Reading Ned Boulting’s book, On The Road Bike – The Search For a Nation’s Cycling Soul, about his exploration of the idiosyncratic world of cycling in Britain is, I would imagine, a bit like joining him for a bike ride. Initially there would be plenty of self-deprecation as he painstakingly points out all his likely shortcomings for the selected route or distance. Then there would be the lightest smattering of name-dropping during the time he proves that he is, in fact, more than capable of said route or distance. There would probably be some debate or confusion about the final destination or purpose of the ride itself before arriving at the end with that warm fuzzy feeling of time well spent in the company of an interesting and articulate friend, who has also shown you a couple of brilliant new lanes hidden away amongst a lot of familiar countryside.
All of which presents a small technical problem. Having joined this person for a friendly jaunt through the British cycling landscape, I don’t quite know what to call him. It’s as if we inadvertently met mid-ride and never got the introductions sorted properly. Calling him ‘Mr Boulting’ seems absurdly formal given that he has shared a number of humorously personal stories along the way but I’m not quite comfortable with calling him ‘Ned’ either. I may be forced to follow his lead and (as he does with a few of the more obscure references which are thrown his way by the characters in the book) simply skirt around this particular issue until I can work it out at a later time.
The author of this engaging tome (Yellow Jersey Press – £14.99) is, of course, familiar to almost all followers of cycling in this country. Having been TV’s roving reporter for the Tour de France for 10 years he was invited – quite unreasonably in his opinion – to attend a British cycling gala dinner where he found his depth of knowledge of the people and places being talked about a few cogs short of the full cassette. This was the catalyst which set him off on a quest to understand the history and cultural relevance of the sport in this country. But the search was also for something more. He set out looking for the nation’s cycling soul. It is that search which is detailed in this humour-filled, Saturday morning club run of a book.
But it is also a journey of a more personal kind. The reportage of his meetings with some of the leading lights of the homegrown cycling scene is interspersed with anecdotes of his own progressive steps from non-cyclist status to self-confessed MAMIL; from the amazement of the achievement of an 8 mile commute to become a Century-riding, (virtual) Alpe d’Huez-conquering, (real) Bec Hill Climb-besting rouleur, who even Chris Boardman says is “much stronger on a bike” than he realises. We learn a lot about him on the way and this adds valuable context to understanding the increase in interest in cycling in this country over the last decade. His journey mirrors those of thousands of others who have also become obsessed with all things bike.
That is not to say that the book is just about Ned (I’ve just tweeted him about this issue and he responded, so I feel ok about being more familiar now). Far from it. Chris Boardman, Mick Bennett, Graham Webb (most poignantly), David Millar and David Millar’s mum, Tommy Goodwin and Maurice Burton are amongst those who get the disarming mix of Boulting warmth and semi-mock naïveté. In spite of this fairly constant playing down of himself, Ned is an able interviewer with a good ear and an even better eye for a defining detail. From each of his protagonists, he teases out something intangible amongst all the facts and figures which so often follow sportsmen around. He goes looking for cycling’s soul, and it’s fair to say he finds a lot of it in the stories behind the stories of the achievements or interest. He talks with the old and the young, the winners and the losers, the people who make the races work and the people who have dedicated their lives in one way or another to the betterment of cycling.
He also often captures something about the places where we cycle in similar fashion. The venerated track at Herne Hill, the hidden cobblestones of the London Classic, a hilly Devon sportive or the lung-bursting climb at Whites Lane in Kent. Even amongst the bustle of the action taking place upon them, he often finds a moment for contemplation that again takes us outside of the immediate and captures something more eternal, something more soulful. The message is clear. The Nation’s Cycling Soul is out there. On the roads, tracks and lanes of the country. But also in here. In the hearts, minds and legs of those who choose to cycle. It’s all our stories, all our places, all our miles.
Going looking for the soul of British cycling is one thing. Actually finding some and capturing it is another. Managing to do that through the ostensibly straightforward act of simply sharing it in a light-hearted book is a deft skill indeed.
Well done, Ned.