Ned Boulting has covered every Tour de France since 2003 and, with the world’s most famous cycle race passing the edge of the county in July, many Lancashire cycle fans are gearing up to cross the border to see cycling’s stars ride through Skipton and the Yorkshire Dales.
Before that though, TV cycling pundit Boulting will deliver a talk about his broadcasting career and the many memorable moments from the classic race when he appears at The Grand, Clitheroe, later this month.
“Cycling has transformed itself from a niche, backwater sport to a pastime that has hooked into the British sporting psyche with Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France in 2012 and Olympic gold,” said Boulting.
“Before Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome, I felt like I was broadcasting into a wilderness. When Wiggins won the Tour, he made British cycling re-evaluate its ambitions.
“It was an unimaginable feat, and Wiggins’ achievements have changed the way we think about ourselves as a nation of riders.”
While we are living in a golden era of British cycling, the shadow of disgraced American superstar rider Lance Armstrong and other doping scandals continue to make the headlines. “As a journalist, I found Lance Armstrong a fascinating and compelling story to cover and was always astonished by the scale of interest in him,” said Boulting.
“He had won the Tour de France seven times, fought back from cancer and helped countless cancer sufferers fight their illness. That is a remarkable achievement which, in the eyes of many, constricts the room for criticism, so he was talked about in hushed, reverential tones.
“Armstrong is fiercely intelligent, extraordinarily charismatic, but he was a cheat. The penny dropped for me as far back as 2004 – but we couldn’t say anything.
“I have massive admiration for the reporters who went after him as Armstrong appeared untouchable. Guys like David Walsh from The Sunday Times, whose stubborn refusal to bow down to Armstrong eventually led to his unmasking.”
Boulting added: “When the evidence became too overwhelming, Armstrong came on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ and admitted what he had done. On one hand I wasn’t remotely surprised, as it was blindingly obvious Armstrong and many others were using performance-enhancing drugs. But the act of confession staggered me.
“He got a life ban and I hope we don’t hear anything from Lance Armstrong again.”
The unraveling of reputations at the highest levels has coincided with the emergence of a generation of British cyclists able to compete with the very best in the world and, in the case of Mark Cavendish, thrash them.
“Cavendish is the rider I’ve interviewed most. He executes his plan with such perfection and ruthlessness it makes him seem so un-British.
“Cavendish may be ruthless, but on the flip side he can be thoughtful, considered, good-natured and possesses an extraordinary intelligence. I think those contradictory facets of his character manifest themselves in the way he rides and makes him a champion. The guys who make it to the top are a self-selecting group, and have that degree of dedication to suffer.”
So what does the future hold for cycling and the Tour de France?
“I’m absurdly optimistic about the whole sport. The last three Tours – 2013, 2012 and 2011 – were probably the cleanest we’ve seen in a hundred years. The modern finishing times are a lot slower than the Armstrong era and you can probably draw your own conclusions from that.
“Covering the Tour is very intense, chaotic and wonderful, with hundreds of riders all having a different story to tell. You’ve had a day of script writing, chasing after the riders in the car, sometimes for hundreds of miles, and then through the chaos and melee you’ve got to be right on the money when the producer says, ‘You’re on in 20 seconds Ned, tell us what has happened today’.
“You know what ... it can be the best job in the world.”
“An Evening with Ned Boulting” is sponsored by The Green Jersey Bikes ‘N Brews Shop, Clitheroe. It takes place on Sunday, May 18th, from 7-30 pm. Tickets are £13.50 from The Grand. Tel. 01200 421599. Web. www.thegrandvenue.co.uk