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‘I admire darts players as much as I do cyclists’: Ned Boulting Q&A

15 Jun 2020

Presenter, commentator and ‘theatrical performer’ Ned Boulting talks to Cyclist about racing, Gary Imlach and his other favourite sport

Words James Witts Photography Patrik Lundin

Cyclist: Ned, you’ve turned up to our interview with hands darker than coal. What’s the deal? Have you taken to couriering fossil fuels as a sideline?

Ned Boulting: I’m 25 minutes late because I punctured at Sloane Square. I’ve had to lock my bike up and walk as the damn thing wouldn’t fix. But I love my bike to bits. It’s a second-hand Tifosi that I bought after covering my first Tour de France in 2003. Bit by bit it has fallen apart. The last thing to break was the bell but I found a comedy car horn so I’ve gaffer-taped that to the handlebars instead. It’s not even Heath Robinson as he had a certain beauty to his work. It’s ugly, but I love it.

Cyc: You don’t take it with you to the Tour, then?

NB: No, that’s the Brompton and it has revolutionised our Tour experience. Not only does it stop me getting fat, it’s great for reconnaissance each day. If it’s a flat stage we’ll tend to ride the last 30-40km. If it’s a mountain stage we’ll ride at least the last climb.

Cyc: You say ‘we’, not ‘I’?

NB: I mean David Millar and me. We’ve worked together since I moved from presenting to commentating in 2016. Initially he was my guide. OK, I could impart emotion but I deferred – and still do – to his tactical analysis, which is second to none. He’s one of the best analysts in any sport in the history of broadcasting. Now I watch more cycling than David to keep him abreast of younger riders coming through.

Cyc: You two have entered the congested world of cycling podcasts?

NB: It’s called Never Strays Far and we talk about racing, but also stuff beyond racing. It’s sporadic, badly edited and we’ve no intention of turning it into a commercial venture. But it’s fun and a throwback to around 10 years ago when Matt Rendell and I inadvertently invented the cycling podcast scene. We had a short-lived podcast called Real Peloton. It was the Wild West of media and we were heinously libellous and ragged. We had a loyal listenership but got so frightened that we’d end up in court that we stopped.

Cyc: Podcasting isn’t your only side project, is it?

NB: I’m back with my one-man show in the autumn. I did three successive years but took 2019 off as I was burnt out. There are over 30 dates that’ll be announced soon. I’ve had publicity shots, venues are booked and I haven’t written any of it. It’s music, imagery, videos… the last time the ghost of Henri Desgrange popped out of the washing machine live on stage. It’s constantly drawing on the humour and absurdity of cycling. I’ve also edited The Road Book, which I self-publish.

I take great joy in working in different media. You have to unpick what that means. By definition, we in the media sit between the seeker and the object. We’re here to facilitate that process, and cycling demands it because it’s impossible to watch a race from a standing start and get anything out of it other than total confusion.

Cyc: As mentioned, since 2016 you’ve commentated rather than presented. How do the two roles differ?

NB: They’re like chalk and cheese. ITV badgered me for years as they were looking for Phil Liggett’s succession plan. I resisted until I thought, ‘If people open doors, you should walk through.’ I love it but it became obvious to me that despite watching the sport for years, I hadn’t really watched it.

I now watch bike races in a different light. Say you see that QuickStep are working at the front. In the past, I’d have been content with that knowledge. Now, what interests me is what’s happening 20 places back. Why are Astana moving up? Why is the GC guy there? Why are they even sharing the work? You’ve got to pay attention because, when it kicks off, the signs were there if you’d only read the tea leaves in advance. And I try to impart that drama by tricks like counter-intuitively dropping the tone of my voice rather than raising it. Phil taught me that.

Cyc: Before cycling you covered football for ITV. How do the two sports differ?

NB: Over 15 years I covered everything from the Champions League to the World Cup. But the longer I hung around in the football environment, the less I liked it. As big as cycling is, at heart it has this wonderful, chaotic, amateur friendliness and approachability about it that football lost a long time ago.

