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Review: ‘How I Won The Yellow Jumper’, Ned Boulting

It took Ned Boulting two decades to graduate from commenting on potholes on Chiltern FM to reporting about the ‘yellow jumper’ at the Tour de France. He has come a long way since those early days as a drowning Tour ingénue, and now knows everything there is to know about French service stations, cheap hotels and which yogurt-based drinks to avoid.

He has also learned a bit about cycling too. How I Won The Yellow Jumper is his story of the grind behind the glamour of covering cycling’s biggest race. It is a tale of one man, a suitcase full of smelly socks and his noble steed, a battered Renault Espace, on an annual three-week odyssey from Grand Départ to Bedraggled Arrivée.

If you watch ITV’s annual Tour coverage, you will be familiar with Boulting’s dry style as he brings us short feature segments and gleans reactions from exhausted pedallers in the post-stage media melée in which pointy elbows and a willingness to stick your nose in where angels fear to tread are as vital tools of the trade as the ability to mangle a variety of European languages.

He is to Gary Imlach, ITV’s inimitable and unfeasibly polished front-man, what Jens Voigt is to Andy Schleck – and equally loved. In his deceptively imitable every-man style, Boulting has carved out a niche as the team’s super-domestique. He plays a vital role, putting in the hard kilometres (literally) that help make ITV’s coverage so enjoyable.

Here Boulting conveys the real beauty of the Tour and why he has fallen in love with its utter lunacy. It is not about the stars who make the headlines, or the Alpine backdrops or the race’s unerring capacity for human drama. The beauty is all in the details, whether it is the countless hours spent hanging around hotel foyers hoping to pounce on an elusive rider, or the litany of woe that is part and parcel of decamping from one random town to another on a daily basis. It is the little insights that matter, such as his random walk with the legendary Eddy Merckx while staking out his son Axel, or his pre-Tour mission of stocking up on easy-iron shirts to try to avoid the ‘crumpled chic’ look he ends up modelling every year.

Boulting’s gift as a writer is twofold. Firstly, his open acceptance that so much of the reality of covering a three-week, 3000-kilometre race is mundane and faintly ludicrous. And secondly, he writes exactly like he presents, delivering deadpan wit which makes you laugh before you even realise he has cracked a joke. Most of all, though, he does it with an obvious love of the sport without being blind to both its darker and sillier sides.

Eight years of covering the Tour has taken Boulting on a journey from novice to expert and from jobbing reporter to passionate fan. That story unfolds here without airs and graces, in the manner of an entertaining chat down the pub. True to his reporting style, his writing gives the effortless impression that anyone could do his job – until you realise that this in itself is his greatest skill.

Most importantly, he now knows it’s not a yellow ‘jumper’. It’s a tank-top. And not an easy-iron one either.

If you want glamorous anecdotes and bon mots about the stars of contemporary cycling, look elsewhere. But if you want to know what the day-to-day reality of chasing a bunch of skinny men in lycra skin-suits around France is like, then look no further. How I Won The Yellow Jumper is an unpolished gem from an unsung hero. Chapeau, Ned.

Rating: 9/10

To hear more from Ned Boulting and Matt Rendell on all things cycling, download the Real Peloton podcast here or visit realpeloton.com.

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Review: ‘Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force’

Now updated to include a new chapter covering Lance Armstrong‘s return to the Tour de France in 2009, Daniel Coyle‘s account of the American’s build-up to the 2004 race which saw him claim his record-breaking sixth win focuses more on the day-to-day life of a top professional road cyclist than it does on the racing itself.

In so doing Coyle, who gained unprecedented access to Armstrong and his US Postal Service team throughout the season, provides many fascinating insights into a peculiar world whose inhabitants fear infection and watch their weight as obsessively as the most anorexic hypochondriac. It is a world in which its occupants push lift buttons with their elbows to avoid infections spreading via their fingers, and for whom every handshake is a potential hotbed of germs. It is a world of masochistic training rides and of lung-bursting tests to assess performance and condition, where the only things that matter are the numbers. And it is a world of cloak and dagger, where every rider is constantly assessing their rivals’ form and physical condition, and full of intra- and inter-team political intrigue.

Above all, this book is as close as any writer has ever been allowed to get to the man behind the façade of Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France champion. In so far that any book authorised and signed off by the man himself can be, this is an honest appraisal of what makes Armstrong tick, from his single-minded focus on hitting peak physical condition in the month of July to his overwhelming need to not just beat but destroy anyone who stands in his way, whether they are wielding a bike or a keyboard.

