Ned Boulting, Voice of the Tour de France – Interview
Ned Boulting, Voice of the Tour de France
With this year’s Tour De France only recently finished, Brian Donaldson caught up with ITV Commentator Ned Boulting, the voice of the Tour de France and the Tour de Yorkshire, as he prepares for his brand new theatre show ‘Tour De Ned’ which visits Scarborough Spa on Friday 16 November…
As Ned Boulting prepares for his new live tour, the ITV cycling commentator, Tour de France obsessive, and author of books such as On The Road Bike and How I Won The Yellow Jumper, is certain about what his public are after.
“What people want from an evening of watching me on stage is to bask in the reflective sunshine of July and to relive the Tour de France, a race that they viewed from afar. As autumn draws in, they want to be reminded of this wonderful circus that defines so many people and shapes their July.”
Ned last took to the road with a scripted piece in 2017 for ‘Bikeology’, a show which was split into two halves, divided into chatting about the Tour de France and directing his thoughts towards everyday cyclists.
Some of the latter weren’t wholly smitten with his approach. “I enjoyed poking fun at the cycling community and, in effect, upsetting people and biting the hand that feeds me. Most people went with it, others thought ‘what’s he talking about? That’s just rude!’”
This time, he’s opted to go full Tour de France for a show which he has rather cannily called ‘Tour de Ned’.
“Genuine sense of warmth”
“It’s an obvious title but makes it clear that it really is a celebration of the Tour de France. There’s a notebook I have with me when I’m commentating, and on one side of it I have all my Tour de France notes, and on the other is the Tour de Ned notes and they cross-pollinate. I’m continually working out how I’ll retell this story in a theatrical context, but it won’t really take full shape until I take to the stage on the first tour date.”
What Ned is more certain of is that he’ll be using clips from this year’s Tour de France, as well as his own behind-the-scenes footage about what it’s like to be a commentator at such a high-profile and often gruelling sporting occasion.
“The Tour de France is less a bike race and more a national celebration, and that will play a large part in the show as well. So I’m shooting a lot of footage and building in big digressions with the race and the geography throwing up tenuous links to this, that and the other. We’ll move from Vendée to Brittany to Normandy to the Alps to the Pyrenees and back to Paris: the show will follow the Tour’s route and recreate it chronologically.”
Having begun working on the Tour de France as a reporter in 2003, Ned eventually stepped into the holy grail of the commentator’s box where his following has grown, allowing him to take to the road with his own shows.
“It’s fantastic to meet the viewers who tune in their hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions to watch the Tour de France. When you work in television, it’s incredibly distancing; you focus very much on the race or interview in question and you forget that in living rooms across the country a huge number of people are consuming your product, so to speak. But when you’re onstage faced with these rows of people looking at you and waiting to being entertained, it’s a completely different proposition. What I love about it is the genuine sense of warmth for the subject matter and this pent-up love affair that has swept across Britain because of this extraordinary race.”
“It’s a shape shifter”
Of course for every upside to touring there’s an inevitable downside. Ned has a rather handy comparison to make on this front.
“Well, it’s like the Tour de France with the long transfers, late nights and bruising lifestyle. I could not do what proper bona fide stand-up comedians do: last year I did 25 dates, this time it’s 21, but some of these people do 80 to 100 dates. I do get tremendously nervous pacing up and down the green room before I go on stage; it is just me up there and it’s a tremendously exposing experience, but it is a hell of a kick.”
The Tour de France itself received a strong boot in a delicate place when one of the biggest ever scandals to hit not only cycling, but the entire world of sport, arrived care of Lance Armstrong.
The American rider took the cycling scene by the scruff of its yellow jumpered-neck at the beginning of the 21st century scooping a total of seven Tour de France victories, but the doping allegations which he initially denied finally stuck and his disgrace was complete.
For Ned, this scandal shouldn’t be allowed to devalue the meteoric rise of interest in cycling during that period.
“When I first arrived at cycling in 2003 he was ‘winning’, but it was a long time before that bubble would burst and it all exploded. But at the time he was a charismatic presence, he was a superstar and he had this extraordinary back story. The fact that it is was subsequently revealed to be partially a load of nonsense is neither here nor there in terms of the sport’s rising popularity: he attracted the attention in the first place and following hot on the heels of the chaotic years after Armstrong’s retirement, you had the advent of Mark Cavendish, the creation of Team Sky, the extraordinary transformation of Bradley Wiggins, and then this funny Kenyan bloke Chris Froome, who just kept winning the Tour de France.”
There’s an oft spouted saying that all good things must come to an end, but in terms of the Tour de France, Ned Boulting has little doubt that its future as a landmark event in the sporting calendar is secured.
“Whatever happens will prevail. It’s a race that survived the First World War, the Second World War and Lance Armstrong. The wonderful thing about all cycling, but particularly the Tour de France, is that it’s a shape shifter. It’s a completely different race from the 1903 edition or indeed the 1953 edition and it will continue to evolve, because there are no set rules. The Tour de France can do the hell it likes, as it proved this year with some extraordinarily inventive stages. The future is assured because it will adapt and survive.”