Whereas I can call Mark Cavendish or Chris Froome – and they might occasionally pick up! – that connection between the media and footballers is broken. I’d bet even some of the most experienced football writers have an empty contacts book when it comes to current players. I don’t think they know them. I feel more passionate about cycling than ever. Its complexity is poetic. It’s an unending love story.

Cyc: 2020 will be your 18th Tour. Which has been the most memorable?

NB: 2019 was flabbergasting. In fact, it was so good that even the Pau time-trial was memorable. I don’t like time-trials. I think they should be raced in private and anyone interested in the results can sign up for the email. Then you go again the next day with a new GC. This was different. This had passion, which you don’t associate with a TT. Julian Alaphilippe transmitted it somehow, the way he threw his bike around and sprinted to the win. I’ve never heard a crowd like it. It was a very French crowd; their eyes were open to the possibility of something happening that hasn’t happened in over a generation.

Cyc: Do you think Alaphilippe can end France’s 35-year Tour hoodoo?

NB: No. My tip is Primož Roglič. Jumbo-Visma have made huge gains and, if they can bring the riders they’ve named, are formidable. He’s reminiscent of Froome, all twitchy and strong in time-trials. The other rider is Tadej Pogačar. He’s only 21 and apparently he’ll support Fabio Aru. He won’t – he’s way better than Aru. Having said that, Ineos will win it again.

Cyc: And the magnificent Gary Imlach will be with you?

NB: Oh yes. I know Gary well but he’s a private person. His attention to detail is borderline fanatical – he’s allergic to factual inaccuracies to a degree that I’ve never met in another human being.

Gary edited Chris Boardman’s autobiography. Chris would reference a Chinese restaurant where he grew up, give it a name, before Gary went to great effort to find it was incorrect. That’s his great strength, like his baroque construction of sentences. He works incredibly hard at those. It occupies his every waking hour during the Tour. For the highlights show, every single intro and outro is word perfect.

I remember my second Tour, after a doping-related incident involving Filippo Simeoni and Lance Armstrong, Gary closed the show by saying it became evident once again that Lance Armstrong needs a grudge like the Flying Scotsman needs a steady supply of coal. Archetypal Imlach.

Cyc: Do you miss Chris Boardman?

NB: Yes, though Pete Kennaugh’s great. Chris would be the first to admit that, when he signed up, he wasn’t bothered about the broadcasting. He was just doing it to keep his name in the public eye so he could launch his bike brand. And he did that very successfully. Then he embraced the deadpan persona. A lot of those vignettes we used to do, they were all his scripts and his idea. He missed the Tour – really missed it. Sally [his wife] couldn’t stand having him around for July. Will he return? You never know…

Cyc: Were you sporty as a child?

NB: Not really. A young me was a reader and more interested in theatre, music and travel. I was never good enough to make a living from acting or music but cycling has enabled me to tap back into some of that. It also helps me improve my French. I studied modern languages at Cambridge. After leaving uni I lived in Hamburg for four years and did very little but enjoy myself, although I became fluent in German.

Cyc: Where did you grow up?

NB: I was born in Andover and grew up in Bedford. It’s a conversation ender.

Cyc: You’re embedded in the consciousness of UK cycling fans but you also dabble on the oche?

NB: I’ve worked in darts for years and, along with cycling, it’s my favourite sport. I admire darts players as much as I do cyclists. They’re different personalities, different backgrounds. In this country, road cycling has become a very middle class sport. Darts remains a working class sport. It gives an opportunity for those who, for whatever reason – health, socio-economic – have found themselves left behind by society. They can live their dream, but only if they’re brilliant practitioners.

Cyc: You’ve even written a book about darts called Heart Of Dart-ness, but which book written by your former or present-day colleagues is the most enjoyable?

NB: My favourite book about cycling is the first I ever read – Matt Seaton’s The Escape Artist. As for ITV colleagues, it would have to be the second cycling book I ever read: Matt Rendell’s A Significant Other. It’s the story of Victor Hugo Pena, who was one of Armstrong’s domestiques at the 2003 Tour. It’s beautiful and it dissects cycling in a very beautiful way.