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Interview: Cycling Writer & Presenter Matt Rendell Part 1
By Giles Belbin
Date: 12/12/2009
Interview: Cycling Writer & Presenter Matt Rendell Part 1

Interview: Cycling Writer & Presenter Matt Rendell Part One
Cycling journalist, presenter and author Matt Rendell about his career covering cycling, the state of the sport and a myriad of topics in between. Part 1 of 3

Matt Rendell was born 44 years ago in the English county of Kent. Born to Lancastrian parents, Rendell took three postgraduate degrees and “then being overqualified to do any work and used to living on a student scholarship” decided to become a writer.

He is the author of a number of books including “Kings of the Mountains - How Columbia's Cycling Heroes changed Their Nation's History”; “A Significant Other - Riding the Centenary Tour de France with Lance Armstrong”, a look at the 2003 Tour through the eyes of US Postal domestique Victor Hugo Peña; and the award winning “The Death of Marco Pantani”, and is a member of the UK Television broadcaster ITV's Tour presentation team. Matt Rendell lives in Calne, Wiltshire, England.

Matt Rendell. Photo courtesy Matt Rendell.

Giles Belbin: Thanks for giving the DP your time, Matt, so you did three Post Graduate degrees?

Matt Rendell: I learnt the rudiments of several languages by misspending the remnants of my youth hitch-hiking around Europe, then wandered into the Polytechnic of Central London in an effort to avoid washing dishes for a living and took a degree in Italian. I later took a post-graduate diploma in technical and specialised translation, although I've never consistently worked as a translator. I do a lot of TV work where your value depends on covering lots of ground. I can operate a camera, do some basic editing, interview in five languages, deliver a line to camera and, most importantly, make a decent cup of coffee, so they keep asking me back.

GB:So was it translation work that got you into the cycling world?

MR: Exactly. My first job in cycling was as a subtitler at Channel Four in 1998. One day Paul Sherwin interviewed the Colombian Chepe González, a stage winner the previous year at Valence. Paul asked Chepe about the altitude in Colombia, and Chepe mentioned what he called 'pisos térmicos,' which basically means bands of similar vegetation and climate according to altitude. It took me about four hours to find the right translation, which, in the context, was something forgettable like 'people live at every altitude from sea-level to 14,000 feet.' But during those four hours of research, which included talking to the director of Radio Latina, a Colombian-owned radio station in Paris, I knew more about Colombia than ever before, and I'd sort of decided I wanted to go there and look for Chepe and learn about how come Colombia was the only Third World country that sends riders to the Tour de France with any consistency, and that's how I started working on my first book, 'Kings of the Mountains.' It's as much about spirituality as it is about cycling - the original title was 'Cathedrals in the Sky' - and I'm tremendously proud of it, although it hasn't been available for years.

Chepe became a great friend, as did, later, Victor Hugo Peña and Iván Parra.

GB:I read your book on Victor Hugo when it first came out. My interest in the sport was developing from race results and watching the Tour on TV into the history of the sport and the backgrounds of the riders. I was particularly intrigued by the culture of the domestique - your book on Victor was a fantastic insight into that.

MR: Victor Hugo is intelligent, articulate, expressive, and generous. His achievements as a cyclist don't reflect his tremendous engine. He's from a cycling family, and he was always a winner in Colombia as a young man, and I don't think it ever occurred to him or anyone else that proper training would have paid dividends. He never, ever trained for time-trials, although he won a long time trial in the 2000 Tour of Italy, came fourth (let me check that... fifth, actually) in the prologue of the 2003 Tour de France, and took many, many top ten finishes in Tour and Vuelta time trials.

He could climb very well, and ride well on the cobbles. An incredible rider, and a really generous guy. There were ideas I wanted to develop about cycling, and they dovetailed with Victor Hugo's experiences as a rider. Lots of people tell me they really began to understand just how much there is to cycling after reading 'A Significant Other.' It's nice, because I'm best known for 'The Death of Marco Pantani,' which was a horrific book to research and assemble. It should be called 'The Death of Matt Rendell' by Marco Pantani.

GB:You say the translating job got you interested in the country. What was/is it about Columbia that has fired your imagination so much and given you the background to three of your books?

