An evening at the library

The majestic Signet Library in Edinburgh was the perfect place to finish The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (parts of) Britain. It wasn’t until Richard mentioned it that I realised it was the success of our event there back in December 2016 that had given us the confidence to attempt a tour like this.

When we were first invited by Vincent Guérin of the WS Society we were unsure there’d be enough demand to fill the room but he had been confident, he worked hard to promote the event and it was a great evening.

Returning lived up to expectations. The building itself is stunning. Beautiful and grand but warm and welcoming too, which is a tricky balancing act for buildings to strike, although it has to be said buildings aren’t conscious of such things, they just stand there.

Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

As we sat in one of the rooms overlooked by paintings of 18th and 19th century legal eagles in their wigs and shelves groaning with old law books, we were told the room was haunted. I don’t believe in ghosts but I did notice that of the dozen or so chairs at the long table, all but one of them was tucked in neatly. The other was at a jaunty angle, as if a ghostly occupant had left in a hurry when it heard us coming. Or perhaps that was the joke.

Minutes before we went on, Richard spilled water on his jeans – the result of an over-enthusiastic tap and a small hand basin. We all chortled a bit, not appreciating Richard’s anxiety.

‘Does it look bad?’ he said.

‘No, it doesn’t look too bad,’ I said.

‘Are you sure it doesn’t look like I’ve wet myself?’ he said.

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘It definitely looks like you’ve wet yourself.’

Orla came to the rescue by suggesting Richard call his brother, who was in the audience, and swap jeans. Problem solved.

Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark

The event went well. A photographer called Albie Clark took some great photos that really captured the atmosphere, even if I look like Dr Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppets in almost all of them. You’ll have to Google that reference, I’m not doing the work for you.

At some point, I told the story of when I played golf with two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon at Hampton Court Palace. Fignon had agreed to be interviewed by Edward Pickering, who edited the magazine I wrote for at the time, only on the condition that he could play golf at a decent  course. A four-ball was hastily assembled and I found myself walking up the fairway behind one of my childhood sporting heroes.

He was not in the most talkative mood – he took his golf too seriously and perhaps was a bit grumpy to be in the company of some hacker who was on course to shoot about 105 after the first two holes. (Me, if that's not clear). I nearly took his head off midway down the first fairway when I shanked an iron shot that flew off at close to right-angles in his direction. He ducked just in time and shot me a well-practiced look of contempt.

But I had some reasonable moments. On the front nine there was a par five and I stuck it on the green in three and then bagged a putt from about 20 feet to make birdie. Fignon, who had been swearing and thumping his sand wedge into the turf on the previous hole after taking three to get out of a bunker, skidded his approach shot through the green and into the trees. I don’t think he appreciated me enjoying my birdie as much as I did.

On the back nine there was another par five and I had such a nightmare I picked up with about 150 yards still to go to the green. Fignon, who was finishing strongly, rolled his eagle putt up to the lip of the hole and tapped in for a birdie. He came hopping over to the edge of the green, where I was standing, arms folded, watching the others putt out. ’No birdie for you zis time, eh?’ he said, smiling broadly. It was just about the only English he spoke all day.

After the event, we signed some books and someone presented me with a bottle of Kwaremont beer – named after the Oude Kwaremont climb that features in so many of the Flandrian classics – which was incredibly thoughtful and much appreciated.

Afterwards we headed to a restaurant Vincent had booked. When I’d arrived earlier in the evening he said, ‘We will be going for some cheese, ham and wine afterwards. I hope that is okay?’ I must admit I feared cheese and ham might not be substantial enough but my worries were unfounded. If you’re ever in Edinburgh and have a chance to go to L’Escargot Blanc in Queensferry Street, do because it was really good.

We ate downstairs in the bar and the food was simple buffet-style stuff but it was done so well. There was a fabulous selection of cheeses, ham, saucisson; a jar of crunchy, vinegary cornichons; some raclette with boiled potatoes; some pâte en croute and a really good black pudding pie; plus some tinned sardines and other gems. The food hadn’t been prepared so much as curated and it was a real joy. My concern that I was stuck at the end of the table a fair distance from some of the delights was eased by the fact Vincent and François were reassuringly assertive in making sure everything got passed round.

François revealed that it would be his birthday the following day but implored us not to sing Happy Birthday on the basis that it would be bad luck. So we waited until the clock passed midnight and gave him a stirring rendition – although it was nothing compared to his Flower of Scotland on stage at the Signet Library a few hours earlier.

Orla headed off a bit before us as she had to be up at silly o’clock to fly back to London. Richard went to stay at his brother’s place. François, David Luxton (our literary agent) and I took a taxi back to our hotel and as we said our goodbyes in the corridor I suddenly felt sad that it was over.

All being well, though, we will go back on the road at the end of the year, and we hope to make it to some of the places we were unable to reach this time.

Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark

A warm welcome to Glasgow

It was time to head to Glasgow by train for the first of two re-arranged stages of The Cycling Podcast’s tour of Britain. We’d originally been scheduled to appear at Òran Mór at the start of March but the snow put paid to that. Our tour organisers were unable to re-book Òran Mór but The Trades Hall was a glorious alternative venue and the crowd filled the room and gave the grand setting plenty of warmth.


We mixed things up a bit and this time, we each read a bit of our own work from The Cycling Podcast book, A Journey Through the Cycling Year. I went first and I found it trickier than when I’d read an excerpt of one of Richard’s chapters during the previous events because my inner monologue was asking, ‘Who on earth wrote this?’ There’s a time for critical analysis of your own work but perhaps while reading it to an audience is not that time.

The question and answer session in the second half was great fun with some excellent questions. The first was from someone whose son was moving from Glasgow to Marseille to study. He wanted to know from François how he could be sure his son wouldn’t turn a bit fancy after moving to France. François talked a bit about how Glasgow and Marseille had quite a bit in common, being misunderstood by outsiders, but nevertheless glorious cities with great character. Orla wanted to know what the questioner meant by ‘a bit fancy,’ to which he replied, ‘Will he start dressing like Lionel?’

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, so I decided to take it as a compliment. We decided that the presence of a spotted handkerchief in the breastpocket of a jacket must be seen as a bit fancy by some Glaswegians. In any case, it gave Richard, Orla and François a good laugh over dinner.

We went for a very fine curry at a place called Obsession of India in the Merchant City area of town. The slightly sticky table might have been off putting if the food hadn’t been so good. James, from our tour organisers Penguin Live, ordered a madras and dismissed the warnings from the staff that it would be a pretty spicy with the sort of London-based nonchalence I’ve paid the price for in the past.

It reminded me of a few years ago, when Ellis Bacon and I had just published one of the volumes of The Cycling Anthology and, together with my sister, ran a book stall at The Cycle Show at the NEC in Birmingham. We stayed in a cheap, no-frills hotel on a dual carriageway and restaurant choices within walking distance were restricted to an absolutely terrible pub where (as my memory has it) Ellis had sausage, chips and beans for £1.99, and a curry house that looked unpromising inside and out but was actually pretty good. We ended up in the curry house three nights out of four.

The first night I ordered a madras and was a bit disappointed that it was quite mild. The second night I went for something else that was described as medium-hot but that didn’t pack much of a punch either. So on the final night I picked something hot and said to the waiter, ‘Is this actually a hot dish?’

‘It can be, yes. How hot would you like it?’

‘Well, only as hot as it comes. I don’t want anything ridiculous but something with a bit more spice would be good.’

Photographs by James Robinson.

Photographs by James Robinson.

Within a couple of mouthfuls my eyes were watering and my forehead was sweating and although I managed to battle on through, it was a bit of a trial.

As the waiter cleared the plates away he asked how it had been. I put a brave face on things and said, ‘It was certainly a lot hotter than the other two dishes I’ve had here.’

The waiter replied, ‘Well, we figured you were from down south so we thought we’d better go easy on you.’

Back in Glasgow, James polished off his madras, finely-chopped chillis and all, but he did look like he was in need of my handkerchief to mop his brow by the end.

Going running

In terms of the weather, it has been one of the worst winters I can remember. We’re approaching mid-April and it’s still cold and wet and it’s starting to feel like it’s been this way since records began, as the weather forecasters on television like to say. There was the excitement of the snow in early December, and the novelty of surprise snow in early March, but the rest of the winter has seemed relentlessly dark and cold. I can’t remember such a sustained spell of unbroken greyness. Usually winter is punctuated by occasional bright, dry days and by now we’ve had at least one warm spell.

The weather, and the grey skies in particular, undoubtedly affect my mood. It’s not that I crave blazing sunshine and warmth all year round, because I do think there’s something pleasing about the changing seasons, but there has been a distinct lack of signs that brighter days are round the corner.

My cycling has suffered too. I had a couple of bursts of activity on the turbo trainer, using the computer game Zwift as a motivator, but I’ve been out for only a handful of bike rides since the start of the year and the occasional 90-minute ride, though enjoyable, isn’t improving my overall fitness. With eight weeks on the road looming this summer, which involves a lot of sitting in a car and eating late, it’s time for drastic measures.

So, I put my trainers on and went for a run round the common. Or to be more accurate, a run-walk-run.

Knowing I’ve got 20 days on the road at the Giro d’Italia coming up, I want to be able to do some kind of activity while I’m away. Taking a bike isn’t an option at the Giro so it’ll have to be running, and so the goal is to get fit enough to be able to go for a short morning run every couple of days. I’m not setting the bar terribly high there because I’m not a natural runner. I overpronate and have glass ankles. Hopefully that will enable me to come home from Italy with a reasonable level of fitness so I can spend June cycling.

Daniel was talking recently about paying to offset the carbon footprint he leaves covering the three grand tours and if he explains how to do it I’ll do the same. This is a similar sort of idea. Going for a run will my way of off-setting my preferred meal choice of antipasto, primo piatto and secondo piatto.

The finalists for the British Podcast Awards were announced today and for the second year in a row The Cycling Podcast has made the shortlist of five in the best sports podcast category.

We’re in some very fine company because the other finalists are:

Brian Moore’s Full Contact by the former England rugby international

Fight Disciples (which won last year)

Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? by comedian Josh Widdecombe and friends, which is a delightful slice of 1990s football nostalgia

Who Are Ya? A football podcast that focuses on a different football club in each episode. I’ve not heard it before but will check out

In the other categories there are a couple of podcasts that leapt out at me. They were the excellent Reasons to be Cheerful by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd and The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson, which was a stunning example of storytelling and a study of unintended consquences. Just to be included in the same breath as them (which we might be if someone with a huge lung capacity was to read out the full list of finalists) is fantastic.

Full gas and phone fraud

The past week has been a strange one of mostly non-blog-worthy stuff. It’s during weeks like this that it feels like the business of running a business gets in the way of the actual business, which in this case is The Cycling Podcast. There was a meeting with the accountants, some travel to book and some plans to make.

On Saturday evening I drove down to Feltham, where Sean Kelly and Rob Hatch were staying before commentating on Paris-Roubaix for Eurosport the following day. I talked to Sean for an episode I’m making for Friends of the Podcast and then we had dinner with Rob – Declan Quigley joined us midway through too – and talked about the following day’s race.

The hotel’s Italian restaurant was only moderately busy but the poor chef behind the pass looked stretched to breaking point. There was a long wait for the starters, and then another delay for the main course. I went for gnocchi with sausage and charred radicchio. Unfortunately, the gnocchi was not good – rubbery and dense like little squash balls and with a watery film clinging to the surface. The radicchio was not so much charred as burnt. But by far the least palatable thing was that there was a very unpleasant waft coming over from a neighbouring table at intervals regular enough to suggest the culprit ought to make an appointment with a bowel specialist. They were rugby fans who had been to the match at Twickenham that afternoon and had possibly spent all day on the booze. While I don’t wish to embarrass or shame the guilty party too much it won’t take a genius to work out that whoever it was going ‘full gas’ in a public dining area supported the team from the West Country.

On Sunday I learned that someone had fraudulently attempted to upgrade my mobile phone contract and order a new handset. Bizarrely, the phone was due to be delivered to my home address, so it clearly wasn’t the work of criminal masterminds. When I explained to the woman in the phone company’s customer service department that I had not requested an upgrade she said that it should have rung alarm bells with whoever took the initial call because, ‘It’s not often someone chooses to swap an iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy.’

The woman said that the phone company’s records showed that someone had rung up on Sunday afternoon claiming to be me. The next step, she said, was that their fraud department would listen to the call and compare the voice to my actual voice in the call I was making now to see if it was the same person. I’m now braced for the revelation that someone has constructed a conversation by splicing up bits of my voice from The Cycling Podcast in the manner of Cassette Boy or that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the teacher visits truanting Ferris’s house and rings the doorbell, which triggers tape recordings of Ferris’s voice.

Perhaps I shouldn't give people any ideas.

Flanders – not quite love at first sight

I wish I could say that the beauty of the Flemish Classics was a case of love at first sight for me but I don’t think it was.

The first bike race I covered as a journalist was the 1999 Het Volk [now Het Nieuwsblad] and the things that stick in my mind are, in no particular order, that it was freezing cold; the fact the farm roads smelled of manure; the way the Belgian fans stood uncomfortably close to the riders at the start in Ghent, almost as if they were exhibits in a museum; the cold again, this time with added wind; and the fact everyone seemed to smoke, which made entering the cafés a test of endurance.

We saw the race a few times, including on the Oude Kwaremont, and I remember the rattling of the bikes, the shouts when someone stalled or missed half a pedal stroke, causing a ripple in the bunch, the steaming breath the riders left in the air, and the cigarette smoke from the spectators. The bunch seemed to take an age to pass, and it struck me that the riders at the back of the bunch were effectively riding a different race to those at the front. It might take them 20 kilometres and a race-ending effort to move up to the head of the bunch. Then there was the dash across the muddy field back to the car to join the convoy of cars racing to see it at the next spot on the road.

