'I was doping, Ned.'
It rather took the wind out of my sails."
There's something missing from that extract from Ned Boulting's latest book, On The Road Bike, that will infuriate purists, but sums up why the rest of us enjoy him so much. There's nothing to indicate when it took place. It comes at the end of a two-page spread that includes up-to-date interviews alongside recollections of past conversations.
Taken as read, it could suggest that in 2003 Ned Boulting had a scoop that the rest of cycling journalism wouldn't get for another year. It comes as part of a chapter which is typical of all three of Boulting's books on cycling: it's written to be conversational. In fact, it reads best if you imagine it in Ned's voice, with his characteristic pauses and deadpan delivery. Like conversation, it tumbles out in a slightly chaotic fashion. Each word summons up further recollections that have to be bolted into the emerging sentence on-the-fly.That's how you end up with a chapter that bounces around between up-to-date interviews with Avril and David Millar and recollections of past confessions, with very little signposting as to where the revelations fit in to the overall picture.
It isn't a cycling almanac. The point for Boulting isn't to present a detailed timeline of events, it's to show how different elements come together to influence the way we feel about British cycling and its stars. If you're going to be bothered by the occasional hint of vagueness in the chronology or an odd mis-remembered date, then you'll probably want to give On The Road Bike a miss, but that would be a shame, as it's a wonderful book precisely because of these little headlong tumbles over the fine details.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and been surprised to discover how much you had in common? One where every sentence is fuelled by your enthusiasm to find out what other coincidences you share? For a British cycling fan, this book is one side of that runaway conversation.
Inspired by a British Cycling Hall of Fame dinner at the Manchester Velodrome, Boulting sets out to visit and interview the touchstones of British cycling, the people and places that underpin the sport in this country, and in the process discovers that they're not only heavily interconnected, but also how plugged into the rest of cycling they are. Not only is it a book in which practically every interviewee has ridden with, worked with or argued with at least half the others, but most of them have crossed the path of everyday cyclists as well.
Nearly twenty years ago, I bought the Purple Peril from Maurice Burton at De Ver cycles. Maurice and De Ver get a chapter. De Ver sponsors Herne Hill Velodrome, where I've ridden a couple of times. Mick Bennett gets a mention, as do Hugh Porter, the Bec Hill Climb, Sportives and Chris Boardman's attendance at trade shows. Even an utterly average cyclist like me found a familiar event, fondly remembered location or a person whose hand I'd shaken on almost every page. For more dedicated cyclists, it must feel like Boulting has authored their own personal scrapbook. Every page provokes an "I've met him" or an "I was there too" or at the very least a "yes, my eyes have popped on a big hill as well".
Like his previous books, On The Road Bike hops around with too much enthusiasm to be contained by even the barest attempt at a structure. Where Yellow Jumper's Lewisham Hospital interludes attempted to provide at least one thread that was moving chronologically from which all the other chapters could hang, On The Road Bike, like a good ride, goes where it pleases. On the way it provides a potted history of cycling in this country that often shines a new light on familiar tales or reveals connections that had previously gone unnoticed. Unsurprisingly for a Ned Boulting book, it will make you laugh, but more unexpectedly, it can be very moving as well. Maurice Burton's poor treatment in Belgium and Ned and Mick Bennett welling up at the crowds of cheering fans lining the route of the Tour of Britain are just two of the many anecdotes that will make most readers pause to reflect on where cycling has been and where it's going.
Far from exhaustive and enlivened by its scattergun approach, On The Road Bike ends up feeling almost like a collection of blog posts, a selection of short writings on the subjects that most enthuse the author, rather than a meticulous point-to-point slog through the sport. It has a similar feel to both How I Won The Yellow Jumper and How Cav Won The Green Jersey, much lighter and chattier than, say, The Cycling Anthology (the second edition of which is out later this month and includes a contribution from Boulting). It's particularly nice to read a book about cycling by a man whose tone is that of a bemused outsider despite having the insights of an experienced insider.