let's suppose just for a moment, that instead of going sailing with their team sky pals, chris froome and sir dave had actually turned up at the 2015 tour de france presentation. and rather than learning how to tack into a cold headwind, he'd turned to sir dave and said "hey, this looks like 21 days of french hell, but stalwart competitor that i am, i'm willing to have a go after this year's disappointment.". sir dave would no doubt have responded with an approving nod.
of course, none of that actually happened, and the cycling world collectively holds its anticipatory breath to learn whether the boy who would be king will turn up on the start line next july. it's likely all part of a brailsford strategy to ensure that cycling weekly fills its pages with team sky mentions for the next six or seven months. but just in case that begins to pall, the second string story concerns prince bradley's possible exit from the dark side after april's paris-roubaix, allegedly forming a brit-centred team around his leadership and designed to set him up for the 2016 olympics in rio de janeiro.
it's a fact of life that pretty much everything is surrounded by a cocoon of politics these days. some of it is deliberate strategy, some of it is based on rumour and supposition and some of it is simply collateral damage. personally, i can't be bothered with any of it. i don't actually care if chris froome doesn't ride next year's tour and nor am i concerned as to the colour of jersey on bradley's shoulders prior to jetting off to south america in the summer of 2016. i enjoy the racing for its own sake, something that is getting harder and harder to do these days due in part to the advent of the social media explosion and the attempts of the mainstream cycling press to mitigate the subsequent damage caused.
celebrity culture has a lot to answer for.
inside the tour de france, however, the reality is somewhat different. the little bubble that encompasses press, tv, riders, teams et al during those 21 days in july, keeps the majority of outside conversation at bay. at least until after the podium in paris. one of those best qualified to disseminate all the internal goings on is itv 4 tour presenter ned boulting. anyone who is willing to admit to their on-air faux pas of referring to the coveted winner's jersey as the yellow jumper is, in my opinion, well-qualified to leave behind all the pretension and artifice that the circus has accumulated over the past 101 years. this, his fourth book about cycling, is determinedly his best yet.
you'd be forgiven for thinking that there can be literally no corner of the tour de france that hasn't already been exposed in print, particularly after the flurry of publishing that accompanied the 100th edition. happily, 101 damnations will prove this lack of faith entirely wrong. for rather than being simply a diary of one (humorous) gent's experiences while following its twists and turns, ned boulting provides a highly entertaining perspective on this well-worn cliche, interspersed with dollops of history, geography and climate.
"When it rains in the Alsace, the rain actually tries to destroy the Alsace and all its confused inhabitants. [...] To this day, I have heard it told, if you touch (Heinrich) Haussler on the cheek, buttocks or feet, he feels cold and clammy. I cannot confirm this, as his press officer expressly forbids it."
naturally enough, the opening days in yorkshire and subsequently cambridge and london fill those early chapters. even here, the setting offers an insight into mr boulting's own personal history, steeped in self-deprecation. "As we swung around the corner next to Christ's Piece [...] on our way to the start line, we came across the publicity caravan, parked outside the row of houses where I used to live, as a student, back in the late seventeenth century."
however, were this book only an exercise in self-publicity, strewn with ned's own brand of humour, it would surely be viewed as yet another same old, same old? there's a limit to how long the same joke can be stretched, but mr boulting has considerably more than one string to his bow. to aid and abet the author in his literary prowess, there is a supporting cast of chris boardman, multi-linguist and notable bass player, matt rendell and the itv4 film crew. "We stopped in the main square to film a nostalgic look back at the 1994 Prologue in Lille: Chris Boardman's first Tour win.
"You'll have to tell me what I remember. Chris doesn't do recollection."
the tour's approach to verdun prompts the author to provide a precis of the historical turns that converted the french countryside into one of history's less salubrious moments in the war to end all wars. just what marshal ferdinand foch, count alfred von oberndorff, a railway carriage and paris-brest-paris have in common, is presented with considerable aplomb, followed by a respective tribute to the tour riders of the age who fought and died in battle. yet midst such honourable reverie, boulting keeps the narrative connected to that which its subtitle pertains. "...but as the 2014 peloton crossed through Charny-sur-Meuse and kicked north of Verdun, it might well have ridden over the very spot where the two-time champion (Lucien Petit Breton) perished."
however, as to be expected, humorous observation outweighs morbidity. around midway through the book, ned finds himself discussing the etymology and pronunciation of riders' names by distinctly anglicised commentators (phil liggett is from the wirral). aside from jens voigt, michael morkov and michal golas, "...we have not even mentioned Thomas Voeckler, who was born and raised in the little town of Schiltigheim, for which there are three acceptable pronunciations, none of which actually involve an obscenity, but all of which run the gauntlet."
this determined need to raise our level of knowledge regarding seemingly each and every aspect of the tour results in what for me remains one of the highlights of the book, namely "the Legend of the (Wooden) Board of the Beautiful Girls (In As Much As It Relates To Stage Ten Of The 2014 Tour De France." in other words, la planche des belle filles.
"...the shrieks and cries of their at-that-very-moment-being-horribly-murdered brethren echoing up from the valley, as the Swedes vented their awful bloodlust (this was, you see, a long time before Volvo, with its concerns for health and safety...)"
that italian vincenzo nibali staved off seemingly less than determined opposition to take his place on the podium's top spot in paris is well-known within our closeted circles. even, it gives me pleasure to relate, a result that occupied many a column inch in the mainstream press. the race may have started in leeds, finished in the french capital three weeks later and been interspersed by enormous crowds, some dodgy weather and a couple of high-profile abandonments along the way. but as ned boulting has deftly crafted within the constraints of 300 pages, there's a great deal more to the world's biggest cycle race than that. a bit like the matrix, there are all manner of sub-plots and background strategies weaving themselves in the background, some of which influence the daily proceedings, but more often than not providing a tapestry against which racing takes place.
'a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts' may very well be an over-used cliche, but that doesn't stop it being true every now and again. this is easily ned boulting's finest work to date, one that stands head and shoulders above its predecessors, not withstanding the fact that they were pretty darned good in the first place. there is a maturity of writing here that raises the author several levels above that of (mere) pundit. if you don't believe me, buy it on thursday (6 november) and read for yourself.
the tour de france will never be the same again.
wednesday 5 november 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................