Inside Cycling Plus: Ned Boulting on his one-man theatre show

In his monthly magazine column Ned looks back on the Tour de Ned, his third annual jaunt around the UK

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The Final Word of every issue of Cycling Plus goes to our long-serving columnist Ned Boulting, who among his many commitments scribbles his always excellent musings on his month in cycling. In issue 349, out now, he looks back on the third annual outing of his one-man show, Tour de Ned, which toured the country this autumn…

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I have been on ‘Tour’. Not in a carbon-fibre, round France, kind of a way. More in a jump-on-a-train and get off three hours later somewhere different in the UK kind of a way. A theatre tour, don’t you know.

It was fun, playing to audiences as far removed from one another as Southampton and Whitley Bay. The Richmond Theatre, in moneyed South West London, hosted a packed house on a Friday night, for example. But, equally, I enjoyed the intimate surroundings of the Webster Theatre in Arbroath – less full – on a Monday night. On tour, you embrace the rich variety.

The show was essentially a one-man attempt to recreate, stage by stage and bunch sprint by bunch sprint, the wonder of a three-week Grand Tour – specifically this year’s Tour de France. If that sounds ambitious to you, you are right. It was just that. Insanely presumptuous, really. 

It routinely proves impossible to encapsulate the endless detail of a Grand Tour, even when we have the best part of 130 hours of broadcasting in which to attempt to on ITV4 every summer. So what chance did I have, fiddling around on stage with a range of comedy props that included a bottle of wine, a pair of false teeth and a bald wig (Brailsford)?

It turns out, though, that people are kind. And they opted in, coming with me on the journey from the Vendée to Paris via Chartres, Roubaix, Annecy, Mende, Carcassonne, Luchon and Biarritz, even if they were actually just sat on their arses in the plush seats of the Royal Leamington Spa Centre. Somehow, we managed, just about, to pull off the alchemy, and conjure up the illusion of the Breton coastline, and an Alpine descent, while thinking about how to get to the front of the queue at the bar to enjoy a half-time pint.

This is the third year in which I have supplemented my working life with a six-week jaunt around the country, pretending to be a thespian. And I find that I am enjoying it more and more, becoming gradually used to the idea that I, along with an assortment of fading eighties pop stars, male strip acts, comedians and conjurors bump along from venue to venue, rubbing weary eyes in dressing room after dressing room, with no idea where we will be this time tomorrow. It’s all very showbiz.

But here’s one thing I have noticed over the last three years of touring and talking to audiences about our shared passion for cycling: it’s becoming more normal. Halfway through my first tour, my stage manager, who had previously worked exclusively with big name comedy acts like The Flight of the Concords, and who knew nothing about cycling, confided in me that he found my audiences “weird”. “But weird in a nice way, Ned. Obsessive, like Star Trek fans,” he added. Before concluding, “Mad, basically.”

Three tours ago, I simply had to mention the name of Cavendish or Wiggins (“Wiggo!”) to elicit squeals of delight. But, should I have strayed from the script and talked about, say, Nacer Bouhanni, I’d have lost the audience in a heartbeat. 

Now, though, as our collective understanding of the Tour broadens and thickens, there’s a genuine desire to know more and celebrate the race for what it is, unfiltered by national pride or narrow interest. Consequently, the biggest cheers of the night on this year’s tour were often reserved for my appalling and erratic impersonation of the mercurial Peter Sagan, or my appreciation of Sylvian Chavanel’s dental work. Thomas de Gendt’s bonkersness drew a loud cheer. And so too did John Degenkolb, Fernando Gaviria and the most natural charisma magnet of them all: Julian Alaphilippe.

All this makes my job so much easier. Off come the GB shackles. Suddenly I am free on stage to celebrate the whole thing, not just a tiny slice of it. Because that is what I try and do on stage, and the reason that the whole silly theatrical conceit exists – to pull up the details which interest me, display them in all their charming absurdity, poke them in the eye, or chub their cheeks, all under the gaze of an artificially lit July sky.

It’s fun. And to all those who may have shared this slightly (extremely) esoteric journey with me, this autumn, I thank you for coming along. To those who didn’t. Maybe next time?

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