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Interview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell Part 2
By Giles Belbin
Date: 12/14/2009
Interview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell Part 2

nterview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell Part Two
A conversation with cycling journalist & author Matt Rendell continues:  The change in presentation and coverage of cycling, History, Anti-doping... 'It (cyclesport) has always disarmed with its honesty, even at its most corrupt. It is a sport of paradoxes and contradictions.'

 Matt Rendell interview continued from Part 1

Giles Belbin: How has covering the race changed over the years? And how do you think the sport in general has changed?

Matt Rendell: I've been lucky enough to film races in Colombia from a motorbike. Cameramen today are the only people who get that wonderful, on-the-spot vision of the race. Go back not too many years and there were flotillas of journalists on motorbikes among the riders. They were in the hotel rooms with them after the stage, even eating with the riders. The Tour de France is no longer like that, and the other major races are getting increasingly like the Tour de France.

Television creates the illusion of blanket coverage, but in fact, even on the road, there are only four or five motorbikes, and when the race splits up, you quickly see the inadequacies. At mountain top finishes, access is highly restricted, and there are plenty of journalists who never leave the press-room. The helicopter shots get better and better, and the whole thing is given a highly staged, glossy finish. The uninitiated have no idea what a hard sport it is. There are stages when riders throw up, when they ride over mountains with diarrhea pouring down their legs, they cross the line dribbling. The filth and stench, the pain, is all edited out. There is a falsification.

Cycling is one of the only sports - the ONLY one? - in which anti-doping has become a guiding logic for several of the top teams. Whether or not they live up to their stated intent, and if we could be 100% certain about this, we'd be living in a world in which no one cheated on anyone else and no one lied their way to the top - and we don't live in that sort of world! - but, whether or not they live up to their stated intent, the likes of Garmin, Columbia and now Team Sky are changing the sport, and changing sport.

It seems to me that sport faces many serious challenges, and that only a sport like cycling, which has had so many problems, and so publicly, is going to be able to unravel them. Football and tennis are so enveloped in marketing fluff and money that they have very little interest in dealing with damaging issues like doping and corruption.

There is now far more individual coaching of more than the three or four team leaders. The old leader-domestique system is far more flexible than before, which can only be a good thing. Science and technology are there at every level, perhaps too much so, although I seem to be in a minority in favouring the use of radios. I find those old comedies of errors, when races were decided by punctures or accidents or riders going the wrong way or breaking away unseen, rather embarrassing.

GB: What was your take on the failed experiment of riding a radio-less stage in the Tour. It seems to me that the teams just won't let it happen, probably for the very reasons you just mentioned.

MR: Strange how unpopular radios are, though, isn't it? I think cycling is rather backward looking. The Golden Age was in the 1930s, and then either side of 1950, when it was really a 'now' sort of sport, reflective of the present. Today it struggles to be futuristic and stealthy, while seeming old-fashioned and yellowed with nostalgia, even if much of that nostalgia is false or learnt after the event.

Hence, for instance, the spate of cycling books on Coppi and Anquetil, for example, in English, when you might have thought there was little more that could be said about either of them.

GB: I do think there is a real interest in the history of the sport. It's certainly something I have a great deal of interest in although your notion of a false nostalgia is interesting. Perhaps I yearn to learn more about something that never really existed! Perhaps its about making that [history] more accessible. For example I couldn't have read anything in real detail on Coppi until Fotheringham wrote his book [fallen angel: the Passion of Fausto Coppi] this year.

MR: In real memory, everything is mixed up: my old Italian professors used to cut out pictures of Coppi and Bartali and others, stick them inside a bottle top, and roll them down corridors moulded into the sand or mud. Childhood games, flavours, songs, family rituals, personal trauma - everything is reflected in everything else.

Cycling is largely acquired relatively late in life in the UK - a bit like salsa dancing! My wife is Colombian and has been dancing salsa since she could walk, and so has everyone she grew up with and was surrounded by. When she sees British people dancing salsa, it looks to her eyes like a rather savage parody of someone else's culture!

With the best will in the world, cycling as a part of French or Italian or Belgian culture, which is quite distinct from cycling as a sport [which] we British, it turns out, can be rather good at it - is something very, very different from cycling as a part of British culture. For a start, 'there' it's central to the culture. 'Here,' it's marginal, at best, even today, with Sky putting 30 million quid or so into it.

It's interesting to read a book about Coppi or Anquetil, but I think we have a voyeuristic tendency with cycling. I remember a remark Nicholas Shakespeare makes in his biography of Bruce Chatwin, something like, 'The British Empire was forged by people who hated Britain and were desperate to get away from it!' Cycling as a culture in the UK has always involved Francophiles and Italophiles. That's certainly why I got into it!

GB: [That's] an interesting point. I have to confess that too is the case for me. Part of the attraction for me is watching the riders tackle the mountains of France, Italy and Spain.

MR: It's one of the wonderful things about the sport. You don't have to understand it at all, as a sport, to get a real buzz out of those incredible shots of man against mountain. They're going over the Aravis this year, which is just about my favourite as far as the view is concerned. I had a puncture descending the south side once and had a near-death experience, narrowly avoiding a big fall!

