Cycling Pluseditor Rob Spedding caught up with him to ask him questions about asking questions…
Rob Spedding: How long have you been asking people questions on the telly?
Ned Boulting: “I’ve been with ITV, and before that Sky, for just over 15 years now, and that’s obviously what I’m best known for. My first ever interview with a camera running was at a fashion show in Earls Court in 1998 attended by Prince Naseem Hamed [former boxing world champion], Ian Wright [Arsenal and England striker turned TV pundit] and David Beckham. It went extremely well and, with hindsight, was one of easiest things I’ve done. I just told them that they were wearing amazing clothes and asked them to tell me about them!”
How about your first cycling interview? What do you remember of that?
“You know, I’ve got a feeling that my first interview with a rider was with Lance Armstrong on day one of the 2003 Tour de France. He was trying to win his his fifth tour and that was massively big news at that point. Back in those days all of the riders traipsed through a tent after a basic medical so we could basically doorstep all of them. That just doesn’t happen now.”
With hindsight what do you think of Lance Armstrong? What was he like to interview?
“Lance was deeply fascinating. I have to be careful here don’t I? Whenever you speak in any sort of positive terms about Lance people jump on you. To some there is nothing good in the breadth of human experience that you can say about him now. I beg to differ. He was, and still is, I think, deeply fascinating – he had a raw intelligence, a beligerence, a grasp of a situation, an ability to manipulate his interrogator that was masterful. Interviewing him was a real challenge.”
Did you cross him or did he beat you?
“I’d like to think I held my own. It was interesting because of the libel laws and, at the time, the paucity of real evidence to throw at him, so all that you could ever do was speak in nuanced tones, but he’d pick up on it straight away. He knew exactly what you were getting at, his eyes would narrow and you became a marked man. After a few years he picked me out because, I hope, that he knew that I’d challenge him as and when I had to. Such was his imperious hold over the sport I think he felt invulnerable, but I also sensed that he was bored senseless by the anodyne questions ,and he wanted to be pushed and challenged because he knew that when push came to shove, you couldn’t really do anything. It was a joust, except he had a massive 7ft, well, Lance and I had an HB pencil!”
Do you enjoying jousting with any of today’s riders?
“Bradley Wiggins on his day is one of the most articulate riders I’ve ever spoken to. At this year’s Tour of Britain, for instance, he was wonderfully engaged with the event and answering questions fully and thoughtfully, wittily and charmingly. There have been other times, though, where he’s been petty and dismissive.
“Mark Cavendish is one of the most unpredictable riders there is. When you think you’re going to get it from him he can turn on the charm, and when you least expect it, he’ll be utterly surly and aggressively disprespectful to all and sundry.
“The British riders coming up behind Brad and Mark are great. A bunch of really engaging guys – riders like Alex Dowsett, Geraint Thomas, Ben Swift, Peter Kennaugh, and my tip for big things, Teo Geoghan Hart.”
How about the non-English speaking riders? Are they harder to get good interviews from?
“I do actually find it a little disappointing that we try and get riders to conduct interviews in English so much. I think we might actually be guilty of patronising our own audience slightly, as they really might want to see Nibali, for example, speaking Italian and have it subtitled. They’d rather hear his own voice, as you get closer to the truth that way. That said, when I interview them in English, my respect quadruples – to articulate yourself under that kind of pressure in a language that isn’t your own is quite remarkable.
“Peter Sagan is intriguing too. His English isn’t great, but that’s never stopped him trying, as I don’t speak Slovakian. I speak French passably, and speak fluent German. I went out to visit Marcel Kittel for the book I’ve just written spent a day with him, so I spoke German with him.”
When not interviewing cyclists, you’re a football reporter. Who do you prefer interviewing?
“Cyclists are easier to interview than footballers, as the access is much greater. There’s more jeopardy in cycling – when you get a ‘bad’ interview in cycling they actually tends to be the best interviews. The ones that get remembered, like Cadel Evans when he threatened to take the head off a journalist if he stepped on his dog! That happens much more in cycling than football, because players have so many agents and press officers looking after them. I think that can create bland interviews.”
Ned Boulting is attending The Cycle Show at the NEC in Birmingham from 26 to 28 September. Tickets are on sale now – to grab yourself a Cycling Plus discount enter the code CPM on the Cycle Show tickets page.