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
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
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
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
Matt Rendell Interview
Matt Rendell Book Reviews:
The Legend of
Jose Bayaert - Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw
Kings of the
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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
Custom Bicycles, A Passionate Pursuit
Saving & Making Time - Chris Carmichael
Training Bible, 4th Edition - Joe Friel
- A Journey Through Hell
We Might As
Well Win - Johan Bruyneel
- A Tour de France Novel
- Sequel to The Race
Tour de Life -
From Coma to Competition Saul Raisin
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
Skibby - Forstå Mig Ret -"Understand Me Correctly"
Cycling - Michael & Dede Demet Barry
Dancing on the
Pedals: The Found Poetry of Phil Liggett
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
Marcel Wüst - Sprinter Years
Bob Roll's Tour
de France Companion
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!
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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
Journalist & Author William Fotheringham
Author - Tour de Life - Saul Raisin Biography
The Tour, A
Tour de France Novel - Author Interview
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Interview with the Filmmaker Jamie Paolinetti:
Interview with Filmmaker Jamie Paolinetti:
Hard Road - Pro Team Documentary Film Premiere and Reviews!
Three part interview with Jamie Paolinetti:
End of the Road - Jamie Paolinetti Hangs it Up
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,
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Off Road to Athens - 2004 Mountain Bike