The press room that day was in a suite in Sporting Lokeren’s football stadium and I was quite excited because in the 1980s Watford had signed a player called Jan Lohman from Lokeren and it was as if my sporting worlds were colliding. I remember doing a double-take when I saw that in the next room there were free beers and sandwiches for the journalists. I abstained from the beers but the sandwiches were so moreish. There was a choice between a rubbery cheese with holes in it, ham, a pinkish fish pate and a grey-brown meat paste that I wouldn’t have been able to identify if my life depended on it but which was strangely delicious. The sandwiches on offer at the Flemish Classics have barely changed in the two decades since, and in fact, probably haven’t changed in more than a century.

As Frank Vandenbroucke ploughed on in the big ring through the icy rain, towing Wilfried Peeters along in the spray behind him, the pair of them lit by the headlamps of the team cars and motorbikes following, I watched on television in the warmth of the press room, chomped through the sandwiches and slowly started to get it.

A few weeks later I was back with the photographer Phil O’Connor. The day before the race the weather was filthy. We stopped at a petrol station and, clocking that I spoke English, the man at the till asked if we were here for the bike race. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Perfect weather for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen,’ he said, looking out at the dark sky and pea-sized blobs of rain.

That evening, over a Belgian beer, Phil unfolded a road map on the table. He’d marked the climbs and cobbles with a highlighter pen. We compared it to the route in the official roadbook and Phil plotted a route for Sunday’s race. The idea was to criss-cross the countryside in the car to see the riders several times. In the days before GPS units and mobile phones, this was quite an operation. Mistakes made in the planning could cost him a sighting of the race the following day. He made his plan, drew up his contingencies if anything went wrong and I went to bed with the butterfiles building because I knew I’d be doing the driving the next day.

It all passed in a blur. Everywhere we went the countryside looked the same and the sense of déjà-vu was overwhelming. Sometimes we actually were on the same stretch of road we’d been on earlier, just travelling in the opposite direction. It was then that I began to understand why the race is woven into the fabric of the region’s culture because it went within a few kilometres of just about everywhere in the Flemish Ardennes. Almost a century of the Ronde’s history had played out on those farm roads and the memories had seeped into the soil.

Two years later, I rode the sportive for the first time and my understanding of the race increased a little bit more. I’d not appreciated fully the sapping quality of the dead concrete roads, or the way the constant b-dum, b-dum, b-dum of riding over the ridged sections messed with your mind. I suddenly appreciated the true meaning of the phrase ‘false flat’, because Flanders was made up of roads that seemed to be flat yet felt like they were working against you. The wind, too, was an invisible and unpredictable enemy. And that’s before we even got to the cobbled climbs, each of them posing a different type of challenge depending on the stones and the camber.

Reaching Geraardsbergen, swooping over the bridge and down into the town before climbing up to the Muur I felt euphoric. I’ve ridden those roads many times since but nothing quite seems to match that first time.

Having said that, none of it felt terribly cool back then, not that it mattered. The cool came later, perhaps much later, but if any race was made for Instagram it's the Tour of Flanders. The cobbles, the little chapel at the top of the Muur, the Koppenberg, the beers and plates of frites, the uniquely Flandrian take on spaghetti bolognese (a personal favourite of mine), the unconventional glamour of it all makes it, for me, the best weekend of the cycling season.

• I've been blogging for a month now. Scroll down or click here to read earlier posts on a range of subjects.

An update on Margo the chicken

Margo the chicken is still broody. Expert advice and the internet seem to agree (which is not always the case) that she should snap out of it after about 21 days. That’s how long it usually takes for an egg to hatch but, of course, there’s no cockerel around so the eggs aren’t fertilised. So she has perhaps five or six days to go.

It was suggested to us that we get some fertilised eggs from a poultry farmer so that we’d have some chicks but, even though Margo’s mothering instincts should take care of them, we’re not sure we want the stress of adding two tiny birds to the existing three.

Margo (left) up to no good on the table with her late friend Barbara last summer.

Margo (left) up to no good on the table with her late friend Barbara last summer.

So Margo spends all day in her hen house sitting on any eggs that are in the nesting box. Mabel and Hetty clamber in and try to lay on top of her and she sits on those too. A couple of times a day I open the side door to feed Margo with a jug to make sure she’s getting enough to eat but once she’s had enough she pecks and hisses and gets quite aggressive.

Each day I try to force her out of the house with a golf club so we can remove the eggs. If she sits on them too long, they’ll get warm and go bad. Getting her off the nest for a bit each day might also break the broody cycle sooner.

Yesterday morning I seven-ironed her out of the house and she went bananas, squawking and flapping her wings and then chasing Hetty in a big circle in the garden. Then she calmed down and joined the others free-ranging in the leaves, dust-bathing near the fence and I thought for a while she might have forgotten about her nesting instincts. But no, within an hour she was back in the house. I opened the side door and her feathers were all fluffed up so she appeared to be enormous. One peck was enough to persuade me to leave her be and let nature take its course.

A trip back in time to St Leonards and journalism school

This time last year I headed to St Leonards-on-Sea to finish a book and retrace my past. It turned out not to be quite the experience I thought it might be.

St Leonards is where I trained to be a journalist. I was sponsored by the Watford Observer, which meant my tuition fees were covered by the paper and I was paid a small weekly allowance too. I was 18, the youngest of the Class of 94 by a few years because it was supposed to be a post-graduate course. I’d not gone to university (just the school of hard knocks. Eh? Eh?) because I joined the Watford Observer straight after my A-Levels.

Anyway, I drove down on a bright sunny day last spring to find there was a mix-up over the keys for my Airbnb and, while the owner’s father drove down from south-east London with a spare set, I went for a bike ride past Bexhill-on-Sea and towards Pevensey. Perfect, I thought, to clear my mind before focusing on writing.

When I got back, I settled into the place, which was nice enough, but I already had doubts I’d last for the week I’d booked. That evening, I ate solo in an Italian restaurant on the seafront and wondered what I was doing. I’d come to the seaside to try to concentrate on finishing a book but it already felt like an airkick at nostalgia. I thought that by going back to the place where my career started it might inspire me to write. What a cliché. It worked, in a way, because it got me started again but after just a day or so I no longer felt the need to be there.


While I was there I thought back to when I first arrived on a dark, miserable Sunday afternoon in January 1994. I checked into a guesthouse called the Clevedon Court Hotel run by a slightly domineering Scottish woman (if it’s possible to be slightly domineering) and her meek husband, who shuffled around the place in a permanent state of apology. They were lovely people and very welcoming to the trainee journalists they had living under their roof who, I assume, were marginally less challenging guests than the sorts of people who had fallen through the cracks in society and found themselves housed in some of the town's grand hotel buildings that had long forgotten their glory days.

My room was tiny. A bed, a wardrobe, a sink, a little Baby Belling table-top oven with hob and grill and a window that looked out onto the square and on which the pigeons gathered from dawn every morning to wake me with their cooing. The bathroom was a freezing cold hop, skip and jump down the corridor.

The day I arrived I intended to spend the evening revising my shorthand because I knew there would be a test on the first morning. At times it seemed that the chief purpose of the course was to get everyone to the magic hundred-words-per-minute mark and that newsgathering and writing were of secondary importance to journalists. Shorthand was a very valuable skill back then but I can quite understand a young journalist today, used to pressing the record button on their iPhone, wondering what the point of it all was. Looking back now they seem rather quaint days – days when local reporters actually covered court proceedings and council meetings, where tape recorders were not allowed. Shorthand was the tool that enabled you to do the job.

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Anyone who learned Pitman 2000 will know the phrase ‘Eat the peach and pay,’ and will be able to write it out in the curious language of thick and thin strokes. Every five years or so, usually when I’m coming down with flu, I have a recurring anxiety dream in which I am chased down an endless corridor by the Pitman 2000 short form for the phrase, ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…’ I don’t want to analyse too much what that means.

Anyway, in the early evening one of the other students knocked on my door and said that they were all going to the pub and so I closed my shorthand text book and did badly in the following day’s test. This started a six-month routine of getting up and making it in for the first lecture of the day by the skin of my teeth, two sessions of shorthand each day, lectures on law, local government and the process of news gathering, and one afternoon off a week to go out and gather some stories so we could create our own newspaper each Thursday night, when we’d take turns editing the ‘paper’ before heading to the pub.

In fact, we went to the pub most nights of the week to watch football on TV or play darts. On Friday nights we went to The Crypt, a nightclub in Hastings with a low ceiling and sticky floors and a DJ who would always play Geno or Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners when we were drunk. On Saturdays we’d drive to Brighton to buy CDs – for younger readers these were plastic discs that used to contain one Spotify playlist of about 12 or 14 songs – or we’d go to watch Hastings United or St Leonards (who played at grounds right next door to each other) depending on who was at home. On Sundays we’d head to the more sophisticated parts of the East Sussex coast – Rye or Camber Sands – for a lunchtime roast.

The whole time I was living in St Leonards, I got double paid in error by the Watford Observer. I’d spent the six months prior to the course working as an editorial assistant and they failed to stop my £100 a week salary after I headed to St Leonards and I didn't notice. Being the sort of person who just withdrew money from the wall until the machine said no, I lived like a king. It took 18 months to repay what I’d been overpaid with monthly deductions from my wages, but it was worth it.

One Thursday night we had a party at the Clevedon Court and more or less everyone from the course, including the tutors, came. I got lured into round after round of tequila shots and woke the next morning with a hangover I can still feel now if I think about it for more than a few seconds. I’ve never touched tequila since and just the smell of it is enough to turn my stomach.


In the morning I stood under the shower until the throbbing in the roof of my skull faded enough for me to get dressed. It was a still day but my headache was such that I walked along the seafront like a mime artist battling an imaginary wind. Only about half a dozen or so of the other students had made it in and after getting through the first lecture without throwing up we were sent home by the tutors. I spent almost all of the weekend in a fug of self-loathing, broken only by trips to the local café for bacon sandwiches when I could eventually face them. I lost the entire weekend to that hangover. When we went back in on the Monday, the few of us who had at least turned up on time the previous Friday were spared the bollocking. I suppose it says something about journalism’s old drinking culture that just turning up, despite being fit for nothing, was seen as fulfilling the brief.

It seems like a different world now, when competition for places at local newspapers was intense and the papers themselves offered a great opportunity to get started. Back then the Watford Observer was a two-section weekly broadsheet and there was a chance for a young reporter to do a bit of everything – hard news coverage (crime and court reporting), all the basics that were the staples of a paper of record (births, deaths and marriages; council meetings and community issues), human interest stories, sport, entertainment and feature-writing. Things have changed a lot since, but perhaps that's a story for another blog.

The BBC and a question of competition

Last week, an email arrived in The Cycling Podcast’s inbox from a journalist at The Times. He wanted to ask whether we felt the BBC’s increased interest in producing podcasts was hampering the growth of thriving independent and commercial podcasts.

I said I’d be happy to talk on behalf of our podcast and he called me and asked what I thought of the BBC’s podcasting policy, and more specifically the fact it has its own cycling podcast, Bespoke.

The boom in podcasting is an interesting subject but I did think it was a slightly peculiar premise for an article – after all, BBC stands for British Broadcasting Corporation and what is podcasting if it is not broadcasting? It would surely be odd if the BBC was not embracing technology to deliver content in the most convenient way for its audience.

Before the conversation was done, I had begun to suspect that I was not saying what the journalist had anticipated I might and I had the impression that the angle The Times was looking to take was one knocking the BBC rather than expressing concern for the plight of independent podcasters.

A short article was published today and it confirms those suspicions, to a degree, especially as the blob paragraph below it is also criticising the BBC, this time for closing an online forum dedicated to the radio drama The Archers.

The article is behind the paywall but the headline is ‘BBC accused of dominating podcast market’. I’m not quoted, which is fine by me, but nor are any other concerned independent podcasters. The only person quoted is Matt Hill, director of Rethink Audio and co-founder of the British Podcast Awards, who said, ‘It’s about shopfronts like the Apple podcast store; there’s only limited space to discover new podcasts. If BBC original content is being promoted in that space, that does push out the small space that independent podcasts and networks have to promote their stuff.’

Matt Hill makes a great point, that space in the big podcast showcase spaces such as iTunes is limited, but the issue there is surely with Apple rather than the BBC. The problem, if there is one, is not the BBC producing a lot of varied content but the amount of space available in the show windows of the main podcast platforms like Apple’s Podcasts App and iTunes. To ensure diversity, Apple and others could easily restrict the number of podcasts from a single company appearing in those premium spaces. Problem solved.

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Anyway, my own thoughts are that it can only be a good thing for all of us if the BBC is taking podcasting increasingly seriously. There are still plenty of people who ask what a podcast is and who are not in the habit of downloading audio to listen to at their convenience. We regularly get emails from listeners who have only just discovered us, even though we’ll mark our fifth anniversary in June. The British Podcast Awards were held for the first time last year (we were a finalist in the sports category) and so it is still a relatively young, undeveloped medium, even if it’s more than a decade since Ricky Gervais popularised the term 'podcast'.

It cannot hurt if the country’s biggest broadcaster is regularly promoting podcasts (even if only their own) on television and radio, because the chances are that once someone has listened to a BBC podcast they might explore further to see what else is out there.

The same goes for the other big broadcasters such as Sky and TalkSport, or even the newspapers (including The Times) that have entered the arena. They lend credibility to the medium, raise the bar in terms of editorial and production values and will attract more people to podcasts.

Although we may compete or overlap with the BBC for listeners, they cannot sell advertising and so are not a competitor in a commercial sense. So we see only the positives of competition.

