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
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.”
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…