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From Hogwarts to hill climbs: James Phelps interview

19 Aug 2020

Better known as Fred Weasley in the Harry Potter films, James Phelps talks about his new-found love of cycling, spending a decade on set and the benefits of being a good guy

Words & Photography Peter Stuart

Cyclist: You’re new to the world of cycling. What do you like most about it?

James Phelps: I really enjoy getting out on my own. I tend to like early-morning rides into the countryside. We’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful country.

My grandmother passed away recently and I was finding it hard to sleep so one morning at 4am I went for a ride and ended up doing 100km. It helped me zone out and reflect.

I find that really good for mental health – it’s just you and the wildlife, and the occasional old boy on a bike gunning past. I’ve also enjoyed the whole community around it, like when you pass someone and say hello. You don’t get that when you go for a run.

Cyc: You spent a lot of your teenage years and early twenties on the set of the Harry Potter films. Did you have time for hobbies like cycling back then?

JP: Yes, but we had to have certain hobbies. You couldn’t do contact sports, or even things like cricket – anything where you can injure yourself. So cycling was off the cards. At the time you think that’s a bit of a blow, especially on Harry Potter as they were nine-month shoots. A normal film takes about six weeks. Hence I got really into golf and running on a treadmill, which is so dull.

We even used to have a basketball court on set. But the team was watching TV one day when someone dislocated their finger playing basketball and the insurance guys on set immediately said no more basketball.

Cyc: When did you start to get really into cycling?

JP: I took part in a charity cycling event in the Alps last year called the Big Mountain Challenge. The longest ride I’d done before that was the week before, and it was about 50km. Then on the first day I had to ride 80km in the Alps.

I’m always after some kind of new challenge, and usually I know I’ll be able to get through it, but I hadn’t given this much thought and it was one of the first things I’ve done where I wasn’t sure if I’d finish.

I did manage though, and I can’t express how much I enjoyed it. The sense of achievement and camaraderie from being on a ride like that is incredible. 

I signed up to do the event again next year, and I’m also looking at going to Tenerife in the wintertime with a pal.

Cyc: Did you find it intimidating to jump into a serious event like that?

JP: I think if you haven’t done anything like it before, you see the numbers, the climbing height, the distance and it all scares the hell out of you. But you realise it’s achievable. It’s not something that’ll kill you. Equally it’s not frowned upon if you need to stop.

I tried to practise some climbing in the UK, but nothing can prepare you for the Alps. Before I did it, the idea of climbing on a bike sounded like hell. I actually read Chris Froome’s biography in lockdown and he talks about the suffering, and enjoying the suffering, and it’s quite relatable once you’ve done it.

Cyc: What were the most important things you learned getting into cycling?

JP: I’m quite glad I’m not the only person to ever come to a red light and not be able to get out of my cleats in time.

I learned not to take gels too late in a big ride. I kept waking up at two in the morning with my heart just going wild. I was also sore in parts I’d never been sore in before, but obviously you get used to it. The main thing I did in the Alps was 30 minutes of yoga before bed.

Cyc: Cycling aside, what are you doing with your time at the moment?

JP: We were meant to be doing a film in Germany last week, but that hasn’t happened because of Covid. I’ve got a podcast with my brother called Double Trouble. We just did it for a bit of fun, and we’ve got about 100,000 listeners.We basically just asked friends of ours.

We’re mates with Johanna Konta, the tennis player, who sort of got us into podcasts and has been on ours. We had Haley Joel Osmond on recently; we play golf with him when we’re in LA.

Cyc: Aside from not being able to do sport, was Harry Potter fun?

JP: Yes it was. Everyone says that but it genuinely was. For 10 years I got to work with my mates and have a good laugh. Not just on the cast side, but also the crew. It was incredible to see new technology being made as we were going through the films.

It’s a bit like a hospital. You have different departments – anaesthetists, surgeons and nurses and all that kind of stuff, and then they all come together to make this thing tick. In 10 years, you make some really strong bonds like that.

Cyc: Did you find the process of being in such an enormous set of films surreal?

JP: Completely. To this day I’m not sure I’m fully aware of how big it is, because I’m so close to it. We went for our first audition nearly 20 years ago. I was reading the third book, so my brother and I thought we’d go for it. It was a day off school. A couple of weeks before we chose our GCSEs, the drama teacher at the school said don’t take drama, you won’t have a career in it.

Cyc: Do you still meet up with other cast members?

JP: Yeah, these days we tend to meet up and play a round of golf or something, or have a beer or coffee. I tried to convince a couple of them to come to next year’s Big Mountain challenge, but they aren’t so keen…yet.

Cyc: How do people react when they recognise you?

JP: Because I played a good guy, people are quite respectful and nice, but Tom Felton played a bad guy [Draco Malfoy]. I was at a bar with him in LA and a guy came over and offered to buy me a beer, but looked at Tom and said, ‘Not for you, though, you’re a ****.’

And yet Tom’s one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.

James Phelps will be riding in next year’s Big Mountain Challenge, a four-day fully guided and supported trip in the French Alps from 16th-20th September 2021, in support of Thames Hospice