We started The Cycling Podcast in June 2013 with nothing more than Richard’s iPhone, our own experience and a very modest, but hugely welcome, sponsorship from Sharp. We paid our own expenses at the Tour de France, we paid our producer and we covered the gap between what we had raised through sponsorship and what it all cost out of our own pockets. I don’t dare look at the profit and loss breakdown for those early years but I’m not sure I made what would conventionally be termed as a profit from The Cycling Podcast until we introduced our Friends of the Podcast scheme in 2015. And I didn’t make what could be described as approaching a living from it until our major sponsors Rapha and Science In Sport came on board in quick succession in 2016. However, I believed in what we were doing and saw commiting time and money as an investment.

My competitive advantage, if you like, was that I had 20 years' experience in the media behind me, I could work for other magazines and newspapers if I had to and I had written books which were generating an income, so I could afford to help subsidise The Cycling Podcast’s growth that way.

When it comes to Tour de France time competition is now intense, with the BBC, ITV and plenty of others in the audio peloton. The BBC and ITV have the huge advantage of being able to promote their podcasts on radio and television and yet our audience also grows so we can only conclude that we are being sucked along in the slipstream.

The beauty of podcasting is that it is not a closed shop – anyone with an iPhone and ideas can get their work online, although I accept that it was probably easier for us to build an audience because we had all covered professional cycling since the late 1990s and early 2000s and we weren't fumbling around at the Tour bewildered by the sheer scale of it all, so we could put together a relatively coherent product from day one. (Although I urge you not to go back and listen to our early episodes to test this hypothesis).

On Monday, Richard and I headed to Birmingham to meet Daniel (who was over from Berlin) to record a few things for The Cycling Podcast – this week’s regular episode discussing the Belgian cobbled classics and looking ahead to the Tour of Flanders, plus a couple of special episodes for Friends of the Podcast that will be out later in the year.

It turned out to be a productive day even if I continued my campaign to alienate large chunks of the United Kingdom one bit at a time by doing a Birmingham accent in the first part of the episode. Never mind competition from the BBC, my accents and comments about places that are Not Watford are tantamount to self-sabotage.

The two Scottish dates of The Cycling Podcast's Grand Tour of (parts of) Britain have been rearranged. Edinburgh, on April 12, is more or less sold out (although check with the venue. We'll be at the Trades Hall in Glasgow on April 11 and tickets have just gone on sale, with priority being given to people who had purchased for the first event. For details go here.


One match from Wembley

On Saturday I went to see Wealdstone’s FA Trophy semi-final second leg against Brackley Town on behalf of Simon Ricketts because he’s in hospital and unable to attend.

Having been encouraged by his progress a couple of weeks ago, he’d taken a turn for the worse since I last visited him and was back in intensive care when I went back on Thursday. It was upsetting to see him sedated, unconscious and hooked up to all sorts of machines. The nurse encouraged me to talk to him and so I said I’d go along to the match and give Wealdstone a cheer for him.

I’ve always had a soft spot for non-league football. When I first started working as a journalist, I spent a season or so covering the local non-league sides. Thinking I was clever, I once started a match report with the words: ‘Pointless Harefield United...’ after they’d lost about their eighth consecutive match at the start of the season and had yet to get off the mark. When the paper came out their manager rang up the sports desk asking to speak to me and I had to convince him I wasn’t trying to be smart. I think they won their next game, so perhaps he pinned the newspaper cutting up on the dressing room wall as motivation.

Wealdstone have a famous history and were 90 minutes from a return to Wembley despite having lost the first leg 1-0. They were the first team to do the non-league ‘Double’, winning the Alliance Premier League (later known as the Conference, now the National League) and FA Trophy in 1985. They’re the club that gave the world Stuart Pearce and Vinnie Jones and there’s a no-nonsense edge to some of the supporters too.

It’s been a long journey to get back to within touching distance of the top tier of non-league football for the Stones. As has happened to many clubs, they lost their ground when it was sold to a supermarket and that led to a long nomadic period of groundhopping. They spent a couple of seasons at Watford’s Vicarage Road, paying a ludicrous rent to play in an empty stadium, then moved to share grounds at Yeading, Edgware and Northwood before finally taking over Ruislip Manor’s ground about a decade ago.

There’s something charming about the hodgepodge of structures that provide cover for the supporters at their home, Grosvenor Vale. They’re all corrugated iron, scaffold poles and advertisements for local firms. The stands all have names that recognise the club’s history or people who have played their part. Couch Corner is named after Ray Couch, a statistician, apparently. There’s also Collins Corner, the Mick Wells Stand, the Bulla Stand and the 1966 Stand, to recognise the year the club won the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley. In one corner is a brick gun turret, which was used to provide machine gun cover for the neighbouring airfield during the Second World War, and another corner is apparently known as ‘dead fox corner’ because a dead fox was found there when a group of supporters arrived to do some renovation work one summer.

Brackley were too good for Wealdstone and deserved to go through, so I couldn’t relay the news to Simon that his team had made it to Wembley, but I enjoyed the game. I had a very strong cup of tea from Lynn’s Gourmet Burger bar – the sort of tea that would make even a hodcarrier wince a bit. The crowd was huge – surely more than the 2,008 announced over the tinny tannoy. It struck me how many young people were in the crowd too – no doubt encouraged by the fact it’s relatively affordable and they can stand near their friends, which is not easy at Premier League and Championship matches – and some of the shouts from the terraces were funny and unrepeatable. Non-league players – and goalkeepers, in particular – need to develop a thick skin because they can surely hear everything that’s shouted at them.

Being Graham Taylor

I’d been invited to speak about the process of ghostwriting Graham Taylor’s autobiography at a meeting of the Watford Writers group and, after five nights of The Cycling Podcast’s theatre tour, was surprised to feel quite so nervous about addressing an audience again, but there was something intially intimidating about being able to see the whites of people’s eyes.

I could feel my mouth go a bit dry so I reached for the water and managed to over-fill my glass so it spilled all over the table. I don’t think anyone noticed and there was a warm feeling in the room so once I got going it went fine. Everyone was very kind at the interval and afterwards and I was really glad I’d done it and not used the snowy weather and the beginnings of a sore throat as an excuse to pull out.

I was asked to speak for about 40 minutes, so the following piece is quite long but I figured that as I’d written it I may as well share it more widely. This is what I wrote in preparation, although I deviated a bit here and there on the night.

Photographs by Simon Gill

Thank you very much for inviting me here this evening and thank you all for coming. First of all, how many of you are Watford supporters or football fans?

[A good show of hands]

That’s good news.

And I assume that everyone writes or is interested in the process of writing?

[Reassuring nods]

Excellent, excellent. We should be okay with this then.

I am going to talk a bit about the process of ghostwriting and how it differs from journalism. A lot of you are writers or perhaps you are writing something now so when I talk a bit later on about how I write hopefully you’ll take something from it, even if it’s to think, ‘That’s nonsense, I’m not going to do it like that.’ There’s no right or wrong way to write anything, in my opinion, although it’s probably taken me 20-odd years to realise that. So what I’m going to say is how I approach it – there’s no golden rule – because all that counts is what goes on the page not how it gets there. No one knows what’s been left out, no one knows the thought process you went through to get to that point, no one knows the avenues you went down that didn’t work out. All that you get judged on is what’s in the finished book.

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Sometimes people will let you know what they think of your work and if people don’t like what you’ve done you have to develop a thick skin, but the thing is they can’t have any idea what you’ve put into a piece of work, they don’t know about the days when you doubted everything and think you’re not going to get finished, and, really, why should they?

To write anything I think, whether it’s journalism, or fiction or ghostwriting, you have to know your subject and your character or characters as well as you possibly can. I’ve never written fiction but you have to create characters who are three-dimensional and real. You have to know how they would react and what they would say in different situations.

In my case, I was ghostwriting for someone who was famous, who had a public profile and quite a distinctive way of expressing himself, and I found that made it quite a lot more difficult to capture Graham Taylor and put his life story down on the page.

For two years I worked with Graham, and for a further year I worked on my own trying to think and write like him, and the end result is this: Graham Taylor, In His Own Words.

For those who don’t know, Graham was the England football manager but before that he was Watford manager and he transformed the club and with it the fortunes of the town. If anyone remembers the club in the mid-1970s it was really a greyhound stadium with a football pitch in the middle and he turned it into one of the best football clubs in the country, and he did that by the force of his character.

I am going to explain how I came to become Graham Taylor’s ghostwriter because, after all, who am I? And I’m going to talk about how a friendship developed that made it harder for me to work on the book. And then I’m going to talk about completing the book after he died, when it became almost overwhelming at times.

In order to explain all that, though, I suppose I need to go right back to the beginning and talk a little bit about my own career because although this project was 70 years in the making for Graham, it was also, in a way, 20 years in the making for me.

I first met Graham Taylor when I was about nine or ten at a Watford Football Club open day for young supporters at Vicarage Road when you got to play on the pitch and meet the players. It was either 1984 or 1985 and I queued up for Graham’s autograph with dozens – hundreds possibly – of other young supporters, all dressed head to toe in Watford kit. Eventually it was my turn at the front and I can still remember the conversation.

‘Hello son. What do you want to do when you grow up?’

‘I want to play for Watford. If I’m not good enough for that, I want to write the programme.’

* * *

Scroll forward 12 years to 1996. Graham had left Watford, he’d gone to Aston Villa, he’d become England manager, he’d been portrayed as a turnip on the back page of The Sun, he’d failed to qualify for the World Cup, then he had to rehabilitate himself and his career at Wolverhampton Wanderers and that didn’t work out either. So he came back to Watford, the one place that would still welcome him unconditionally. There weren’t many places queuing up to offer Graham Taylor a job at that time.

In the meantime, I’d grown up a bit and I’d joined the Watford Observer, where I started my career. I’d been on a training course in St Leonards-on-Sea to learn the trade. I’d done all the stuff that young journalists do – I’d covered the births, deaths and golden weddings. I’d been to council meetings and magistrates court and covered local sport and by 1996 I was one of the paper’s sub-editors, laying out the pages, correcting the copy and writing the headlines.

Someone tipped me off that there was a job going at Watford Football Club as head of communications and programme editor. I thought, ‘Well, this is it. This is the job for me.’ I applied and got an interview and found myself sitting opposite Graham being asked how I saw this job. I obviously did okay because I got a second inteview. The questions were a lot harder the second time round because Graham was obviously narrowing down his candidates.

I didn’t get the job, which was very disappointing because I thought it was made for me.

A couple of days after finding out I hadn’t got it, the phone on my desk at the Watford Observer rang.

It was Graham. In the course of a brief conversation he made me feel better about myself than I would have had I got the job. He said, ‘It’s not that you’re not right for the job – although you’re not – it’s that the job is not right for you. Stick at what you’re doing, carry on in journalism and see where it takes you.’ Coming from the son of a journalist, I took that as a compliment.

A bit later I left the Watford Observer and joined a cycling magazine and in 2001 I teamed up with a photographer called Alan Cozzi to write my first book, Four Seasons, which is about Graham’s second spell as Watford manager. I made life easy for myself by making it a coffee table style book with loads of photos and not too many words.

One day a letter arrived on nice paper, written in fountain pen. It was from Graham Taylor and he’d enclosed a cheque for six copies of Four Seasons to give to his friends and family. However, he’d neglected to add on anything to cover postage costs so I had a dilemma. What should I do? I rang him up and explained that as I had financed the printing and publishing of the book and needed to make my money back, every penny counted. He said, ‘I’m sorry about that, why don’t you drop them round to me?’ so I went to his house in Chorleywood and we had a cup of tea and a chat in his kitchen.

I carried on writing about cycling for magazines and, later, The Sunday Times and eight years on, I started work on my second book about Watford, Enjoy the Game, which involved interviewing as many of the players and management from the 1980s as I could. I ended up interviewing around 45 people for that book and quite early in that process I contacted Graham. He already knew what I was up to, because one or two of the players had tipped him off. He said that he was perfectly happy to give me an interview but he asked me to wait until I had interviewed 15 or 20 players because he said he wanted to know the book was well underway so he wasn’t giving up three or four hours of his time for nothing. He also joked that he wanted to know what everyone else had said about him before he started talking about them.

So, the time came and I met Graham at The Belfry hotel near to Sutton Coldfield, where he lived at the time, and he gave me three or four hours of fantastic material. I remember sitting there having had quite a few cups of tea and coffee and I was absolutely bursting for the toilet. He was right in the middle of telling me about Elton John’s battle with drink and drugs and it was great stuff. I had my tape recorder on the table between us. He was in full flow, and I was very close to being in full flow myself but I dared not stop him. Fortunately, with the bead of sweat breaking on my brow, he said, ‘I’m sorry to have to stop here but I need to go to the loo.’ I have never felt so relieved and The Belfry is big enough that I could use a different toilet so we didn’t have to stand awkwardly next to each other at the urinals.

A few weeks after the book came out, my phone rang and the screen said, ‘Graham Taylor.’ I hesitated because there were only a couple of reasons he could be ringing – either to tell he didn’t like the book or that I’d fouled something up terribly, or to ask me how much the postage would be on six copies.

He said, ‘I’ve been reading the book and I must admit I have been struggling because it has brought back so many memories, most of them very happy, but some sad, and I have been getting emotional. So I’ve been picking it up and putting it down. It’s a very good book even if I disagree with a few of the comments by the players. People have remembered things a different way to me but perhaps one day I will do my own book and iron out a few things.’

I said, ‘Well, if you ever do get round to doing your own book let me know as I would drop everything if you needed any help with it.’

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* * *

A couple of years later, I called Graham to ask if I could interview him about another period of his career for another project I was working on.

He very politely declined, explaining that he had started work on his own book with another journalist. I tried to hide my disappointment and said, ‘I look forward to reading it.’

Another couple of years later – so we are talking late summer 2014 now – I got a call from Graham completely out of the blue and he said it hadn’t worked out with his ghostwriter, would I like to talk about working with him.

Absolutely. No question.

So, we arranged to meet and my first question for Graham was, ‘What do you want the book to be?’

I asked him to imagine what his book would be like when he held it in his hands. Would it be hardback or paperback? What might it be called? What would be on the cover? Are there photographs in it?

