we go to the Tour I ab­so­lutely know some­thing ridicu­lous is go­ing to hap­pen,” ex­pounds a smil­ing Ned, “I just don’t know what that thing is yet – the plea­sure comes from wait­ing to find out.

“They’re try­ing to herd kit­tens on the Tour de France,” he con­tin­ues, “to con­trol the un­con­trol­lable, and it just about works.

“Every year when we go to the Tour de France I ab­so­lutely know some­thing ridicu­lous is go­ing to hap­pen –I just don’t know what that thing is yet” Ned Boult­ing

But they’re only a frac­tion away from chaos, and every now and then chaos breaks through to the sur­face.

“Add to that the deep ama­teur heart of road rac­ing. The Tour is a huge thing, but it is also only just re­moved from be­ing a vil­lage fete. In fact it is a con­glom­er­a­tion of vil­lage fetes, with a big vil­lage fete at the end, and some peo­ple rid­ing be­tween all those vil­lage fetes. Even the fact they’re rac­ing bi­cy­cles is ridicu­lous, the bi­cy­cle is ridicu­lous – it’s beau­ti­ful, but it’s ridicu­lous, a 100-year-old in­ven­tion that has barely changed.

“This year I think we had to wait un­til stage 16 to Lu­chon when the farm­ers’ demon­stra­tion took place and a gen­darme man­aged to pep­per spray none of the de­mon­stra­tors, but him­self, all of his col­leagues, and the en­tire pelo­ton of the Tour de France. I thought that was ge­nius. They had to stop the race, not be­cause of any­thing the de­mon­stra­tors did, but be­cause this gen­darme pep­per-sprayed the pelo­ton.

“What we didn’t know is that it would be just the first in a trip­tych of com­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions by what I sus­pect was the same hap­less gen­darme, be­cause within a cou­ple of days Chris Froome, rid­ing down the Col de Portet with his soigneur, was hauled off his bike by a gen­darme. This is a four-time win­ner of the Tour, in what other sport is that imag­in­able?

“The third came on the stage 20 time trial, when we were watch­ing to see if Froome could hold off Tom Du­moulin to win the stage. It looked like he had, then Du­moulin’s time flicked from red to green again and no one knew what was hap­pen­ing. We later learned a gen­darme had cho­sen that pre­cise mo­ment to stick his size 13 boot across the fin­ish line tim­ing laser.

“Never mind Geraint Thomas, the French gen­darmerie were the stars of this year’s Tour.”

A game of two halves

As we ap­proach Eal­ing Stu­dios, where Ned will soon be tak­ing to the mic, we won­der aloud if his time in the com­men­tary booth, par­tic­u­larly for live broad­casts, is good prepa­ra­tion for go­ing on stage. Ned thinks not. “I think the com­men­tary and the stage work are dis­tinct from each other,” he ex­plains, “and my per­sonas for each have to be dis­tinct. When I started three years ago com­men­tat­ing on bike races for ITV, I was very con­scious of be­ing ‘the yel­low jumper bloke’; the bloke who by his own ad­mis­sion didn’t know what he was talk­ing about. So by what rights am I now try­ing to hold the race to­gether for peo­ple? So as much as I felt I’d be­gun to un­der­stand road rac­ing, I felt vul­ner­a­ble to crit­i­cism on that score.

“As a con­se­quence I was con­cen­trat­ing so much on iden­ti­fy­ing the rid­ers and read­ing the race ac­cu­rately, that what went miss­ing was the warmth and per­son­al­ity. I think that is be­gin­ning to seep in now, which is im­por­tant when not much is hap­pen­ing.”

He has struck up an ex­cel­lent on-air part­ner­ship with Mil­lar dur­ing those long hours that trans­lates off-air too. “David and I are hugely dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, but we’re friends and there’s a bit of us on the Venn di­a­gram that over­laps – we’re both rest­less and in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous and we want to step up cy­cling com­men­tary.

“He is weird though, isn’t he, Mil­lar? He still con­sid­ers him­self above it all, like a poet or philoso­pher or some­thing.

“He gets an ab­so­lute kick­ing through­out the show. In Bike­ol­ogy he got a kick­ing, and in Tour de Ned he gets an even more pro­found kick­ing, but I think he quite en­joys it. I haven’t tried any of the ma­te­rial on him, but he is com­ing one night so that might not end well.”

“I’m ac­tu­ally look­ing for­ward to see­ing it,” coun­ters Mil­lar when we catch up in the com­men­tary booth, “be­cause I en­joy look­ing back at the Tour de France much more than I en­joy be­ing there.”

And is he pre­pared for the fact his name might just crop up? “Yeah, I know I’ll be on the re­ceiv­ing end, I usu­ally am so I’m very ac­cus­tomed to it…”

For Tour de Ned dates and ticket in­for­ma­tion go to ned­boult­ing.com/live

“He’s weird though, isn’t he, Mil­lar? He still con­sid­ers him­self above it all, like a philoso­pher or a poet or some­thing. He get san ab­so­lute kick­ing through­out” Ned Boult­ing

Far right Ned and David at their desk job

Be­low Cy­cling Plus spots the pho­tog­ra­pher and inches ahead

Left Ned ex­pounds on his ‘anti-po­fac­ery’ stance

Be­low Every com­muter should make time for a cof­fee stop

Above If we’d only passed through Pim­lico on the way here…

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