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'Sean Kelly is the Rolls Royce of co-commentators': Q&A with Eurosport's Carlton Kirby

James Spender
16 Oct 2020

We catch up with Eurosport’s favourite commentator during the 2020 Tour de France to talk trouser problems. Photos: Juan Trujillo Andrades

Cyclist: We all held our breath but it’s finally happening: the Tour is on and you’re back in the hotseat. How has the hiatus affected things?

Carlton Kirby: Well, it’s great to be back in the booth, although I’m commentating from Discovery headquarters [UK home to Eurosport] in Chiswick. Rob Hatch is in Mallorca, Sean Kelly is in Bath, Orla Chennaoui is in The Netherlands.

Technically it’s quite a feat, but compared to being on-site at the Tour it’s quite weird, only seeing colleagues through FaceTime, no chat over breakfast, no walking the last 2km of a stage to imagine the finish, the weather, the food, the buzz.

It’s still exciting, but very different. There’s no one in the same room as you to dig you in the ribs when you’re about to make a howler live on air.

Cyc: We’re chatting when riders have just finished Stage 9. It’s early days, but who are you backing?

CK: Before the Tour began I backed Rigoberto Urán at 175-1 each way. I knew he’d kept very active during lockdown, and he’s clever and very well supported. He might not win but he should take a podium. That will be good enough for a few sherbets!

As for my winning pick, I was the only one in the Eurosport team to pick Tadej Pogačar. I might just clean up!

Cyc: We hear Urán’s a shoo-in for a ministerial position in Colombia one day

CK: You hear stories; you hear he’s related to everyone – his family has grown exponentially since he started cycling. You get that when you come from a very poor background and you have some success. It’s what did for Marco Pantani. He had 50 or 150 mouths to feed, and it’s that kind of pressure that can lead to an erroneous end.

Cyc: What was your way in to your job, and how do you deal with the pressure?

CK: I wanted to be in broadcasting even as a kid. When I was 14 I had the audacity to go down to Sheffield City Library, pull out the American phonebook – no idea why they had it – and then write to all these US radio stations saying, ‘English music is clearly taking over the world, so I think you should have an English radio show and I should do it.’

One guy did write back and said, ‘There are 80,000 broadcasters in various radio stations; there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be one of them.’ And I just thought, ‘Well yeah.’

Then at 22 years old, working in print news, I phoned up the National Union of Journalists and the weirdest thing happened. The guy who picked up the phone was head of the NUJ – it was like phoning the miner’s union and Arthur Scargill answering.

He said, ‘I can tell by your voice you haven’t been to Oxbridge so you’re not going to get anywhere on the BBC training scheme. But there is one course at the London College of Printing for broadcasting, you should have a go at that. I’ll write you a reference.’

I think they had hundreds of applications for this course, but the reference from this guy at the NUJ got me on. That led to a job in radio in Norwich – that’s where the Alan Partridge analogy comes from. So that phone call is the reason you’re burdened with me!

Cyc: Where do all your famous ‘Kirby-isms’ come from, like ‘chosen son’?

CK: Well, I think that’s a Biblical reference. I did a talk once and this chap came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’m a linguistics teacher, and your use of the English language fascinates me. What are your reference points? What do you read?’

And I said, ‘I haven’t got any.’ He was utterly shocked! I said, ‘I have no time to read.’ But I have a photographic memory. My wife will say, ‘What are you laughing at?’ And it will be something I’m remembering from 15 years ago.

Cyc: But isn’t it still hard to fill so much airtime in a sport where not a lot happens for quite a lot of the time?

CK: One of my first jobs was in a biscuit factory in France, near Normandy. My friend’s father was a foreman for Basset’s Liquorice Allsorts and they bought this French factory.

We’d go to the cafe at lunchtimes and watch the Tour, and it was Bernard Hinault in his pomp – off the bike he looked like Elvis, on the bike he looked like a killer. The atmosphere in the cafe was incredible, they’d all go nuts, and I was hooked, madly in love. That was the mid-70s.

London was mad in the mid-80s, so expensive, so I decided to buy a house in France. Conversation with the locals was limited, mainly about cattle breeding, but I’d just spend days each week riding around rural France and that’s where I picked up all these little nuggets about drainage on French roads, what crops are being grown.

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I started working with Eurosport, that immersion in French culture turned out to be a real gift.

Cyc: And presumably necessary when you’re working alongside a co-host as monosyllabic as Sean Kelly?

CK: Sometimes you get greedy co-commentators and quite often I’ll switch off the mics and say, ‘Listen, this is not a fight between us, OK?’ But with Sean we’re part of the same team and he does it impeccably. He knows when I’m going to pick up the action, so we fold over each other rather nicely.

He rarely gets animated unless I do something really wrong. There was one time mid-stage when Thibaut Pinot pretty much ripped off the door of this campervan at the roadside to use its toilet. We went to a break and Sean said, ‘He’s had a nasty dose of the scutters.’

I thought this was a friendly way of saying Pinot had had a trouser problem, so when we came back I said, ‘I’m afraid he’s fallen victim to the scutters,’ at which point Sean started jumping up and down, silently mouthing ‘No!’. I didn’t realise in Ireland the scutters is a really, really bad description of having a shit. There’s no equivalent. But Sean, he’s the Rolls Royce of co-commentators.

This is an excerpt from the Cyclist Magazine Podcast. For the full interview listen to Episode 8 at, or download from wherever you get your podcasts