He hadn’t really thought about any of that, he’d just thought about ‘doing a book’.

I asked him why he hadn’t done it before. He said he’d had plenty of opportunities over the years and had started work on at least four or five occasions. He said he must be the only England football manager who had not done a book. He said he’d been offered the chance to do one right after he finished as England manager. I asked why he hadn’t taken that opportunity. He said he hadn’t wanted to cash in on his experience. At that time, he hadn’t drawn a line under his career as a football manager and had wanted to get back to work. Despite a handful of attempts to start work on a book later on, it had never felt like the right time and things had not got terribly far.

I asked, why now?

He said, ‘I am nearly 70 years old and I have lived an awful lot more of my life than I have left to live and so it feels like it’s either now or never.’

Now, he didn’t know he would pass away before the book was finished but he obviously had a sense of his own mortality and knew he didn’t have another 70 years left to write his book.

Then I asked, why me?

He said, ‘You’re the first person who’s asked me what I want my book to be without telling me what they think it should be first.’

I asked him who he was writing it for and he said that he wanted to do something that his grandchildren could read. They were in their teens and early twenties and, he said, they rolled their eyes – lovingly as grandchildren do – when grandad started telling his boring old stories. But he knew from experience that one day they might want to know more about what he did and so he wanted to tell his story his way.

We talked about how it would go, and how we might work together. The first thing I did was give him a blank notebook in which I’d written very loose subject headings on the pages – childhood, school, parents, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Watford, Elton John, Aston Villa, England, and so on – with plenty of space for him to add other headings as he wished.

For a couple of weeks, he’d call me and ask what he should be writing in the book, so I’d say, ‘Anything you like. Short sentences, or names of people, or anecdotes or incidents you think you might want to include. You could even write out longer stories, if you wish. Or it could just be a series of bullet points to jog your memory for when we meet.’

He filled the notebook up and I took it away one day and transcribed the lot before giving it back to him. Then he lost it. But that was fine, because we were off and running and it had served its purpose because it had got him thinking about what he wanted his book to be.

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* * *

Next we went on a series of road trips to places that mattered to Graham. We traced his life. We went to Scunthorpe, where he grew up, and stood in Axholme Road, outside the house where he lived, and I saw him come alive as he recalled memories from his childhood. I watched as he bowled an imaginary cricket ball so it would bounce off the kerb to bowl his dad out as they played cricket in the street. He talked about the patch of grass down at the end of the road that was Lord’s in the summer and Wembley Stadium in the winter for all the children who played games there. We traced the route from his house to his primary school, which he ran every day. And through this I got a sense of Graham Taylor as he really is. I started to get a feel for his character, his sense of humour, his ability to be slightly contrary at times. All the things I was hoping to distil and get onto the page.

We later went to Grimsby Town’s ground and sat in the dressing room where he’d had his introduction to the tough, unforgiving world of professional football. Where he’d had to learn to swear and joke to fit in. We went to Lincoln City and he sat where the benches used to be and recalled hearing the chants of ‘Taylor Out! Taylor Out!’ after his less-than-successful start to life as a manager.

We went to Vicarage Road and Villa Park. At Watford we brought the story full circle because we stood on the pitch and he looked up at the stand which bore the words, The Graham Taylor Stand.

We sat on the sofa and I tried not to notice the tears in his eyes as we watched An Impossible Job – the documentary about his final year or so as England manager – on YouTube.

* * *

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Graham had a summerhouse in the garden at his house near Sutton Coldfield that was filled with stuff he’d collected over the years. There were newspaper cuttings, photographs, football programmes, books and video tapes. He even had his gold disc, presented to him after he and the Watford squad sang backing vocals on a couple of Elton John tracks in the late 1970s. He had an envelope full of embroidered badges he’d carefully snipped off shirts. He had his actual embroidered FA coaching badge, Grimsby Town and Lincoln City badges and the three lions he’d salvaged from the breast pocket of one of his England blazers. Among the most valuable resources were the diaries he kept at various points during his career, including during his time as England manager. It was an Aladdin’s cave of Graham Taylor memories and we had many happy hours going through the stuff because it seemed like each box, folder or suitcase contained new stories. He didn’t know what to do with it all, and I know Rita, his wife, would have liked some of it to go in a skip, but Graham couldn’t bring himself to sort through it all and decide what to throw away and what to keep.

Then we started doing the interviewing. I knew I needed to go into the detail. I found that when we met at his house and we sat on his sofas in the lounge things would go well for a while but he’d relax and begin to feel too comfortable and would slip into football-speak, if I can call it that. He stopped giving me the detail I wanted. So I’d mix things up. Sometimes we’d meet at The Belfry, where I’d had a good experience with him before and which would give our interviews quite a business-like feel. A couple of times we met at Villa Park and sat in one of the executive boxes. Or we’d meet at a hotel down near the Hemel Hempstead junction of the M1 when he came to visit one of his daughters.

Sometimes I would try to focus on a specific era and work hard to keep him on track, but other times I’d loosen things up and let him go wherever he wanted to go. I was always trying to work out the circumstances that would lead to me getting the best information out of him and as the months turned to a year I felt I was building up more than enough to get started on the actual writing.

I recorded more or less every meeting and I must have had almost 200 hours to listen through. Some of it is not great quality because I was trying to keep the recorder surrepticious because people change when they know they are being recorded – they tighten up, they feel they are ‘on-the-record’ and they perhaps try a little bit harder to make themselves sound better than they otherwise might.

Often, he’d tell me some of the best stories over lunch – when he thought we were done for the day. It wasn’t that I was trying to trick him into telling me things he didn’t want me to know, but he would naturally loosen up. I’d dash to the loo so often, to make a note of something he’d said so I wouldn’t forget it, that I think he thought I had some kind of bladder control problem.

Throughout all this, I was also doing other research – reading newspaper cuttings, other books. I read more than a decade’s worth of his programme notes, which I knew he’d written himself. I watched interviews on YouTube. All the time I was picking things up and absorbing things, learning how he expressed himself.

* * *

At some point I realised that some his great stories weren’t quite true. I’ve found this quite a lot with sportspeople. They will tell you a story about how they were 2-0 down with five minutes to go and came back to win 3-2. Then you look at the record books and realise they were 2-1 down with 20 minutes to go. A good story but not quite as good as they remembered. This applies to all sorts of stories, not just events that happened on the pitch, so we had to tackle the issue of the gap between the memory and the reality. I had to sort the myth from the truth without losing some good stories and I did that by acknowledging how the memory plays tricks as events recede into the past.

We had so much material and we thought about what we were going to do with it. There was enough for a multi-volume autobiography but we decided against that because Graham wanted his whole life to be set in context. As he frequently pointed out, when arguing that we should start the book at the beginning and not with a pivotal moment from, say, his time as England manager – he didn’t become England manager overnight, there was half a lifetime that got him to that point.

I knew some good stuff would have to go. We had to prioritise the material and come up with a coherent narrative arc. Any story needs a beginning, a middle and an end but I actually think a book is made up of several small beginnings, middles and ends that together tell the story. Because I cover cycling I can’t help but think of it as being like the profile of a Tour de France mountain stage – a stage in the Alps has perhaps four or five mountains and so I break the story down into a series of mini climaxes, followed by a small reboot. These are usually quite subtle things, perhaps not even that noticeable to the reader, but the small changes of pace and pitch help, I think, to propel the story along.

* * *

I had to continually remind myself that this was not my book. I was writing this for Graham, as Graham. I don’t want sound like I think too much of myself here, or even that I think of myself as a good ghostwriter, but I think there are similarities with an actor taking on a role. I was trying to be like Michael Sheen trying to be Brian Clough, or David Frost, or Tony Blair. I was trying to be Graham Taylor.

As anyone who has written anything knows, finding a voice is one thing but maintaining consistency is another matter. It’s so easy to slip out of your character’s voice and into your own and so it took time to be able to write as Graham. You might think it would be easy because Graham has quite a particular way of speaking, but he has little stock phrases which, if over-used, could easily sound clichéd or even comical. The phrase, ‘Do I Not Like That,’ a variation of which had been suggested to Graham as a title for his book at one point, does not even appear in the book except for one occasion when he references being lumbered with it as a catchphrase.

Sitting down to write is always the hardest bit, I find anyway, but it’s not until relatively recently that I realised that when you are writing a book, you are always writing, sometimes at the most inconvenient times. I’m sorry to put this image in your minds but I’d often find myself instead of singing in the shower, doing impressions of Graham in the shower. Or I’d be out on a bike ride and something would come to me and I’d find I’d ‘written’ a good bit as I was pedalling along. Of course, if you don’t make a note of these things at the time, they can be lost for good so I would stop by the roadside and type out bits on my phone.

One of my tips for writing is to never throw anything away but that also became a hindrance at a certain point. I had handwritten notes in books and on scraps of paper, piles of cuttings and magazines, dozens of text windows on my computer with full chapters, or notes, or random ideas. I had nearly half a million words of interview transcripts. I would go through and bold bits, italicise bits, as if this was helping me to put my thoughts into some kind of order but I ended up in a mess.

So I bought a big artist’s drawing pad and I started to write out the book in a series of diagrams – notes with lines linking those notes, sketching out chapters. Then I overcomplicated that and started using different coloured pens. Although at the time it felt I was making things more difficult for myself, I was actually slowly finding my way.

In the end, I had to get started on a passage that I knew would go into the book and so I picked a section concerning Graham and his relationship with Elton and thought, ‘If I can get this right then it can be the first step.’ I realised that the cliché that says writing a book is like building a house – that you need to start with the foundations, then build the walls, then put on the roof, then focus on the interior design – are nonsense really, because sometimes I’d have the energy and inspiration to sort out a bit of the kitchen before the foundations were in.

I realised that a better analogy for writing a book is that it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, you can start with the outside if you wish, or the bits that have the most detail, but the important thing is to just put the pieces together and gradually build up the picture.

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If I’ve learned anything it is that writing is about perseverance, just keeping going, because you can’t get to the last page unless you have written all the ones in front of it. But you don’t necessarily have to write all the ones in front of it in order. You just have to find your own way, which is what I did.

But the big wake-up was reading parts of the first draft and realising it didn’t sound like Graham. The silence from him and his agent when I delivered the initial pages told me what I already knew. Despite being aware of all the possible pitfalls, I’d been writing as me, rather than as Graham.

I can imagine you’re wondering why Graham needed a ghostwriter in the first place. After all, he was a good writer himself. The son of a journalist, he understood how to tell a story and he could do it well. But when he came to sorting through his own memories he found he just couldn’t. You might wonder why, if I had hundreds of thousands of words of him talking, I couldn’t just reproduce transcripts of those interviews, but it doesn’t work like that either. That wouldn’t make for a pleasing read.

So I went back to the beginning and started again, making doubly sure I wasn’t slipping out of his voice and into mine and here I have to thank a friend of mine, Simon Ricketts, who I worked with at the Watford Observer, who had been a Watford supporter, before deciding to switch allegiances to non-league Wealdstone, and who now works for The Guardian. He was a big fan of Graham’s, he understood what made him tick and he was very keen to see this book come to fruition. He was absolutely vital to me as I worked through the manuscript. He told me when I was losing my way and he encouraged me to keep going.

I sent Graham a small bit, perhaps only four or five thousand words, and heard nothing for about three weeks, which felt like a long time, and a bad sign. However, the reaction was much more positive this time and that gave me the confidence to go on.

Just before Christmas 2016, I saw Graham for what turned out to be the last time. I’d given him a big chunk of the book to read, he’d shown it to Rita, and he was happy. He was very enthusiastic about the idea of it coming out. We’d started talking about the title he wanted and possible ideas for the cover photograph.

* * *

In mid-January 2017, I was sitting at my desk in my office with half a dozen Word documents open on my screen, as usual. I was on the phone to Simon Ricketts, talking through where I was struggling and his advice was the same as it so often was. ‘Just write the next sentence.’

As we spoke, I heard my phone buzz with another call coming through. It was Graham’s agent, Ian Wilson. I didn’t take the call. A minute or two later, he called again. I’ll call him back, I thought. Then an email dropped into my inbox. The subject read: ‘Can you call me ASAP.’

Instinctively, I knew something was wrong. I called Ian and he said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Graham has died.’

It was like a punch to the stomach. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, considering the hours we'd spent together, but I felt like a friend had died.

I found I had to turn off Sky Sports News because of all the tributes. I got calls from a couple of friends in the media who knew I’d been working on Graham’s book asking me if I wanted to write something or say something. I didn’t.

After a few days, people asked me what was going to happen with the book and I had to say I had no idea, because it wasn’t my decision to make. At the funeral, Rita said that the family wanted me to complete the book as he had intended.

On the one hand this was fantastic to hear, on the other hand it meant I had to get back to work after a month on hold. I found it harder to listen to recordings of Graham's voice, harder to think like him without dwelling on the fact he was no longer here. Finishing the book was difficult. The sense of responsibility for getting it right intensified. I also had to make sure that the book retained its authenticity, that it didn’t sound like Graham knew he was going to pass away before it was finished (because he didn’t), or that it sounded like he was speaking from beyond the grave, if that makes sense. Any gaps in the narrative, things that we might have gone back over in the final months before publication, would just have to remain as they were.

Simon nursed me along, sometimes only 500 words at a time. I would send him a chunk and he’d give me some feedback – never too efusive to lead to complacency, never too negative to knock me off my stride.

Sometimes I wrote at home in my office, sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes I preferred the hubbub of a busy café. I moved around depending on my mood. At one point I felt I had to get away for a change of scenery and I thought that going somewhere familiar but different was the answer. Like one giant cliché, I booked an Airbnb in St Leonards-on-Sea, where I’d trained as a journalist, thinking that the significance and symmetry would help. After a couple of days in the seaside town’s cafés, I had churned out another decent chunk but decided I wanted to be at home. The trip had served its purpose, it had got me going again but I realised I didn’t need to stay there.