MR: A television colleague once told me how he stood on the beach in Sao Paulo state, Brazil, and watched kids playing football on the sand, an infinity of games stretching out of sight. It seemed to him to represent the essence of football, and brought tears to his eyes. I feel rather the same way about cycling in Colombia: it is to poor, especially rural Colombians, what boxing is to the urban poor all over the Americas, and in places like the Philippines too. It's hard, dirty, unromantic, it can leave you crippled and broken, but it offers the hope of a way out. I saw something similar in Rwanda in August, when I filmed the Rwandan national cycling team under Jock Boyer.

But, unlike Rwanda, Colombia also has a tradition going back to early in the twentieth century. There is such a thing as a national sport, and it doesn't necessarily mean the most popular sport for spectators, or even the most popular participation sport, which is almost invariably football, even in places like Kenya.

Cycling is Colombia's national sport: it is closely associated with Colombians' self-image. The pictures of Luch Herrera in the 1985 Tour de France, descending into St Etienne with blood pouring from a deep cut over an eye, the blood forming rivulets across his face, took on an almost transcendental national meaning later in the year when a volcano erupted and buried 23,000 people in mud. They meld together in the memory. And Lucho gained much of his glory abroad. The great riders of the 1950s and 1960s who almost never travelled abroad are still revered. I revere them too.

GB:So, for you, the true essence of the sport can still today be seen in Columbia, perhaps the way it was in the 1920s and 30s in Europe? In that it offered a respite from day to day harsh reality of life in those times - Fotheringham's book on Coppi draws parallels between his popularism and escapism in post war years.

MR: I think so. It doesn't so much offer respite as encapsulate or refine or mirror the harshness of rural life in the developing world. In Colombia, my feeling is that cycling represents the country to itself. Daniele Marchesini's brilliant books 'L'Italia del Giro d'Italia' and 'Coppi e Bartali' depict Italian cycling with this sort of intent, but don't forget cycling has been 'instrumentalised' in Italy from the word go, either by the major bicycle producers, or by Fascism with its propagandistic use of sport, or by TV and the press, which use it for their own means.

Cycling in Colombia has been rather left to its own devices and the way Colombians view it is slightly less off-the-peg: they're not being constantly instructed how they should feel about it. I go to the Tour de France Presentation each October, and all those video effects and subliminal booms intended in a rather clichéd way to give you a meaning-of-life experience seem to me to capture everything that's utterly abominable about sport today. Colombia is highly developed in many ways, and I'm not saying there's no manipulation, but life there isn't saturated with this kind of bullsh*t - or, at least, you can get away from it pretty easily.In Italy, too, you always had those great rivalries, and there was always the credible claim to have the best rider in the world - Binda, Bartali, Coppi, all the way through to poor Pantani. Colombia has never had that. There's been a humility to it.

GB:But do those feelings sit uneasily for you? On the one hand you are reflecting on the true heart and soul of the sport but on the other you're part of the media machine that brings the sport, or the tour at least to the masses, and therefore get caught up in the "bullsh*t"?

MR: You've hit the nail on the head. One thing I object to is having to wear accreditation. If you have to wear an accreditation, it means you're being manipulated, you're being invited to be part of a machine, to see things from this angle or that standpoint. You're being controlled. Yet I spend most of my working life wearing an accreditation and obeying the rules it entails. The saving grace is that (and I can already hear you saying 'Well, he would say that, wouldn't he'!) I think ITV's Tour de France coverage is exceptionally good, in particular because the anchor Gary Imlach has a brilliant journalistic mind, and the director Steve Docherty knows how to use Gary and the rest of the team to the very best effect. Ned Boulting [fellow presenter on ITV's coverage], too, is one of the few journalists who are prepared to ask the questions that need asking...I think we do a pretty good job, on the whole.

But you're right: I work for a major terrestrial broadcaster producing live sport and highlights packages, and doing so pays my mortgage, and there's also a considerable amount of craftsmanship to this type of work. Given that cycling is big, but not that big, and we've tried but mostly failed to get TV documentaries commissioned so that we could look at this or that aspect of the sport, I think, within the constraints of mainstream TV sport coverage, we do a pretty good job.

The fact remains, I have to disappear every now and again, back to Colombia where I have a second home, or to Africa or elsewhere, and get away from it all to clear my head and regain my own vision of things. And that usually means another book.

GB:Talking of the tour, could you describe a typical day reporting on the race? What particular difficulties does it pose for you?

