How I Won The Yellow Jumper, by Ned Boulting

How-i-won-the-yellow-jumper_mediumTitle: How I Won The Yellow Jumper - Dispatches From the Tour de France
Author: Ned Boulting
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Pages: 316
Year: 2011
Order: Random House
What it is: A behind the scenes look at reporting the Tour de France from a member of ITV's Tour team.
Strengths: Fans of ITV's Tour coverage will enjoy the glimpse behind the curtain and the anecdotes about Phil'n'Paul, Chris Boardman, Matt Rendell and Gary Imlach.
Weaknesses: You really need to have watched ITV's cycling coverage in order to get Boulting's whimsical charm.

Days shy of his thirty-fourth birthday, Ned Boulting found himself attending his first bicycle race. Attending? No, that's wrong. Yes, it was Boulting's first time to be at a bike race - his first time even to see one - but he wasn't there just to feed a proto-MAMIL fetish for men in bulging lycra shorts. Boulting was there to report on this particular bike race. And this wasn't just a crappy little bike race like the Tour of Britain. This was a real bike race, the Tour de France. Ned Boulting was in at the deep end, the highest profile newest member of British broadcaster ITV's Tour team. Whose other members, at this time, had an average of ten Tours under their belts. Boulting was the team's virgin. And verging on the ridiculous.

Just a month before the grand départ of the centenary grande boucle, Boulting - whose background was covering football at Sky - had first been introduced to the sport of cycling, sitting in a Soho café and getting a crash course from Gary Imlach. Little things amazed him, such as the fact that cycling is a team sport. He had a lot to learn. Faced with the choice of cramming for the next few weeks or just turning up and winging it, Boulting did what any man worth his salt would do - he winged it.

On the day of the Tour's prologue time trial, Boulting had one job: to hang around the finish-line mosh pit, jam a microphone under the nose of a rider (preferably one who could speak English) and get him to emote articulately on how it feels to have ridden on the rivet for a handful of klicks. Or, failing that, to himself do a piece to camera that would capture the magic of the moment. And the magic of Boulting's first moment was wonderful. The man of it, David Millar, had shipped his chain approaching the finish line, his team's incompetence and his own intransigence denying him a stage win and the first maillot jaune of the 2003 Tour. And, as Boulting gazed down the lens of a camera and out of the screens of thousands of TVs up and down the UK, he uttered a line that even today, he tells us, still haunts him. David Millar, Boulting told the watching public, had just kissed goodbye to his chances of winning the yellow jumper.

Cut!

Ok, I know that for a lot of you calling the yellow jersey a yellow jumper might seem like a foolish faux pas, a real piece of muppetry. But let me tell you a story. It is a fact universally acknowledged that Irish authors have made major contributions to English literature: Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, blah blah blah, yada yada yada. We're famous for the way they have used - and abused - the English language. But what's not so universally acknowledged is that, constitutionally speaking, English is actually our second language. According to our constitution, we actually speak Irish.

Not many of us do, of course, but even those who don't do have the cúpla focal, the couple of words. And we like to pepper our conversation with them. It gives it a certain ... níl fhios agam. So when, in the eighties, we discovered that we had a couple of riders on the continent who were actually quite good at this cycling thing and the media went cycling crazy, Irish coverage of the sport developed a language of its own. And as well as having the maglia rosa and the maillot amirillo and the maillot jaune, we had the geansaí buí. Buí is the colour yellow. And a geansaí, as every schoolboy knows, is a jumper or a sweater.

So, had Ned Boulting been Irish, he could have claimed his reference to the yellow jumper was a nod to his colleague up the commentary box, Stephen Roche, a bit of cross-cultural word play. It worked wonderfully for James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, even if no one understood what he was blathering on about. But Ned Boulting was not Irish. Ned Boulting was as British as afternoon tea and saucy seaside postcards. Ned Boulting was a fucking muppet.

Eight tours of duty have kicked the muppetry out of Boulting. And How I Won The Yellow Jumper is his account of those eight years and his journey from muppet to pundit, his journey from being an amateur abroad to being a man of the Tour. Mostly it's a whimsical collection of Tour colour pieces, a behind the scenes look at the life of a roving cycling reporter, a collection of sizzling anecdotes from life behind the camera. There's stories of hire care traumas. France and the French. Café pit stops. Toilets. And socks.

Socks, you see, are very important to Ned Boulting. Particularly important is the management of old socks. Three weeks chasing the Tour apparently requires expert luggage logistics. And socks, for Boulting, are where all his suitcase supervisory skills begin to go awry. He has had to learn how to stop allowing old socks taking over his luggage and infecting all his clothes with their manky odour:

"Some simple rules should be observed that will help contain the carnage if diligently followed. A little suitcase husbandry is critical.