* * *

I knew I needed more help to finish the manuscript and get it ready for publication and Bloomsbury’s rather puzzling decision to make Charlotte Atyeo redundant turned out to be my gain because, as a freelance book editor, she was free to work on Graham’s autobiography. She knew sports books inside out, having commissioned and edited a string of titles that had been shortlisted for the William Hill sports book of the year award, and was also a Watford supporter.

I’d love to be able to describe in some sort of enlightening detail what it was she did to make the manuscript better but it sounds so simple that I’m in danger of making it sound insignificant when the opposite is true. She cut bits that didn’t need to be said, she moved bits to places where they would work better, she urged me to clarify or simplify passsages. She just made it better and she communicated those changes in such a way that didn’t puncture my fragile confidence or put my back up. Those who know me will know that’s quite a skill.

So together, Simon, Charlotte and I completed the manuscript. If I can permit myself to use this analogy, I was the football manager, I guess, picking the team and trying to get the result, Charlotte was like the director of football, seeing the big picture and offering an experienced sounding board, and Simon was my first-team coach, getting his hands dirty on the training pitch and working with me on the detail – instead of shouting ‘Just another 10 push-ups’ he’d say, ‘Just another 500 words.’ Simon and Charlotte have never met but together they were crucial parts of the triangle.

The most nerve-wracking part was giving the manuscript to Rita and Graham’s two daughters to read. The notes, when they came back, were very few and after some small changes we had the green light to publish.

In the gap between sending the book to press and receiving copies from the printers, I visited Rita to return some photographs we’d used. When she said, ‘You’ve done ever so well. It sounds just like Graham,’ I could have – and nearly did – burst into tears in her hallway.

* * *


I’d like to just talk about the cover photograph too. I read a review recently that makes a point about the cover that pleased me so much. It said, ‘There will be other pictures in the family album in which he is better posed, other pictures in which his shirt goes with his jacket. But none that would have looked better on the cover of the book. Taylor has a glorious grin.’

We had intended to do some sort of photo shoot, perhaps hire a studio and rig up the lights and get Graham to pose for a photograph. But we never got round to it.

Graham Taylor jacket.jpg

Back when I first suggested the road trips to Graham, my friend Simon Gill offered to come along to document the journey. After Graham had died we went through every frame from those trips knowing that if we couldn’t make something work we’d have to rely on something from the archives.

When we were in the changing rooms at Vicarage Road, Graham had sat down and looked round almost in wonder at how plush they were compared to in his day. Simon rattled off a series of frames and when we looked at the pictures we knew it had potential. The background, which was black, was not suitable because we didn’t want a funereal feel to the cover. But once the jacket designer, Steve Leard, confirmed that he could drop it out, we had our cover. And yes, perhaps Rita wishes Graham had chosen a different shirt that day, but it’s absolutely perfect.

To finish, I’d like to read a short piece from Graham’s book which I think says something about life, about sport, about writing, about everything really.

While I was writing this book, I watched the documentary, An Impossible Job. I didn’t particularly want to, for obvious reasons, although it remains a very skilled piece of film-making and it does show what it was like to be the England manager at that time, so I have no complaints about it.
It was not an enjoyable watch but there were moments in it that I had long forgotten. At the end of the film, you can hear the team talk I gave to the England players before the World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands – the one that cost us our place in the tournament. I have given thousands of team talks during my career but this one summed up much of what I believe.
‘In life there are so many opportunities, and they are always round about you. There are too many people in life that never see them. Then there are those people who see the opportunities but don’t grasp them. Then there are other people, who are generally life’s winners… they see the opportunities, they go looking for them, and they take them. And that’s what you are facing now on the football field. Now go out there and take it, it’s there for you.’
Now, we didn’t win that match, but I stand by every word of that team talk. In life you win some and you lose some; the secret is not to get too carried away by one or too dragged down by the other but to keep giving your best. No one can ask any more of you than that.

A happy St Patrick's Day

Saturday was my first St Patrick’s Day as an Irish citizen and Ireland won rugby’s Grand Slam for only the third time. I’m not going to take all the credit for this, because I’m sure the players had more to do with it than me, but I simply don’t believe in coincidences like that.

To be honest, I’m not really into rugby, although when I watch the Six Nations and the World Cup I support Ireland and when it comes to football I always want Ireland to win, whereas my backing of England blows hot and cold depending on a range of factors including, but not limited to, who the manager is, how the travelling supporters behave and how many of the players I can bear to support.

I’ve been asked a few times on Twitter what my link to Ireland is and why I chose to make it official by applying for citizenship last year.

I would be lying if I said that the Brexit vote had nothing to do with persuading me to finally go through the process of gathering together the documents to complete an application. It was made a lot easier by the fact my mum has spent years working on her family tree and had also applied to the authorities in Dublin for copies of the various certificates we needed.

I’m reluctant to turn this blog into a rant about how depressing and insular I feel the whole process of Brexit is because it tends to prompt more angry reaction than covering Team Sky, but I’d be lying if I said that the Brexit vote had not made me think more deeply about my own origins. I decided that I wanted to officially acknowledge the fact I am not the product of one single place.

My Granda, Patrick, was born in County Limerick, not far from Adare, and he came to England as a young man and made it his home. Back then there was probably a fair bit of anti-Irish sentiment here but he got a job working on the railways, made a life and had a family. For as long as I knew him he had a Cumbrian accent, although I’m not sure whether he deliberately made an effort to drop his Irish accent.

If he had not moved from Ireland to England I would not exist and the more my mum has discovered about her family tree the more I see that I am the product of people from all over the place. As a result, it seems bizarre to me to want to draw lines on the map, saying, ‘You’re from there, I’m from here.’ I say that as someone fully aware that the lottery of life gave me the good fortune of having been born in the south east of England within easy reach of London, meaning I’ve never had to move for economic reasons.

I don’t want to generalise because I’m sure that people who voted for Brexit did so for any number of reasons – perhaps concerns about immigration, perhaps a sense that Britain has lost its identity (whatever that ever was), perhaps because they don’t like the way the EU has evolved, although when I’ve asked people which EU laws they’d like to repeal first they don’t seem terribly sure.

I know people from all over Britain who have moved from north to south, or south to north, for work or love. I know lots of people from Europe and beyond who have come here and made Britain their home. I see no difference between them and the ex-pat who goes to Spain or Provence in search  a comfortable, warm retirement. I don’t see any positive reasons for seeking to close off those opportunities to people.

It’s become a tiring debate and I am perfectly willing to accept that my mind is made up just as firmly as someone who holds the opposite opinion. I just happen to think that I’d rather live in a country with its hands outstretched to the world, palms facing upwards ready to shake hands or offer help, rather than one standing with its arms folded saying, ‘Who are you and what do you want?’

Every day I watch the news and the current affairs shows and see the energy being devoted to negotiations that don’t need to take place. Last week I was shocked by the number of people sleeping in doorways in Leeds city centre (and I’ve been struck by the rise in London too in the past year) and think that while all the attention is focused on making Brexit happen we’ve lost sight of what it is that makes a country.

What continues to puzzle me, though, is the inconsistency of thought – the ardent Brexiter who shops in Lidl or Aldi because it’s better for his or her wallet, or drives a foreign car, but doesn’t see how preposterous it all is. They would no doubt say that there will be nothing about Brexit to prevent us buying the foreign goods we want, or travelling to the places we want to go, in which case my argument is: So what’s the bloody point of it all then? Just to be smaller, less relevant, less welcoming? Perhaps that’s unfair but the way things are going I am yet to see much evidence of the land of milk and honey waiting for us in glorious 1950s Technicolour.

Anyway, this is getting political and there are very few things more boring to read on a Sunday than someone banging on about Brexit. Besides, I’m quite looking forward to beating the queues at arrivals in Europe with my Irish passport and working freely there when the time comes.

I spent most of St Patrick's Day watching televised sport, and then went to see Bill Bailey in the evening, where I was left in awe of his range of talents and seemingly effortless command of the stage, the audience and his many musical instruments.

To go, or not to go

The hedgehog house arrived and I placed it in a quiet corner of the garden and put some dry straw inside so it’s ready for some prickly residents to move in. I expect a hedgehoggy estate agent is sizing it up and emphasising its best features as I write.

I’ve spent the bulk of the past couple of days recording my chapters of The Cycling Podcast’s book for the forthcoming audiobook. I had hoped to finish part four of the series Eight Years Covering Team Sky by now but I haven’t had the time to sit down and write it yet, but it's coming.

Yesterday I booked my flight to Tel Aviv to cover the opening weekend of the Giro d’Italia and I have to say I did so with a sense of unease. When we first discussed this issue on The Cycling Podcast we received a lot of emails. We had tried to be fair by covering both sides of the story and as a result we received criticism from both sides.

As a journalist I’m generally okay with that – I think that if people from both ends of the spectrum are criticising then I’ve probably struck a reasonable balance. However, I am aware that this is not just a sports story, it’s about people’s lives and the balance of power.

Some of the criticism was beyond the pale, though, and felt like it was part of a co-ordinated campaign, which opened my eyes to what we are stepping into by covering a bike race in Jerusalem. I am not an expert on Middle Eastern history and politics and so I’ve had a lot of catching up to do but it strikes me that the Giro d’Italia organisers are way out of their depths here, as are we, probably.

Some people think we shouldn’t go, and I respect that point, but our job is to cover the three grand tours and say what we see. We’re going there to report on a bike race and if the atmosphere is tense, if security feels oppressive, or if it feels like some airbrushing is going on, we’ll say that. A few people have suggested we pick the race up when it arrives in Sicily and as much as that sounds appealing to me I think it’s an easy way out.

I remember being in Belfast for the start of the 2014 Giro d’Italia. I do not want to be accused of drawing a clumsy comparison between the situation with Israel and Palestine and the Troubles, but I do remember a taxi driver saying how nice it was to drive round the city and see all the pink bunting and balloons up instead of sectarian green and orange. Sport can have the power to heal divides but – correct me if I am wrong – I don’t get the sense that the motivation for inviting the Giro to Jersusalem was to bring people together.

The issue of boycotting sporting events because of geo-political tensions is pertinent at the moment after the poisoning of the Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury and the calls for England’s participation in the World Cup to be reconsidered. (I’ll resist the temptation to make the obvious joke, that England could compromise by offering to play the first three matches before coming home, because it’s been made already.)

As I said on the podcast recently, it is wilfully naïve to think that sport and politics should not mix. They are intertwined.

The question for me is where to draw the line. Great Britain competed in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow when the Cold War was at its frostiest. Many people celebrated the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, the captial of a nation with a very dubious human rights record. The 2022 football World Cup will be held in Qatar and we keep hearing about the shocking working conditions and numerous deaths for the imported labourers who are building the stadia.

In cycling, the Bahrain and UAE regimes sponsor World Tour teams and Amnesty International’s reports on the two states make troubling reading, and yet they ride shoulder-to-shoulder in the peloton with barely any discussion of the wider issues.

It’s been suggested that by going to Israel we are tacitly accepting the situation, but I don’t agree with that. Not going would be interpreted as an unequivocal political statement. Going, and keeping our eyes, ears and minds open while trying to tread as impartial a line as possible, will – at the very least – enhance my understanding of the situation and is not an endorsement of one side or the other.

Visiting a dear friend in hospital

I went to hospital to visit my very good friend Simon Ricketts today. He’s been in there since January 7. The following day he had a big operation to remove a lot of cancer from his body. It was an operation described as ‘expensive’ in that curious euphemistic surgeon-speak. I’m a bit squeamish about the details but from what I heard while trying not to listen, he lost a bit of pancreas, a kidney and a bit of his stomach but the surgeon was pleased with how the operation went.

There have been complications since and I know he’s had some very bleak days and nights. There have been times when I’ve been braced to receive the worst news but he’s a stubborn old mule and he’s got more fight in him than I could possibly imagine having. Or, as I told him by text last week, he’s got the strength of an ox and the body hair of a monkey, which is certainly better than it being the other way around.

It was very hard to hear him say today that there had been a 48-hour period last weekend when he felt like giving up but, generally, he was in better shape than I had expected.

Simon has written about his terminal diagnosis on his own blog so I am not breaking any confidences here. I also checked he was okay with me writing about him and he said I could as long as I promised to say something nice.

He’s in a hospital an hour and a bit away and today was only the second time I’ve managed to visit him. We had to cancel a visit a couple of weeks ago because my car battery had gone flat, partly through lack of use and partly because of the freezing cold. As it turned out, he took a turn for the worse that day anyway so I would probably have had a wasted trip.

When I first arrived today, he was very tired but he quite quickly chirped up (must have been my sunny disposition and scintillating chat) although he got tired again after an hour or so, possibly because my stories were getting boring.

As much as I could, I tried to keep the conversation to stuff from the outside world because it struck me that he has spent two-and-a-half months in one room. He’s too tired to concentrate on watching television or reading. He’s often too tired to reply to emails or texts, so my approach has been to send him random nonsense on the basis that it’s there for him to read if he wants to.

I also tried not to slip into the trap of asking how long he thinks he’ll be in there. That’s because the concept of time is probably not terribly helpful to him at the moment. It’ll take as long as it takes. All we hope is that he’s over the scary dramas and setbacks and is ready for a steady recovery.

We first met 25 years ago when we both worked at the Watford Observer. He had just returned from the Westminster Press Journalism Training School in St Leonard’s-on-Sea, and I was a couple of months away from following in his footsteps. I could write a book about our friendship but what I’ll say here is that he’s played such a huge role in so many things I’ve done it’s impossible for me to express my gratitude in 700 words. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not have finished Graham Taylor’s autobiography without his help and I was so pleased that we got to work on that together. He’s also taught me some very valuable life lessons, many of which I’ve not been mature enough to actually realise until surprisingly recently.

