Book review: How I Won the Yellow Jumper by Ned Boulting

Published by Lyn on 16 May 2011

Regular readers and those following Freewheeling France on Twitter and Facebook will have noticed that I've been on a bit of a books bender these last few weeks. Recent posts have included a wrap of books about cycling in France, as well as a long-overdue list of guidebooks for anyone cycling in France. Even my Mother's Day blog (remember it's May 29 in France) dipped into books.

First of all I've had more time to read lately: trying to stay awake while feeding our newly born future cyclist at all hours of the night requires considerable concentration/distraction. Secondly, my other half threatened to bin the big pile of books gathering dust near my desk; I needed to act fast to save them.

How I Won the Yellow Jumper

Top of the pile was How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France by Ned Boulting, who wins plaudits for keeping me awake well past feeding time, long after our future cyclist had screwed up his face, stretched out his little arms and returned to his slumber with a dribble and a whine. Two or three midnight feeds and the book was finished and returned to the pile (albeit in a new 'I've-just-read-it-now-I-need-to-write-about-it' section).

Boulting joined ITV's Tour de France team for the 2003 Tour and he's covered every Tour since. How I Won the Yellow Jumper is a refreshing account of his time on the road in France.

It covers the riders, of course, and they're all here – Armstrong, Wiggins, Contador, Cavendish, McEwen, Vinokourov, Ullrich, Landis, Rasmussen, and more - all within touching distance of Boulting, who (with varying degrees of competence and success) chases them around with his mic. But it's not the riders who are the stars of the book. The star is undoubtedly Boulting himself, probably as much to his own surprise as to anyone else's, because it's both eloquent and modest, placing Boulting at the centre of the story, but somehow keeping him on the periphery at the same time.

The book is a record of his love affair with the Tour, an affair that started after he was sent to cover the race despite knowing nothing about its riders or its rules. Unfortunately, I can't find any trace on YouTube of his early Tour days, so there's no way of gauging whether his first live Tour interview – when he referred to the Yellow Jersey as a 'yellow jumper' (hence the title) – was as truly awful as he claims.

Regardless, this and other recollections are witty and entertaining. We join him on his boy's own adventure for a behind-the-scenes look at the Tour and, from a media studies perspective, a fascinating insight into how the event makes it into our living rooms each July. (It's worth noting that it's not necessary to be familiar with Boulting or ITV's Tour broadcasts to enjoy the book.)

If Boulting is the star, his co-stars are drawn from the cast of otherwise ordinary people who help keep the Tour on the road: the caterers who take in their stride rampaging Basque fans on a Pyrenéan mountaintop; the 'Toilet Keeper' from Dortmund who keeps the Tour a flushing success; the camera operators and sound recordists who consign it all to history. The stories of all these people are seamlessly woven in among Boulting's take on Wiggins' remarkable 2009 Tour; the launch of Team Sky (and *that* bus); the Armstrong years; the drugs scandals, and much more. It's an easy read, one uncomplicated by the complexities of the Tour's history or its rules. Yet, in a funny way, it's an ode to all that the Tour's complexities represent; it's a warm and witty love letter to a tortured, romantic and resilient three weeks in July.

How I Won the Yellow Jumper: Dispatches from the Tour de France by Ned Boulting is published by Yellow Jersey Press.

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