"So listen up. Should you be lucky enough to sit down for dinner in the comforting surrounding of a brasserie, your socks will need changing before you head for the bar. Do this as soon as you get to the hotel room. Pair them up in their saline filth, roll them together and slip them inside the complementary plastic sack that is meant for your laundry order. This can be found by sliding back the door to the left of the desk with the leatherette wallet containing information on how to dial internationally using the phone on your bedside table.

"Should you find yourself in a hotel too modest for a laundry service, don't despair. Underneath the desk with the telephone on it, or just to the right of the door, you will find the waste bin. Take out the small white bin liner. This will do for a few days but won't last longer that that, as it will tear. Or simply melt away.

"Then unzip the inner lining at the top of the suitcase and slide the bagged-up socks in there. If the Tour starts in the temperate gloom of Belgium or Brittany, or indeed in Britain, you might get a few days' grace before the plastic starts to degrade, allowing them to infect the healthier tissue in the main body of the case, spreading their malignancy. But be warned: by week two, there will be nothing left that doesn't look, and smell, like it's been stuffed down the back of a couch.

"It is a kind of slow misery, watching the disorder begin, gain a foothold and then ride roughshod over all the best intentions."

Beyond tales such as this, Boulting also offers pen portraits of some of the Brits in the peloton. David Millar is "the philosopher king of the peloton." Bradley Wiggins has "a heavy-handed dead-weight wit, which can leave you wondering what it is you might have done to upset him." Mark Cavendish is "on the one hand the pugnacious British scrapper, carrying into battle with him much of the raw aggression of Wayne Rooney and some of the adventure of Daley Thompson. But on the other hand, he's a guy who buys into the world, every bit as much as the world has bought into him." And Team Sky is "the world's best-equipped cycling outfit" but their "ambition [to produce a British Tour de France winner within the next four or five years] seems some way off right now."

Of his own role reporting the race for ITV, here's what Boulting has to say:

"My role is not to be the riders' friend. It is to bring home the sights and sounds, character and soul of a race that places immense demands on the protagonists. Often, in their silence, their unwillingness to talk, or even in a flash of anger or contempt directed towards us, they articulate the brutal pressures more accurately than any manicured words can achieve.

"In such circumstances, I understand my job to be the lightning conductor."

Regrettably, here I have to confess to being clueless as to Boulting's ability to conduct lightning, never having watched any of ITV's Tour coverage. Mostly that's to do with having an allergic reaction to Phil'n'Paul (they bring me out in a strange desire to stab myself with hot knitting needles). This does, sadly, leave me somewhat handicapped when it comes to How I Won The Yellow Jumper, so much of it feeling like an inside joke, something fans of ITV's coverage of the Tour will enjoy but left me feeling a little left out in the cold. So instead of me offering an opinion, let's look at what others have said of the book.

Team Sky Fans opine this:

"The beauty of the book for the cycling fan is that Boulting's reminiscences bring back so many memories. I just knew, even before I read it that Boulting's description of the reaction to London's successful Olympic bid, announced during the 2005 Tour, would touch upon his interviews at the finish line and in particular with the bald-headed moustached Cochonou salami man who wasn't particularly impressed..! Anyone who has been to a finishing stage at the Tour will instantly recognise this individual and as soon as I finished that chapter I just had to dig out the 2005 DVD and watch the encounter again."

Freewheel France says that:

"it's not the riders who are the stars of the book. The star is undoubtedly Boulting himself, probably as much to his own surprise as to anyone else's, because it's both eloquent and modest, placing Boulting at the centre of the story, but somehow keeping him on the periphery at the same time."

And finally, The Guardian's Helen Pidd said:

"Anyone else who cancels all 7pm appointments for three weeks in July in order to watch ITV4's Tour highlights will enjoy the behind-the-scenes gossip - how Liggett even commentates his breakfast and can never remember Boulting's name, how the ITV team come to refer to Lance Armstrong as 'Larry' (and his then girlfriend Sheryl Crow as 'Shirley') and the story of the day Boardman phones up Boulting's dad when his whole family forgets his birthday. There is plenty of insight too into the tour's bigwigs, with chapters on Armstrong, Cavendish, Millar, Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, as well as an introduction to off-camera heroes, such as the man in charge of the Tour's chemical toilets."

* * * * *

You'll find an interview with Ned Boulting on the Café Bookshelf along with your chance to win your own Yellow Jumper.

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