MR: As I was saying earlier, my job is to fill in the gaps no one else fills, which tends to mean no two days are similar. I might be filming in a team car, or presenting a piece on one of the contenders, or running around the technical zone exchanging footage with other broadcasters. The two things that don't change are the newspapers in the morning, with some sort of briefing for Gary, and then finish-line interviews in the afternoon. Depending on who has won, what the story of the day is, what languages are needed, and where Ned and I happen to be at the time, one of us will go to the mixed zone with one cameraman to speak to the stage winner and the jersey holders, and the other will march off with the other cameraman to the finish line or the buses. Then I'm subtitling, running tapes to the satellite truck, and somewhere there Ned and I do the podcast.

Unfortunately, there's never a television screen anywhere near the finish line, and we tend to have to do the post-stage interviews without having seen the stage finish. We tend to rely on radio contact with our producer, or occasionally Chris Boardman, to find out what we should be asking.

This can have hilarious consequences, as when I relayed the question 'What did you learn from today's stage?' to Mark Cavendish, who lambasted me for it over five pages in his book. We had a good laugh about it in July - when I proceeded to bombard him with even dafter questions. But you tell me: when a sprinter has lost - when he hasn't even been involved in the sprint - and he's your main man, and the show isn't going to be complete without a word from him, what can you possibly ask that isn't going to get a withered response? Good on Mark, though, for being a rough diamond, and not the puppet of some hideous marketing man in the wings.

Our interview with Matt Rendell continues in part two
Matt Rendell Interview Part three

Matt Rendell Book Reviews:
The Legend of Jose Bayaert - Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw
Kings of the Mountains

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More Book Reviews on the Daily Peloton:
The Legend of Jose Bayaert - Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw
- Matt Rendell

Kings of the Mountains - Matt Rendell
fallen angel - The Passion of Fausto Coppi, William Fotheringham
Book Review: Custom Bicycles, A Passionate Pursuit
Training - Saving & Making Time - Chris Carmichael
The Cyclist’s Training Bible, 4th Edition - Joe Friel
Paris-Roubaix - A Journey Through Hell
We Might As Well Win - Johan Bruyneel
The Race - A Tour de France Novel
Book Review: "The Race"
The Tour  - Sequel to The Race
Tour de Life - From Coma to Competition Saul Raisin
Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide
Bicycling for Women
The Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike)
Jan Ullrich - All or Nothing At All, My Story
Jesper Skibby - Forstå Mig Ret -"Understand Me Correctly"
Fitness Cycling - Michael & Dede Demet Barry
Dancing on the Pedals: The Found Poetry of Phil Liggett
Ryan Barrett Reviews The Race
he Tour - What the Readers Say
The Tour: A Book Review by Marty Jemison
The Tour  - Chapter 1 of the Sequel to the Novel The Race
Book Review: Marcel Wüst - Sprinter Years
Bob Roll's Tour de France Companion
he "Fairytale" of Fabrizio Macchi
Le Tour A History of the Tour de France
Bike Racing 101 by Kendra and René Wenzel
Light a Fire, Pull up a Chair and Read a Book!
 - Books Reviewed: Rough Ride Paul Kimmage, Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson - by William Fotheringham, Van Santander Naar Santander by Peter Winnen, French Revolutions by Tim Moore, No Brakes! Bicycle Track Racing in the United States by Sandra Wright Sutherland.

Author Interviews:
Cycling Journalist & Author William Fotheringham
Dave Shields Author - Tour de Life - Saul Raisin Biography
The Tour, A Tour de France Novel - Author Interview

Movies & Video Reviews
PRO: The New Cycling Documentary by Jamie Paolinetti
Interview with the Filmmaker Jamie Paolinetti: Part One
Interview with Filmmaker Jamie Paolinetti: Part Two
 The Hard Road - Pro Team Documentary Film Premiere and Reviews!
Three part interview with Jamie Paolinetti:
Part One: End of the Road - Jamie Paolinetti Hangs it Up
Part Two: Looking back - Jamie Paolinetti on his Years in the Saddle
Part Three: An Honest Day's Work - Jamie Paolinetti on his Film
The Quest - 2003 Giro d'Italia Documentary, Gilberto Simoni & Saeco
The Making of The Quest, Part 1 - Part 2
 Off Road to Athens - 2004 Mountain Bike Documentary Film

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Interview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell Part 2

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