So I’ll just tell one story that always makes me laugh when I think of it. Shortly after we met, we played for a Watford Observer football team against a team of retired policemen. It was a bit of a mismatch and we were about 4-0 up at half-time and the coppers weren’t taking it too well, especially when one of our players emerged from the dressing room for the start of the second half swigging from a bottle of beer.

When the game restarted, about half our team were still smoking their half-time cigarettes. (Not me, I should say). We kicked off, worked the ball down the wing to our ringer, who’d played a decent non-league standard, I seem to remember. He put the ball into the middle and – as I picture it – Simon took one final drag on his fag, threw it to the ground and rose like a salmon at the far post – one of his many nicknames was Salmon Ricketts because of his talent in the air – to head past the keeper, all in one fluid movement. The rest of the team ran to celebrate with him and those who were still smoking held their cigarettes aloft like little Olympic torches. It’s fair to say the police were not amused.

I’ve realised I promised to say something nice about him. So here goes: It was a very good finish, Simon, although I think you were marginally offside.

A chicken update: I contacted Simon the Photographer's brother-in-law, who is a farmer, about Margo and it seems the problem is broodiness. That explains the aggression, apparently. We managed to get her off the nest long enough today to remove the eggs and although she wasn't happy about it, she's spending longer out of the house and should be back to normal in a few days, which is a relief.

One of our chickens is poorly

One of our hens is egg-bound, we think. It’s Margo, the older one – although we don’t know precisely how old she is because she came to us with Barbara via Simon the Photographer and no one seemed to know their ages. Barbara died in October after a short illness, but Margo has been laying eggs so we think she can’t be that old.

Anyway, for the past day or two, she’s spent a lot of her time in the house. She’s come out for food and she looks healthy – a good weight, a bright red comb and clear eyes – but she’s sitting indoors looking grumpy.

Whenever I open the side door to the hen house she pecks at me quite viciously with her surprisingly powerful beak. It’s now a case of four times pecked, five times shy, so I’m leaving her be overnight hoping for the best.

Like any medical stuff on the internet, the online diagnoses and advice can sound very alarming. If she is egg-bound the warning is that it can eventually be fatal if she’s unable to lay, so we don’t just want to leave her to her own devices for much longer. But given her hostility, the advice to put her in a washing up bowl with a shallow amount of warm water is a non-starter. Just trying to touch her, or offering her food, sends her into a flap and causes distress.

So, if there are any chicken experts out there who can offer some advice, do get in touch. In the meantime, I’m hoping that the other suggestion for her lack of activity – that she’s feeling broody – is the case, because that should pass in a day or so.

In non-chicken-related news, if you’re in Watford next Monday evening (March 19) and want to hear me talk about how I wrote Graham Taylor’s autobiography, come along to the meeting of the Watford Writers group, who have asked me to speak at their monthly gathering. It’s at Cassio Lodge, Oddfellows Hall, The Avenue, Watford. We'll be kicking off at 7.30pm and it's free to attend.

I will talk about how I came to be Graham’s ghostwriter, how we spent two years working together and how I completed the manuscript after he died in January 2017. There’ll also be an opportunity to ask questions.

Football and doping. A conversation

My eyes did a cartoonish double-take when I read about Jonjo Shelvey having a painkilling injection to enable him to play for Newcastle United recently. I surely can’t be the only person to wonder what was in that syringe. If it was a legal substance there’s no harm in revealing what it was. If it was a substance permitted after an application for a Therapeutic Use Exemption why is there not the same level of scrutiny as there is of Bradley Wiggins’s TUEs?

Considering the number of thundering editorials about cycling lately (and athletics in the past), the lack of any conversation about the medication used in professional football is peculiar.

Last November, Phil Jones had six anaesthetic injections in order to play in England’s friendly against Germany. Jose Mourinho, the manager of Jones’s club, Manchester United, is quoted on the BBC’s website saying, ‘I am not an angel and I had players injected to play official matches, crucial matches, but a friendly... to get six local anaesthetic injections to play a friendly, I've never heard of that.’

Anecdotal evidence suggests cortisone use was rife from the 1960s to the 1980s but it’s hard to say if or when that practice died out because there’s been next to no coverage of it. Eighteen years ago, the former Liverpool player Tommy Smith said that cortisone use had been routine and that he was suffering the long-term effects. Did that spark a debate about doping in football and the price players pay?

In 2013, it was reported that Gareth Bale, then at Tottenham, had used a legal blood-spinning technique to recover from injury. Did that spark pages of debate about the ‘grey areas’ about where precisely legal treatments to aid recovery cross into the unethical?

Former Arsenal and Manchester City player Samir Nasri has recently been banned for six months after posing for a photograph at a Los Angeles clinic where he underwent a banned intravenous rehydration procedure. This is perhaps the clearest indication of the culture within football. The fact Nasri thought it would be fine to pose for a photo that was put out on social media suggests that there’s not enough awareness within the game of what is and isn’t permitted.

Pep Guardiola, coach of the current Premier League leaders Manchester City, twice tested positive for nandrolone in 2001. He was banned for four months and given a seven-month suspended prison sentence. He protested his innocence and the prison sentence was overturned. In 2009 he finally won his appeal against the positive test too. Everyone accepts that and moves past it. But, as one of the best coaches in the world, Guardiola is not asked about his knowledge of whether there's any doping in Spanish, Italian, German or English football. Instead the issue du jour is whether he should be allowed to keep wearing his yellow ribbon in support of Catalan independence.

In the past year and a bit, three Premier League clubs have been charged with anti-doping rule violations concerning filing information to comply with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s whereabouts requirements. Bournemouth, Manchester City and West Ham were all given small fines equivalent to a week's salary for a reserve team left-back.

If three World Tour cycling teams – including the best of them all – had been found guilty of similar offences and handed small slap-on-the-wrist type fines what would the coverage be like? West Ham’s excuse that there was a fault with the computer system might well be absolutely true but would a cycling team get such an easy ride?

Three anti-doping rule violations in the Premier League in little over a year and instead of the thundering columns the majority in the media have reached for the tumbleweed emoji.

Instead of these stories opening the door for a sensible, mature debate about doping in football there’s a desire to shut down discussion at the earliest opportunity. The debate about Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Team Sky has been about the grey areas, about whether legal medication is in reality legalised doping, about whether the TUE system is too easy to abuse and about what constitutes performance-enhancement – and rightly so.

This is not a call for anyone to go easier on cycling, far from it, but if these are the frames of reference for the debate let’s have that debate across all sports, starting with the richest, most opaque one.

Footnote: Since posting this blog, my attention was drawn to this piece written by Miguel Delaney which was published two years ago. It's well worth a read.

Last stop, Sheffield

To Sheffield and the final stage of The Cycling Podcast’s tour (for now), which also doubled as part of the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival. As I joked at the start of the event, I managed to achieve a lifetime ambition by headlining the Saturday night at a festival.

We were in a cinema at the Showrooms and I think the comfortable burgundy chairs made for a fairly relaxed vibe. Perhaps it was too relaxed in my case, because I cocked-up when I was reading a piece from Richard’s Tour de France diary in our book, A Journey Through the Cycling Year. I’d mislaid my copy, in which I’d marked up the paragraphs to skip past, and so I missed out the wrong line and had to go back. I made a joke of it, moved on and I think I got away with it.

book 1 copy.jpg

The questions at the end were again very good. One was about the role of journalists in the whole Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome story, which is a subject I’ve been covering in my recent blogs, Eight Years Covering Team Sky. I’ll try to resume that series this coming week.

Another thought-provoking question was about the choice of cover photograph on The Cycling Podcast’s book. It’s an absolutely fantastic picture of Alberto Contador on the Angliru at the Vuelta a España by Simon Gill. Simon has captured a moment that seems to say so much. Contador tackles a hairpin bend a couple of kilometres from the summit of the final mountain stage of a chequered career. Contador’s head is turned to look up the road, his teeth bared with the effort. Fans in the background cheer him on enthusiastically. Photographers on the other side of the road to Simon are capturing the moment from a different perspective. At first glance it looks like Contador is smiling, although on closer inspection it’s clear he’s grimacing.

A couple of people have emailed us about this choice too, and the point they are making is that by putting him on the cover of the book we are glorifying a rider who served a suspension for an a doping offence. Part of my answer was that no endorsement of Contador is implied by the choice of photograph.

Of course, people are free to disagree with that view and if we neglected to discuss in the podcast Contador’s past and what he and others represent I would take the point, but the thing is we strive to cover the good, the bad and the ugly in cycling as appropriate.

Last week, when Richard and I planned the podcast, knowing that the discussion of the DCMS report, Wiggins and Sky would be long, I suggested splitting it and putting out two separate episodes, one focusing on racing, one on Sky. Richard countered by saying that the grit, drama and glorious anti-glamour of Strade Bianche and the murky world of doping are not separate, they are two sides of the same coin. Professional cycling is not one or the other, it is both.

The same goes with Contador. He was taking part in the Vuelta, he was without doubt the most aggressive rider, determined to go out in a blaze of glory, and his quest for a final mountain stage win was one of the most intriguing sub-texts of the Vuelta. To acknowledge that is not to ignore his past. When assessing his legacy, we must weigh up all aspects of his career, as we have done. It’s not our job to airbrush him out of history.

So, our book tour takes a break. We will head to Scotland for the re-arranged dates in Edinburgh and Glasgow next month but for now I can get back to normal life without the strange sensation of butterflies building each afternoon.

Across five nights, we’ve appeared in front of about 1,200 people, we’ve signed a lot of books and met a lot of lovely people. If you’d told me five years ago, when Richard, Daniel and I sat down in a London park a week or so before the 2013 Tour de France to record the first episode of The Cycling Podcast on Richard’s iPhone, that we'd eventually do this I’d not have believed you.

From Hackney to Leeds

We were on a fairly early train from Nottingham to London and from there I went home for a couple of hours before travelling back into London and heading to the Round Chapel in Hackney.

Weeks ago, when I looked ahead to these two weeks on the road, I assumed I’d have all day to do things – write, keep on top of my admin, plan stuff, read – but the days have been full, mostly with travelling or fretting. The important part of the day is the hour and a half on stage in the evening but I had not taken into account just how much the prospect of going in front of an audience would come to dominate the rest of the day. For me the nerves kick in sometime in mid-afternoon, and then the adrenaline that gets me through the event followed by a late drink and meal inevitably lead to a patchy night’s sleep.

It’s an alien routine and it’s given me a glimpse of what it must be like for people who go on stage every night. Our colleague Ned Boulting did about 25 performances of his Bikeology show last autumn and I really don’t know how he did it. I’ve done four nights now and the rollercoaster of emotions is taking some getting used to.

On Thursday afternoon, as I sat at home watching the clock, I’d have given anything for a phone call to tell me a localized snow storm had made Hackney inaccessible.

Before the start, a couple of podcast listeners presented us with incredibly thoughtful gifts. A huge thanks to Stewart for the tins of fabada – the Asturian bean stew we ate at the Vuelta that is similar to cassoulet – and to Marc who had brought us some bottles of Belgian beer.

As it turned out, the event could not have gone better. When I first arrived I felt quite intimidated by the Round Chapel. It was big, atmospheric, with an imposing pipe organ looming over us behind the stage. It also had a very hipsterish, Hackneyish shabby chic vibe. Not necessarily my natural habitat. It proved to be the perfect venue for us. There was a big crowd – on a par with our sell-out event at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square in November – and a couple of early icebreakers went over well. There were some great questions from the audience, some very funny moments and it was really nice to know my parents were in the house, even if I had a suspicion that it prompted Richard, Daniel and Orla to make even more jokes at my expense than usual.

Photography by Simon Gill.

It was coming up to 2am by the time I got home and the next morning I was back in London to catch the train to Leeds. The Carriageworks theatre in Leeds was a very different venue to the Round Chapel and it brought home to me that when doing this sort of thing no two nights are the same.

I can’t call myself an expert at this but from my experiences so far, the layout of the room has quite a bearing on how the evening goes. There was another big crowd in but because the seats were steep and there was an upper tier very high up it looked like a wall of faces in front of us. When I first walked out I felt my heart-rate rise, the butterflies took longer to fade away, and a couple of the early icebreakers that had gone down so well in Hackney didn’t get quite the reaction I was hoping for.

I also got my first heckle. After reading a passage from Richard’s Tour de France diary in The Cycling Podcast’s book about our unusual evening in Lure last summer, we also touched on my dislike of Lourdes. I made a (possibly ill-judged) joke about my least likeable towns beginning with L – Lure and Lourdes, and the inference that Leeds might follow in the sequence. I meant it affectionately, of course!

‘You’re losing the room!’ said Daniel.

Someone shouted, ‘You’ve got to get out of here yet.’

I replied, ‘Don’t worry… I managed to get the two Scottish events postponed.’

That got a laugh and on we went. The questions were great again, with a few more serious ones about the Sky stories than we’ve had at some of the other events. Fortunately, the comments from people afterwards – including from Sir Gary Verity, the man behind the Tour de Yorkshire – were very positive so it’s entirely possible I was just reading the room wrongly.

Next stop Sheffield.

Back on the road, to Nottingham

We were speeding through the countryside north of London, on our way to Nottingham. I was trying to upload the latest episode of The Cycling Podcast, and was getting frustrated.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Richard.

‘I can’t upload the episode. There’s no 4G, no 3G, nothing. Have you got a signal?’

‘No, nothing at all.’

I peered out of the window as we whizzed by the houses. ‘I mean, where the hell are we? How do these people watch Netflix?’

We passed through a station in a blur. It looked familiar.

‘Oh. It’s Harpenden.’ This is the train station closest to my house.

Richard laughed at this and then texted a couple of people to tell them about it. Now that absolutely everything I do and say is potential blogging material I felt this was spoilering my own blog.