The book also touches upon the racing year through the eyes of Phonak’s Tyler Hamilton (a former US Postal teammate), and Floyd Landis (a Postie in 2004, but one who would leave for Phonak in 2005 to escape Armstrong’s long shadow). It even tackles the multiple accusations and litigations being aimed at Armstrong at that time, including the infamous book L.A. Confidentiel by Irish journalist David Walsh, and while the examination of these carries a hint of red-white-and-blue tinted spectacles, it is largely handled in an even-handed way; it is not simply an extension of the Armstrong PR machine.

For anyone who is interested in an external portrait of Lance Armstrong, or in the fine detail behind the broad brush-strokes which comprise the annual spectacle which is the Tour de France, this is one to add to the collection. It’s not necessarily a book for the cycling ingénue, but it is a richly rewarding read nonetheless.

5 stars (out of 5)

Review: ‘My Comeback’, Lance Armstrong

This coffee table tome – titled Comeback 2.0 elsewhere in the world – certainly lives up to its subtitle of ‘up close and personal’, providing the reader with genuine insight into the year that Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, returned from retirement.

And what a year it was too, encompassing not only a podium finish at the Tour in his racing comeback, but also the birth of a child and his second ‘job’ promoting global cancer awareness and fund-raising through the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

The book is essentially a photographic account of the twelve months following Armstrong’s decision to return to racing in September 2008, annotated with his own, frequently wry, commentary.

Elizabeth Kreutz’s excellent photography strikes a nice balance between journalistic and candid images, recording meetings with global heads of state, training and race preparation, and more intimate moments with his family and the seemingly ever-present drug testers. Kreutz’s images capture, amongst many other moments in time, Armstrong in the company of former US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush (possibly the ultimate in jaw-dropping name-dropping); a shot of Ben Stiller posing on Lance’s bike, to which is attached a little-known tale of near-disaster (the actor broke the bike’s chain mere minutes before the team time trial, necessitating a rapid repair), and the great man’s obvious joy at the miraculous birth of his fourth child, Max (having been told by doctors during his cancer treatment that he would be unable to father children naturally again).

If you want Armstrong’s life story, this is not the book for you. (Pick up one of his previous two autobiographies, It’s Not About The Bike or Every Second Counts instead.) Or if you are looking for the full story of his 2009 comeback, there are a number of other books out there covering the 2009 Tour de France and Armstrong’s role in the race.

But if you are looking for a book which conveys both breadth and depth lacking in press coverage or other, unauthorised biographies, then this admirably fills in the background detail behind the big stories with the aid of some fantastic – and exclusive – photography. It is, at most, an hour’s leisurely read, but to judge the book purely on its length is to miss the point. My Comeback is a fascinating year-in-the-life record of one of sport’s most successful, intriguing and charismatic sportspeople. Well worth seeking out, particularly at the kind of discounted prices readily available online.

4 stars (out of 5)

For more information about the Lance Armstrong Foundation, or to make a donation, visit the Live Strong website here.

Review: ‘Boy Racer’, Mark Cavendish

I have read a large number of sporting autobiographies in my time; some very good – Tony Adams‘ ‘Addicted’ and Lance Armstrong‘s ‘It’s Not About The Bike’ spring readily to mind – many distinctly mediocre. This might just be the best one I have ever read.

Love him or loathe him – and it is difficult to be anywhere in between – Mark Cavendish is to sprinting on two wheels what Usain Bolt is to sprinting on two legs. If road cycling had anywhere near the same profile in the UK as athletics does, more people would be idolising this young man in the same way as the incredible Jamaican athlete.

‘Boy Racer’ weaves the tale of Cavendish’s four stage wins at the 2008 Tour de France with his life story up to and including his win at the 2009 Milan-San Remo classic. Although the book covers only the first two-and-a-bit years of a pro career which still (hopefully) has many successful years to come – and therefore does not include his six stage wins at the 2009 Tour – there is so much packed into the 340-odd pages that it does not feel at all padded.

The book reads in much the same way the man himself conducts himself in interviews: he shoots from the hip with his heart on his sleeve, occasionally inserting foot in mouth. But anyone who has ever seen Cav speak would expect no less: in a PC, PR-conscious world, here is a sportsman who is as brutally honest as he is fast. At times it is painfully obvious who he does and does not respect in the cycling world, and yet he is surprisingly self-critical, self-effacing and not afraid to admit when he has been proven wrong about someone. The book is full of little insights into the mindset of a master practitioner and behind-the-scenes revelations of what it is like to be a professional road cyclist, which make this a cut above the average sporting autobiography. Add this to the fleshing out of a personality far more complex, meticulous and magnanimous (to his team) than the one-dimensional cocky narcissist sometimes portrayed in the media, and what you have here is a compelling tale that had me tearing through the pages much like the man himself does when he has the sniff of the finish line in his nostrils.

‘Boy Racer’ was unputdownable. I’ll be first in line to buy the next chapter of the story of this incredible young man.

5 stars (out of 5)

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