For Matt Rendell, man against mountain is one of the most wonderful things about cycling
Drama unfolds at the 2006 Tour de France Stage 17: Kloden leads Pereiro and Zubeldia near the Joux-Plane summit Photo 2009 Ben Ross

GB: I definitely think riding the climbs enhances your appreciation of the sport.

MR: Climbing is like boxing: Joyce Carol Oates said 'Life IS like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.' Ditto for climbing!

GB: I'd like to go back to doping. I share your frustration on other sports failure to combat it. Operacion Puerto involved lots of sports but only cyclists were named. A couple of years ago the sport was in the doldrums, teams pulling out like Credit Agricole, T Mobile etc, but lately there's been a real influx - RadioShack, Sky, Cervelo, Garmin etc What's changed? Big riders still get caught [Danilo] di Luca, [David] Rebellin for example.

MR: Other sports take place in venues that resemble fortresses. Cycling takes place in public spaces. And cycling has been very late to assume that legalistic cast of mind that dominates other sports. It has always disarmed with its honesty, even at its most corrupt. It is a sport of paradoxes and contradictions.

I'm not sure I share your analysis that there is a real influx of sponsorship: Radio Shack and Team Sky are new this year. Cervelo doesn't really represent outside sponsorship, and Garmin has been around a while now. I think the sport is clinging on, and is concentrating on presentation, pending proof that the biological passport will one day function properly. So far, it has been blood alone: when do they start monitoring hormones? And when they do, will they be able to secure convictions without a failed doping test result? So: in the meantime, presentation is everything.

I include in that this annoying new trend of building a Tour de France around a single, emblematic stage, e.g., Mont Ventoux last year and the Tourmalet this. The race wasn't decided on Mont Ventoux, it was decided in the Alps. The same will happen in 2010 - but the Tour organisers continue to speak as though Mont Ventoux was decisive this year, and whatever actually happens next year, they'll say the Tourmalet decided the Tour.

GB: My comment on sponsorship is really driven by the fact that a few years ago, when CA went and T Mobile withdrew and other sponsors were said to be considering their positions, there seemed to be a concern we would soon be left without a viable sport. Now, last week I read that the Tour is considering reducing the numbers of riders on a team so it can accommodate more teams [in the race]

MR: But I insist, only a sport like cycling, which has stared into the abyss, is going to be able to deal with the problems facing every sport with any honesty. On the other hand, I wonder if human beings are really set up to both compete with each other while also solving commonly held problems. Look at our complete inability to make any progress at all with climate change or ecological destruction. People say the same things today they were saying when I was a child. I remember losing sleep over the amount of acres of rainforest that were being destroyed. That was 35 years ago!

I wonder if the idea of reducing team sizes to include more teams is really a sign of vitality. Even the smaller teams are desperate for Tour inclusion, otherwise they're no longer viable. I always thought it was quite right that the Tour de France should include smaller French teams in preference to Cipollini's outfit or whatever.

GB: I think your point on human nature is an important one. I still think that even the "transparent" teams push things as far as they can go legally and if they could guarantee they wouldn't get caught would go beyond that to get an advantage. Maybe I'm being unfair but it seems to me the anti-doping movement is perhaps more about being seen to do something rather than want to do it, I mean "really", intrinsically want to do it.

MR: There are sincere, almost saintly people in the anti-doping movement, with whom I've had the privilege to work. There are also bureaucrats of no special moral standing. My feeling is that life is complex. One Olympics, I watched Colombia's 4x100m women's relay team and saw a group of talented athletes from the poorest regions - who had no doubt been poorly fed as children, taking on athletes from wealthy nations with incredible muscle definition, certainly served by universities with coaches and scientists and dieticians. There's an argument for saying that the athletes from poorer nations should be allowed to dope in order to make up for the uneven playing field on which they're being asked to compete. Then you have Kenya...

GB: That is a controversial argument - permit doping to combat disadvantages in training and diet.

MR: Perhaps there is also a moral code that allows for doping, something analogous to the military or religious codes that allowed sanctified forms of sacrificial violence or temple prostitution. I can imagine people, or a society, in which an athlete's preparedness to ingest dangerous poisons and endanger his own existence, and run those risks, in order to achieve glory, would be considered admirable. A sort of modern Sparta. Perhaps that's how the next generation will see things - and then today's anti-doping crusaders will seem naive. In fact, I suspect that's precisely how the dopers see it.

I was working in the velodrome in Beijing [during the Olympics], and every day I saw my `Colombian friends who had the unenviable task of competing against that incredible British team - incredible athletes, incredible funding and facilities, too. And part of me wondered just how moral that situation was: an under-funded team of kids from extremely poor backgrounds against an astonishing champion-making machine of well-nourished, well-trained riders who crushed everything before them.

Our conversation with Matt Rendell continues in Part 3
Interview: Matt Rendell Part 1
Matt Rendell Book Reviews:
The Legend of Jose Bayaert - Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw
Kings of the Mountains

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