We’re back on the road for the second half of The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (Parts of) Britain to support our new book, A Journey Through the Cycling Year. Daniel had flown in from Berlin for four stages of the tour, which involves some long train transfers.

It was quite a thrill to see the title of our show (or close enough) displayed outside the Nottingham Arts Theatre and although it was a slightly different event to the one we did in Salford with François and Orla last week, I thought it went well. There was another very impressive queue of people who wanted to have their books signed and it was nice to put a few faces to names and see someone I’d first met when standing out on the cobblestones near the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix a few years ago.

The only bad moment was when, during the obligatory football reference, I called Nottingham Forest Notts Forest, which is a definite no-no for the people of Nottingham. I may well have gone the whole hog and said that Brian Clough wasn’t much of a football manager. It’s one of those things I know but keep getting wrong – a bit like when in the podcast I repeatedly referred to the DCMS as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport when I know the D stands for Digital. It’s just one of those blind spots.

After the show, we went for the most expensive curry I’ve ever eaten. Richard booked the restaurant and when we arrived I thought there must have been some sort of mistake on the menu. The starters were the sort of price I’d expect to pay for a main course in London. My chicken jalfrezi was eye-watering, and not just because it was spicy. It was tasty but £18.95 for a curry seemed to me to be very steep.


If you’re reading this blog for the cycling stuff, I’ve written three parts of a series about Team Sky. I did chortle when someone on the internet described it as ‘Eight Years Covering For Team Sky.’ Parts four and more will have to wait a few days because I’m travelling from Nottingham to London and then up to Yorkshire for the final three stages of the book tour.

If you’re reading this for the hedgehog updates, you may be interested to know I’ve ordered one of these for our garden.

Eight years covering Team Sky, part three

In June 2011, I headed to the Critérium du Dauphiné in the French Alps. Full disclosure here, I was travelling with the team and for all but one of the eight nights I stayed in the same hotel as the riders and staff. Only in Mâcon did I have to stay somewhere else, because the hotel was full and a few of the Sky staff and I had to stay at another place just down the road. The hotel rooms (which would otherwise have been paid for by the magazine I freelanced for) were part of the team’s allocation of rooms for the race. Each evening I ate with the staff. Team Sky also provided lunch on the road in the form of sandwiches. Any beers or coffees or additional food I wanted I paid for myself. There were no conditions on my joining the team for a week, I was not told what I could and couldn’t do or say. I was allowed to ask anyone anything I liked but, of course, the riders and staff were just as free not to speak to me if they preferred, the same way any human being is able to pick and choose who they speak to. No one clammed up when I spoke to them and I found the atmosphere that week relaxed and the people open. Wiggins had his moments when the tension seemed to be getting to him but as he was on the verge of his best ever road racing result to date that wasn’t a surprise.

One of the purposes of the trip to the Dauphiné was to see the inner workings of a professional cycling team at a stage race and to learn a bit more about the logistical challenges. Over the course of the week I spoke to all of the senior management staff (Brailsford, Shane Sutton, Tim Kerrison, Sean Yates and Carsten Jeppesen) the support staff, such as Dr Richard Freeman, and the riders. I sat in on a couple of pre-race team meetings and post-race debriefs. I travelled on the team bus or in the team car behind the race and I was allowed to set my own agenda each day. There was no press officer on that race, partly because media demands at the Dauphiné are not that significant, so there was no one there to restrict what I could do. I tried to witness as many aspects of the behind-the-scenes work as I could. I spoke to the chef and the mechanics, the carers and the bus driver. I also spoke to Dr Richard Freeman and that provided one of the most interesting aspects of the week. It was Saturday night in Le Collet d’Allevard.

The doc is in the hotel’s bar, laptop open, phone pressed to his ear, looking concerned.
Rigoberto Uran has been suffering with breathing difficulties for the past couple of days and Dr Freeman is trying to get a Therapeutic Use Exemption for a drug to treat him.
‘It can be very tricky, especially at the weekends,’ he says. Yesterday, Dr Freeman contacted the race’s anti-doping doctor and put the case for a TUE. The drug is a steroid that can mimic a corticosteroid in the urine and can be misused.
‘Rigo has got a chest problem,’ he says. ‘With most asthma patients, you will never find out specifically what causes it. We’ve tested for pollen and in Rigo’s case it doesn’t appear to be that.
‘The ADAMS [World Anti-Doping Agency’s Administration and Management System] website can be tricky. Your worst fear is that you’re stuck in the mountains with no internet connection but we would not give anything that’s on the list to a rider until we had everything confirmed through the proper channels.’
Could he not use the ADAMS hotline and make a phone call? ‘That works well Monday to Friday but not so well at the weekends,’ he says wryly, acknowledging that the onus is always on the athlete and the team doctor to ensure everything is done properly.
It took a few tries but eventually he got through to Dr Mario Zorzoli of the UCI and gained the necessary permission.
But isn’t there an argument that if Uran is unwell and his breathing is seriously affected, he should pull out of the race? ‘He may well do that. But he’s an ambitious young man who wants to support Bradley and he wants to secure his place in the Tour team,’ added Dr Freeman.
‘We are not talking about performance-enhancement here. The TUE is designed to enable an athlete to take medication that a normal human being would be prescribed by a doctor. It cannot be right that you and I could go to a doctor and be prescribed something that an athlete with the same condition could not use.’
Dr Freeman used to work for Bolton Wanderers Football Club before joining Sky. He’s also worked on golf’s European Tour. Despite the challenges of being away from home for so much of the year, he enjoys the role.
I ask what he makes of the UCI’s new no-needles policy. ‘I think it’s fantastic,’ he says. ‘It takes away a large window of opportunity for a lot of products. It means that there are no short cuts to proper rest and recovery. And it also removes that ladder of progression. If riders get used to vitamin injections as a matter of routine, it makes it easier to not question what’s in the syringe.’

Dr Freeman’s comments about the no-needles policy were interesting. The UCI had introduced the rule a few weeks before, in time for the Giro d’Italia. It was something that Brailsford also spoke about when we were waiting for the start of the final stage in Pontcharra the following morning. Brailsford, Sutton, Jeppesen and I had been for a bike ride round the lake earlier that morning, where I'd seen a different, more relaxed side to their personalities and observed how their relative cycling abilities played with the usual hierarchy.

At the start, despite a two-and-a-half hour ride, there’s a spring in Sutton’s step as he bounds back to the bus with a pile of pizza boxes under his arm. ‘The boss must be knackered. He wants pizza.’ Some of the staff tuck in under the shade of a tree.
Brailsford has an easy manner about him this morning. He asks how the week has been and I reply that it’s been illuminating.
‘There’s nothing going on here,’ he says, answering a question that hasn’t really been asked.
‘Absolutely nothing at all. I know that’s not good enough for some people. It’s like the no-needles policy. I think that is absolutely great but how’s it being enforced? I’ve spoken to Pat [McQuaid, UCI president] and I told him the UCI needs to get out here and enforce it. Where are they? They need to be on the buses. There are 20 teams, how hard can it be to have an observer on each bus? That’s your window of opportunity for recovery there, between the finish and the hotel, so get someone on the buses.
‘The doctors are scared, you know. Okay, so if you give someone something to go uphill faster, that’s one thing. But very few people are prepared to risk going to prison to make someone go uphill faster.’

The full diary of my week at the Dauphiné is here.

* * *

The stage finished in La Toussuire and we now know, following the Fancy Bears hack, that the events of that afternoon were significant.

Simon Cope arrived at La Toussuire with a Jiffy Bag. We still don’t know for certain what was in it – Fluimucil, an over-the-counter decongestant, or triamcinolone, a corticosteroid that is permitted out of competition but can only be used in-competition with a TUE. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report has been unable to confirm one way or other.

What we do know is that Team Sky applied for a TUE at the end of May to permit Wiggins to use triamcinolone in competition. It was finally granted on June 26, on the day Wiggins won the British national championships and six days before the Tour de France started. Wiggins, who had won the Dauphiné, crashed out of the 2011 Tour after about a week.

Triamcinolone, and other cortisone-style substances, are permitted out of competition. Whether we like it or not (and I think it's a grey area that a team that started out with Sky's founding principle should not inhabit) riders can take it with impunity out of competition. The teams in the voluntary MPCC (Mouvement Pour Un Cyclisme Crédible) – which does not include Team Sky – do not allow their riders to take substances like this even out of competition. However, cycling's governing body, the UCI is not currently able to adopt a rule that is stricter than the ones laid out in the World Anti-Doping code. Anyway, a TUE is needed to ensure that if large enough traces of the drug show up in a dope test to trigger a positive test it will not count as a positive test. We can debate whether it is the performance-enhancing and transformative substance that David Millar and others claim, or whether medical experts are right when they say that other, less powerful medication should be used to treat asthma before reaching for a drug like triamcinolone but, as far as the rules are concerned, Wiggins was entitled to apply for a TUE. The UCI granted that TUE (although it is worth noting that since 2011 the system of granting TUEs has been tightened and now three independent doctors have to agree rather than just the UCI's scientific advisor, who was Mario Zorzoli back then).

TUEs for triamcinolone were applied for again prior to the 2012 Tour de France, which Wiggins won, and the 2013 Giro d’Italia, which he hoped to also win, establishing what could be seen as a pattern of behaviour considering TUEs were not applied for at other less crucial points in the season.

After the Fancy Bears hackers leaked details of Wiggins’s TUEs, Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail discovered that a Jiffy Bag had been couriered to Team Sky by Cope on the final day of the Dauphiné and asked Brailsford for his version of events. No one seemed to know what was in the package, not even Cope, who had taken it in his luggage through airport security, on an international flight and across a border. For all he knew, it could have been a set of pedals, he said.

Initially Brailsford said that Cope, who managed Great Britain’s women’s team, had travelled to France to meet Emma Pooley and as he was passing nearby he could bring the package. However, it then turned out that Pooley had not been in France that day but was racing hundreds of kilometres away in the Basque Country.

Lawton’s source had alleged that whatever was contained in the package had been administered to Wiggins in the back of the team bus after the final stage of the Dauphiné at La Toussuire.

It is relevant what was in that package, why it was brought out to France and when whatever was in it was administered to Wiggins. (Wiggins says it was Fluimucil, Dr Freeman also says it was Fluimucil, delivered by nebuliser later that Sunday night. Shane Sutton cast doubt on that in his interview with Orla Chennoui and sticks to his account that whatever was in the package was given to Wiggins in the back of the Team Sky bus that Sunday after the stage). 

If indeed triamcinolone was given to Wiggins then, it would be a big problem because the TUE was not yet in place, the substance was controlled and even though the day’s stage had been completed UCI rules state that the hours after a race, up until midnight, still count as ‘in-competition’. If it could be proved Wiggins was given triamcinolone that Sunday late afternoon, an anti-doping rule would have been broken. They could have waited to the Monday, though, and the substance would have been allowed (although he would still have needed a TUE if he intended to race in the near future). It shows what fine lines Team Sky were playing with here by applying for a TUE for this medication.

Brailsford told Lawton none of this could have possibly taken place in the back of the Team Sky bus, as the source claimed, because the bus had left straight after the finish to head to Sestriere, where the team was due to start a training camp the following day.

I was at La Toussuire that day and Brailsford’s version of events didn’t ring true to me. I had a vague memory of seeing Simon Cope there that afternoon but if I'd been asked in a court of law I'd not have been able to swear to it. Cope was a peripheral figure and people show up at bike races all the time. It's not like his presence there would have made anyone think, 'Hang on, what on earth is he doing here?'

However, I did know the bus had stayed a good while after the stage finish because it was still there when I left and I’d had to wait for a couple of the team’s mechanics to repack equipment and load one of the vans before they could give me a lift down to Chambéry. Sometimes it’s not possible to remember the starts and finishes at stage races clearly because the days tend to merge together but that day stuck in my mind, not just because I got a lift down the mountain in one of the Team Sky vans. When I reached Chambéry I was struck by how beautiful the mountains looked as the sun began to set on them. I was so captivated by the view that I wheeled my wheely suitcase through some dog mess. Only in France can you wheel your suitcase through shit on the pavement while admiring the view.

Anyway, a video then surfaced from Dutch television. In it, Wiggins is being interviewed standing in front of what looks very much like the Team Sky bus and I am lurking about in the background. It didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence that Brailsford’s first two alibis could be so easily dismantled, or that he’d volunteered them seemingly so hurriedly without checking first they’d stand up.

I’ve thought about that week a lot since the Fancy Bears hack. I found it extremely interesting and learned things about how a team works that I had not fully appreciated before. I saw first-hand the odd rhythm to each day. For a lot of people there seems to be lots of boring waiting around with bursts of intense activity. The mundanity of much of the work is striking. It’s like babysitting. Washing, cooking and cleaning for a bunch of overgrown children who not so much can’t do things for themselves but are being spared even the lightest of duties so that they can do their bit on the bike. The riders were at the centre of everything.

I didn’t feel like an unwelcome guest. People did not avert their eyes when I approached, some of them were very happy to talk about ‘difficult’ subjects. Sutton was extremely candid. I found Brailsford and Jeppesen open too. No doors were suddenly closed when I approached, people didn’t seem to switch conversations or lower their voices when I was in earshot. In fact, some of the stuff I heard surprised me. The way the staff talked about underperforming riders was enlightening, for example, but I imagine the same is the case in all sports teams.

And yet one of the biggest stories of the decade was beginning to unfold around me and I didn’t have a clue. I’ve thought about Dr Freeman talking about Rigoberto Uran’s asthma and TUE application. I’ve thought about Brailsford volunteering, à propos of nothing, an opinion on the no-needles policy on the very morning Simon Cope was due to arrive at the finish of the stage with The Package. Whether Brailsford knew about that or not is not especially relevant, and we don’t even need to know whether it contained Fluimucil or triamcinolone either, because we know for sure that while Brailsford was lauding the UCI’s needle ban his team had already set the wheels in motion to legitimately administer what some consider to be a powerful corticosteroid to their star rider by injection. That seems an uncomfortably odd juxtaposition to me.

