On The Road Bike – Ned Boulting

ned boulting

Ned’s second book on cycling compliments his first nicely.  How I Won The Yellow Jumper tells the story of the Tour de France from Ned’s novice days covering the race to how it entranced him and fostered a love and interest in the race and cycling itself.  In On The Road Bike Ned charts his own history on a bike, particularly when he begins to cycle again through to riding his first 100 mile sportive interspersed throughout this Ned tracks down and tells the stories of mythical figures from British cycling’s past together with some other characters as he goes in search of a nation’s cycling soul.

What I love about Ned’s style is that he seems to be writting from an amused and bemused perspective as if he has stumbled into a great party to which he has no idea of how he was invited.  In fact that’s pretty much how the book kicks off as finds himself at a gala dinner where British Cycling were going to induct 50 greats (one for each year of their existence at the time) into their Hall of Fame.  At the dinner Ned finds himself at a table with Barry Hoban (prior to Cavendish the Brit with the most Tour de France stage wins), Brian Robinson (first British winner of a Tour de France stage) and Graham Webb (1967 Amateur Road Race World Champion).  Ned had never heard of Graham Webb, nor of many of the other people in the room that night so decides to find out more about the people who blazed the trail that has ended up with Bradley Wiggins becoming the first British winner of the Tour de France.

Ned writes about Chris Boardman, Graham Webb, Mick Bennett, Maurice Burton, Ron Keeble, Two Tommy Goodwins, Gary Beckett and Tony Hewson some of which are characters I know a tiny bit about both most I’d either not heard of or simply knew the name.  Each character that Ned tracks down has a rich story to tell and Ned brings them to life beautifully but as he goes about his search he also looks to see what, if anything, links these people across the generations.  As he searches he begins to realise that:

The more I speak to British riders, whether they are from the online here and now, or from the black and white yesteryear, the more I detect a commonality.  They tend to brood.  Accustomed to passing endless hours trapped in their interior monologues, with only the whirr of ball bearings and the swish of rubber on tarmac to accompany them, they often betray the signs of a fundamental unease with their circumstances, as if reinventing their physiologies day by day at the coal face of a punishing bike ride will somehow release them from who they are and what they are faced with.  From the cards they’ve been dealt.

As well as the pro riders Ned also looks at the burgeoning charity ride scene, the hilarious tale of Gary Kemp and other former New Romantics who have become bike obsessives and a look at Rapha, a chapter which had me guffawing out loud on many occasions, and their rise to now being the kit suppliers for Team Sky.  Ned calls devotees of the brand The Raffia – the semi secretive, palpably affluent, metrosexual.  Simon Mottram, the Yorkshireman behind Rapha, invites Ned for a tour of the offices, outlines his passionate vision for the brand and Ned attends the Rapha VIP area at the London Nocturne:

In the VIP area the uniform was the thing: black jeans with descreetly expensive and inutely reflective trim, slim fitting merion wool, old fashioned-looking racing jersyes, either cream, or black, but with traces of colour in cunning little places, and caps; black, white with rainbow stripes, or discreetly tweed in nature with a black strip woven into the fabric bearing the embroidered name (black on black): Rapha.  Pink T-shirts with black lettering.  Black T-shirts with white lettering.  Rapha.  It was overwhelmingly homogenous.  The aesthetic extended way further than just the clothes.  It seemed there was no one there with nothing to say for themselves……. Being uninteresting, unengaging, unglamorous was off-limits.  I struggled for things to contribute.  After enough time had elapsed for me to decently be seen to take my leave, I necked my wine and fled, without even waiting to find out who had won.

The book is full of these wry snippets as well as Ned’s own views on the mechanics of the bike (like me he knows very little and is not really interested), the difficulties of bib shorts, searing pain on entering a hill climb, a pilgrimage to Herne Hill velodrome and many other whimsical tales.  As in his previous book Ned weaves everything together in a somewhat haphazard style which I really enjoy, you are not quite sure where you are going but you know the journey is going to be fun.

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How I Won The Yellow Jumper

When it comes to reading I always have several books on the go at the same time; too many books not enough time best sums it up.  The book that always takes precedent is whatever the current book club book is (Helen Dunmore ‘The Greatcoat’ this month) and then of course depending on how that goes during the month I’ll dip in and out of other books as I go along.  I usually have a biography or other non fiction book to hand as I find that these fit well into the fiction gaps but I also usually have another fiction book and often I’m also re reading an old fav.  The re reading seems to fit in well as you don’t lose the plot and it’s easy to pick up where you left off. I do struggle to get the fit of another novel though as I find that I end up taking my eye off the main goal which as mentioned is always to read the monthly book club.

As I scan round at the moment I’ve got The Corner (David Simon & Ed Burns) and Rough Ride (Paul Kimmage) as my non fiction and biography fix; the novel on the go is Until I Find You (John Irving) and no re read happening.  I love John Irving but I’m definitely finding that his are not novels that you can read around other books.  Of course even if you have a couple of books on the go there are so many others that you want to read which is where the Ned Boulting book comes in.  I keep lists of books that I want to read; in my head, on scraps of paper and electronically but of course many fall off completely, some I know that I’ll never get round to but others it’s just a matter of time and Ned’s Yellow Jumper falls into the latter category and I’m so glad that I’ve finally got round to reading it.

For those who don’t know him Ned is a journalist and reporter for ITV who, since 2003, has reported in his crumpled polo shirts on the greatest annual sporting event, the Tour De France.  I love anyone who does not take themselves too seriously and is prepared to admit their own mistakes and laugh at  themselves, so I got on well with Ned right from the start of this book as this is clearly the category that he falls into.  Anyone who has ever had to give a presentation or been put on the spot without knowing the full facts of what is going on will grimace and laugh as Ned has to go live on air to give his view of a crucial event that has just happened to David Millar when he clearly has no idea who Millar is or what it is that has happened to him.  You see when Ned first got sent to cover the tour he had no idea about cycling, did not know that it was a team sport or any of the riders apart from Lance Armstrong or as he puts it early on “He’s the American cancer bloke isn’t he? Keeps winning it” – that appeared to be his sole knowledge of the race and the sport.

However what transpire through the book is how, through witnessing the madness that is the tour, Ned came to truly love the sport and the race for all it’s warts.

so it is then that cycling occupies two different spaces in our understanding.  It is both the realm of the incredible, and the ordinary.  And in this respect it is unique

Although the book is about the tour it is also about journalism, France, cultural differences, power, politics, hotels, boredom and toilets.

Braced as we are then for events to drag us away from what we thought would happen, we cling to those fragments of routine which keep us sane, and without which we would lose all grip.  They are the snags of rock just big enough to gain a fingerhold and prevent us from slipping off the sheer rock face of the Tour de France: regularity, security, dependability, toilets.

So begins the hilarious chapter on the toilets.  You see the book flits about between the serious and the absurd.  From the controversial enigma that is Lance Armstrong (or Larry as he is known to the team) to tips on packing your suitcase and ensuring that your socks don’t rot your clothes.  It’s an excellent, funny and touching book that I lapped up in a couple of days often laughing out loud and could be enjoyed by someone who knows nothing about the tour (as Ned started off) all the way through to the riders who ride it.  Pick it up and enjoy the madness that is the Tour.