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Interview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell Part 3
By Giles Belbin
Date: 12/16/2009
Interview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell Part 3

Interview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell Part Three
A conversation with Matt Rendell continues, the Pantani Biography, on being a Working Journalist and commentator at the tour...

Giles Belbin: Lets go back to your research and writing. You said earlier that the Pantani book was painful to write. Why was that one so difficult?

Matt Rendell: I spent several months researching before I realised I'd never be able to write the book unless I went to live in Italy, so my wife gave up her job, we sold the house and rented an apartment in Modena for five months. I went to interview drug pushers, people involved in the seedier side of Pantani's life, and I spoke to his parents and other members of his family on many occasions. I saw his life from every angle, and saw all the squabbling that still goes on today over his memory.

Writing for The Observer, I had slept in the room directly beneath the room in which Marco died when it was still sealed off, the week after his death. All this led to a series of nightmares and nocturnal panic attacks. I also faced threats of violence during my investigations, and a death threat soon after publication. I believed I had a heavy responsibility in undertaking to represent a man's life in a book. In addition, I had to write quickly in order to meet my deadline. It was very hard work!

GB: Had you known this before you set out on the book, would you have started the project?

MR: Against every instinct and tendency, I've learnt to be a realist, and I think the Pantani book is probably as good as I could have made it. Unfortunately, the existence of a largely fictional work by a prominent French journalist meant my book was never published on the continent, except in Dutch. It's a shame, because it is the only serious attempt to understand the facts behind Marco's death. One of the regional newspapers that serves Cesenatico, Pantani's hometown, wanted to publish my book, which I took as a huge compliment. But I considered that the amount of abuse I would likely receive would not justify publication. Sport attracts idiots, too, and violence.

GB: I'm interested in how you approach the writing process - do you complete all your research first or write as you go?

MR: The logical way of working is as follows: first, you read whatever has been written on the subject in book form. Secondly, you blitz the newspapers, gather the day-to-day facts and draw up a list of interviewees. Thirdly, you do the interviews. Fourthly, you assemble all this into an account in more or less chronological order. Finally, you take this account and shape it into a book. That's the theory.

The problems arise when you live in one country, the newspapers are in another country (bear in mind L'Équipe at the Gazzetta dello Sport, for instance, aren't regarded as important or 'historical' enough for the British Library), you're on a limited budget, and you've a deadline set by the perceived need to publish in the fortnight before the start of the Tour de France.

With Pantani, I had done at least half of the interviews before I was able to lock myself in libraries in Modena and Rimini and scour ten years of daily press reports. With the latest book, 'Olympic Gangster,' (Rendell's biography of French cyclist José Beyaert) the situation was worse: there was no time to shape the first manuscript into a book and the more or less chronological order account was what was published.

Matt Rendell. Photo courtesy Matt Rendell.

GB: What do you consider to be the most single important thing when writing a biography?

MR: Honesty. You set out for every interview with a hypothesis, but you have to be prepared to ditch it. An example:

I traveled to Rwanda in August to film a report for Transworld Sport on the Rwandan national cycling team. I'm almost uniquely fortunate in being allowed to propose stories, film them myself, and then script and edit them myself. So before I went, I read everything I could about the coach Jock Boyer, the first American ever to ride the Tour de France. He's a wonderful man, an extraordinary man, but he has let us say an isolated, ill-advised incident in his past for which he has paid very dearly. 

I came across a long, recent piece in an American magazine that basically said, 'He has a dark past, and so does Rwanda, so he has gone there to live like in poverty and expiate his sins.' It's too neat: it feels like a theory the writer has come up with before starting work on the story, and it has remained intact. Well, if your initial theory remains intact after X thousands of miles travelling, Y number of hours researching, and Z number of interviews and time spent with your subject, then it can hardly have been worth doing. 

You just have to see Jock work to understand he's having a fantastic time, and a deeply fulfilling time, and there's no expiation of any sin involved. I spoke to Jock about this the article in question, and he was quite clear it completely failed to catch what motivates him. Now, you can say, 'He says one thing about what drives him on, but the truth about what drives him on is something else.' But you have at the very least to challenge your own theory with the explanation provided by the subject. He, after all, is the world authority on the content of his own soul, unless there's something deeply wrong with him.

DP: And finally, over all the years you have covered the sport, do you have a favourite story or an amusing tale you'd like to share with us?

MR: If you have a copy of Mark Cavendish's book 'Boy Racer,' turn to page 63 for a pretty accurate account of one encounter between us - from his point of view!

In 2002, as I remember it, for some reason Gary Imlach was left with a huge amount of time to fill at the end of the show on the first Saturday of the Tour - something like 8 minutes, which seems like eternity. I was in the mixed zone, just about to interview David Millar on tape, when I received an urgent radio message to go straight to the OB truck.

I'd already made eye contact with David and he was coming towards me when I suddenly slipped backwards out of the crowd of reporters, and ran off into the distance. It must have looked pretty bizarre. I put my head into the OB truck and was told, 'Get on the f***ing roof and talk to Gary.' I tore off my bib and accreditation and started climbing the ladder up the side of the truck to get to Gary's live position. I was still divesting myself of radios and mobile phones and throwing them off the side of the truck as my head appeared over the end of the roof. 

The cameraman and sound man had no idea what I as doing and were whispering, as loud as they could without being picked up by Gary's mic, 'We're live, f*** off!' They tried to hold me back physically: as far as they were concerned, I was about to ruin the end of the show by walking in the way of a live camera. At that moment, Gary turned to me, masterfully ignoring the argument going on next to him, introduced me - at which point the penny dropped with the cameraman - and brought me in to talk about David Millar's prologue, filling a couple of minutes and helping him get his breath back to close the show. We had a laugh about that in the bar afterwards.

The cameraman that day was Glen Wilkinson, who spent twenty years filming bike races from a motorbike, screaming down mountain sides in the wet at 80 mph and hanging out of helicopters. The most dangerous job you can imagine. A few years later, he was having a beer in the garden at home when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was in his mid-40s. Another breed, cameramen.

Interview: Cycling Writer and Presenter Matt Rendell
Interview: Matt Rendell Part 1
Interview: Matt Rendell Part 2

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

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The Legend of Jose Bayaert - Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw
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