Part one
Part two

Eight years covering Team Sky, part two

There was a consequence to that interview, which was that Dave Brailsford and I did not speak for the best part of a year. I can already hear the exclamations. ‘Ah, so that’s why journalists don’t ask the tough questions, they’re worried about their access.’ In my experience that really isn’t the case. It’s never shaped my thinking and I doubt it has ever shaped the thinking of those colleagues in the press room I respect either. Being denied access is far less daunting than the prospect of sitting opposite someone and asking them a question you think is going to provoke a strong reaction. Besides, you can always write something if the key protagonists refuse to speak to you, although I think your understanding of things is likely to be hampered over time.

The Giro d’Italia started in Amsterdam and Bradley Wiggins won the prologue. I was writing for a Sunday newspaper at the time and so the fact Wiggins was obliged to come into the press conference made my life easier. Brailsford was elusive but he could just have been caught up in the celebrations – Team Sky had, after all, just taken the pink jersey on their very first day at a grand tour. The following morning I realised I was not imagining the cold shoulder. At the stage start, I asked Brailsford if he had a moment to talk and he sort of indicated he did then made an excuse which made me think he’d be back in a moment, then he hopped on the team bus and didn’t come out again. I stood there until the bitter end when the bus finally pulled away and the Giro rolled out of town.

Just before the start of the Tour de France, again in the Netherlands, there was a bizarre pre-Grand Départ press conference at Team Sky’s hotel on the Friday afternoon. The Netherlands were playing Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final that afternoon and the whole of Rotterdam seemed to be knocking off work early to watch the match, which meant the ring road was busy.

It was immediately obvious that we’d set off from the press room too late to make it to the hotel in time. Someone in our car made a call to Fran Millar of Team Sky to explain that most of the English-speaking media were running late and to ask if they would delay things 15 or 20 minutes.

The thing was, Team Sky had every incentive to wrap things up quickly because one of the riders in their debut Tour de France line-up was Michael Barry, a former US Postal Service rider. The net was beginning to close in on Lance Armstrong by now. Floyd Landis had revealed the extent of doping that had been going on at the US Postal Service team and Jeff Novitzky, an agent with the Food and Drug Administration was ramping up his investigation, which included compelling Armstrong’s former team-mates to talk to him under oath.

Team Sky and Michael Barry were sure to face questions about it. Paul Kimmage was also on his way to the press conference, and also stuck in traffic, and I knew he was very keen to speak to Barry.

When we arrived, everything had been wrapped up, the riders had gone back to their rooms and we all milled around like guests who’d turned up to a party just in time to help clear up the empties.

Kimmage, a former professional rider, the author of a book called Rough Ride that set the agenda when it came to talking about doping in cycling, and by now an award-winning sports journalist with The Sunday Times, had spent 2008 ‘inside’ the Garmin team at the Tour de France. He interviewed the riders and documented the race brilliantly. His long interview with Jonathan Vaughters, conducted before the race and published in The Sunday Times was, at the time, jaw-dropping. It was the first time I felt that the Armstrong story might finally get told, although that would take another four more years.

At some point during the 2008 Tour, the American rider Christian Vande Velde – previously of US Postal Service – told Kimmage about his own doping. I know this, because Kimmage told me about it over dinner in an Italian restaurant in Cuneo on the rest day during the 2008 Tour de France, while Vande Velde was lying fifth overall, just 39 seconds off the yellow jersey.

Of course, Vande Velde later confessed to his doping as part of the federal investigation into the US Postal Service team but at that time it was not known by the public.

If Paul disputes my account of this, that’s fine, I’ll concede my memory of everything is not perfect although I do remember this conversation very well. In any case, there are only three possible scenarios facing a journalist in his position on that occasion. Either the rider lied and the journalist didn’t spot the lie; or the rider told the truth and the journalist chose not to tell the story; or the journalist didn’t ask the question.

This is not a piece about Paul Kimmage but I think this anecdote demonstrates that even the most forensic of examiners wrestle with the complexities of discovering information in the first place and then working out how to put that information in the public domain, or not.

The point is, if the question of Michael Barry’s past was relevant in 2010, then the question of Vande Velde’s past was even more relevant in 2008, as he was in a five-way hunt for the Tour de France title. Garmin had skillfully negotiated the difficulty of hiring riders and staff who had previously doped by acknowledging the past (albeit selectively and at a time of their choosing when it came to the public). Sky had set out to have ‘no association with doping’ and unfortunately for them Michael Barry had had quite an intimate assocation.

Anyway, I could well understand Team Sky’s reluctance to let Kimmage travel with the team – he’s an intense character and his presence can unsettle even the most nerveless people. He has a piercing gaze, a directness that slices through any pretence at small talk, and a way of smelling bullshit from fifty paces, all of which have helped him be very good at what he does. But the thing is, he also sees the world in black or white. With him or against him. Friend or foe. Clean or dirty. There are no grey areas for Paul. Shades of grey are just points on a spectrum that inevitably leads to black.

So although I wasn’t feeling terribly disposed towards Team Sky that summer, I could understand why they didn’t want him travelling around with riders, especially if it was true that Kimmage’s presence on a pre-Tour training camp had caused tension. However, Team Sky retracting their invitation doesn’t necessarily mean that they wanted Kimmage out of the way so they could crack on with some industrial doping.

Just going back a bit, you might think, ‘Well, if you knew about Vande Velde’s past, why didn’t you write it?’ The simple answer to that is it wasn’t my story to tell. It was Vande Velde’s and, at a push, Kimmage’s and Kimmage had presumably taken the view, probably reluctantly, that having given his word he could not out Vande Velde. He made an understandable compromise.

Compromise is, for some, a dirty word where journalists are concerned. But being compromised is a very different thing to making a compromise. Compromise happens every day in every walk of life. In journalism it starts with the decision about what stories to cover – some are too expensive, will take too long, or are deemed by editors not interesting enough. Then there’s the copy itself. In the old days the physical space in a newspaper or magazine meant that compromises were made in more or less every column of copy. Stuff had to be cut, important information was prioritised but sometimes interesting detail got left out. Sub-editors sometimes make cuts that the writers would not have made, for a whole host of reasons.

The internet has in some ways made it far easier to tell a full story, to make fewer space-related compromises, and yet it’s even more difficult in other ways because we’re always being told that attention spans are shortening. No editor would indulge me to the extent that I am indulging myself by writing all this, for example. Perhaps you’ve got this far in the hope that there’s another mention of hedgehogs, I don’t know, but I can save you the bother if you like. There isn’t.

And most importantly the copy has to abide by the law of the land. I have seen people dismiss libel laws as if they are just a trifling inconvenience to be ignored. The old maxim ‘publish and be damned’ has been misunderstood to mean ‘publish at all costs’. No responsible outlet does that. The internet and social media has made it easier for people who don’t have their own newspaper to shine a light in some murky corners but it has also made it easier to make uncorroborated, unsubstantiated claims without any expensive comeback. There’s a sort of journalism à deux vitesses going on – those who are held to account, or potentially held to account, operate by one set of rules; those who aren’t work to another.

* * *

Back to Team Sky. Compared to their expecations they had a bad debut year and before the season had even ended they had begun to evaluate everything. They came to the conclusion that perhaps the parameters they had set for themselves were not helping performance. The final chapter of Richard Moore’s book, Sky’s The Limit, contains a fascinating account of that re-evaluation. You can almost hear the penny drop for Brailsford. They had realised they were operating too far inside the lines.

I remember learning at some point in the summer of 2010 that Dr Roger Palfreeman, who had been part of British Cycling’s medical team, had been tasked by Brailsford with writing a comprehensive medical code of practice for Team Sky but that on consulting the riders Brailsford had shelved it. I tried to ask Brailsford about this during the 2010 Tour but got nowhere. (I’d had to come home from the Tour early because a member of my family was unwell but I recall spending a fair bit of time on the phone trying to ask Team Sky about this).

Anyway, Richard’s book was enlightening. It is assumed, I suspect by people who have not actually read it, to be some sort of party political pamphlet for Team Sky. Possibly that’s because of the title, which Richard didn’t choose but did go along with. In fact, it’s a revealing account of their debut season and the final section is particularly interesting, especially when re-read now.

Brailsford talks about ‘the line’, using the blue line that used to feature on the back of the team’s jerseys as a visual metaphor. ‘You know, where the line is – between what’s allowed and what isn’t – in cycling it can sometimes be a bit blurred. But we will not go over it.’

Later on he says: ‘We need to have knowledge of what all the other riders and teams are doing in terms of performance enhancement – which doesn’t necessarily mean doping. But that whole side of the sport is something... It’s a topic that is ever-present.’

Dr Richard Freeman is also quoted. ‘In terms of illegal products it is clear where the blue line is. There is a grey area in terms of injections, for example, but we adhere completely to the WADA policy on needles.’

Towards the end of 2010, British Cycling’s head of media set up a meeting and I headed to a hotel at Heathrow airport to meet Brailsford for what would be described in tabloid-speak as ‘clear-the-air’ talks. He was less bullish than he had been before, as if the gruelling season and Bradley Wiggins’ failure at the Tour de France, where he had finished 24th, had dented him.

He said that the level of scrutiny and criticism the team had faced during their debut season had taken him by surprise. At the Giro d’Italia, the team had put up black screens to shield the riders as they warmed up for a time trial. It was more than a metaphorical wall between them and the public and press and they had not anticipated the negative reaction to it. As they saw it, allowing the riders to prepare for their race without being gawped at would aid their performance.

The conversation in the Heathrow hotel was informal, not on the record, but Brailsford agreed to an interview at a later date. Perhaps sensing my healthy scepticism about cycling in general, he also invited me to follow the team at a race of my choice in 2011 – although not the Tour de France because everyone would be too on edge there. I suggested the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, where Wiggins and the bulk of the Tour team would be completing their Tour preparations, and he agreed to that.

We had another coffee and Brailsford began to open up about the complexities of running a team that was often competing in two places at once. It sounded like a constant round of problem-solving. We talked a bit about what he’d learned and we talked about the definition of ‘clean’. Clean, he said, was not breaking the rules of the sport.

Context is everything with all this. EPO, blood transfusions and growth hormones had been the set menu of choice for professional cycling. Cortisone abuse was considered by some to be light doping, or not even doping at all. The topic of medication taken with official permission from the sport’s governing body was not even part of the conversation because it was dwarfed by the harder stuff. The investigation into Lance Armstrong and the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s reasoned decision would lay bare the grisly details. Glow times and frozen bags of blood, team buses pulling over so riders could have a post-race top-up. It would be years before we got past all that and the discussion would move on to asthma medicine and TUE forms.

Brailsford began to talk about his excitement and being able to build ‘his’ Team Sky. A lot of professional riders have two-year contracts and so when the team was being assembled, Brailsford could really only pick from riders who were coming to the end of their contract. Now the team was established they could strengthen. He explained his recruitment policy, a sort of Moneyball-inspired theory that broke his roster down into those who were able to deliver World Tour victories, those who were able to offer support at World Tour level and so on. He drew a chart on a napkin, with the rider age along the bottom of the chart and level of performance up the side. He drew a bell curve and explained that his model meant that expensive riders had to deliver results, potential and supporting riders could be cheap, and that once a rider’s performance began to tail off they had to be moved on. He plotted some of his riders on the chart based on their results in 2010. There was nothing too revelatory about that. All sports teams try to get the most out of their athletes and then move them on before they decline but I found it interesting and I asked him if we could reproduce it in the magazine.

Intially he said yes, then he said no, then he said yes again, then he asked if he could think about it. I took a snap of the napkin on my phone. I could understand his reluctance – would a rider in an unflattering position take kindly to seeing his place on the chart, even if it was based on pretty basic information that could not be disputed.

Early in 2011, I went up to Manchester again and spoke to Brailsford in his office. The feature was published in Cycle Sport and can be read here.

With Brailsford’s permission the magazine’s art department created an interpretation of his graph using my sketch and my assessments of where each of Team Sky’s riders would sit on the chart based on their performance in 2010. We made it clear in the caption printed below that the chart was our approximation of his criteria, not necessarily Brailsford’s actual assessment of his riders.

Chris Froome appeared in a pretty unflattering position on that graph – low in terms of results delivered but not young enough in age to be counted as raw potential. He was roughly in the same position as John-Lee Augustyn, who did not go on to win the Tour de France four times. However, based on his results in 2010, which were sparse, it was a fair position.

After Froome’s breakthrough performance at the 2011 Vuelta a Espana, and his subsequent dominance at the Tour de France, I’ve seen this graph cited by some online as a key exhibit in the case for the prosecution, proof of a near donkey-to-racehorse transformation.

I think back to 2007 and early 2008, when Doug Dailey of British Cycling raved about Froome’s potential and talked of his desire to ensure he was eligible to ride the 2008 Olympics for Great Britain. They felt he was raw, but talented. Not capable of winning a medal at that time, perhaps, but good enough to last well into the race. The Kenyan cycling federation blocked Froome’s application to change his nationality in time, so we did not find out that summer whether Dailey’s confidence was justified.

I mention this because it is an example of how anything can be used as evidence in an attempt to prove or disprove something. To someone who believes that Sky are on a par with US Postal Service, my interpretation of Brailsford’s graph that shed a bit of light on his team-assembling policy, is proof that Froome was a hopeless cyclist and his transformation into Tour champion is not credible the same way a moon-landing conspiracy theorist would refer to shadows on a flag as proof the whole thing was shot in the desert.

A couple of years later, as Froome was on his way to his first Tour de France win, the graph circulated on Twitter accompanied by incredulous comments. Brailsford, clearly a lurker on Twitter, had seen the Tweets. One morning at the start, he saw me and said, light-heartedly, ‘That bloody chart,’ and hopped on the team bus.

Part one
Part three