If the old maxim that you should never meet your heroes holds true, then becoming a journalist in the sport you have loved since childhood is a recurring nightmare.
How can impartial writing be achieved when the person the other side of the table is a legend of cycling whose photos adorned this teenager’s bedroom wall? How to ask those awkward questions that really need to be posed and might send this so-far charming man into a seething rage? Worst of all, how to avoid becoming totally tongue-tied in the presence of one of the greats? Spluttering and stuttering is embarrassing for all concerned. And does not make for a relaxed interviewee.
One of my early assignments as a late-starting cycling hack was to grab Roger Hammond straight after the finish of the British cyclo-cross championships – unfortunately for me, one of the few occasions the eight-time winner failed to top the podium. He gave me short shrift and sent me away with a flea in my ear, rather than a juicy quote to go in the following week’s edition of the magazine.
I gave Roger a wide berth for what little remained of his riding career, having gained the impression he was – how best to put this – something of a miserable sod. How wrong could I have been? Hammond is an engaging, open and always helpful man as a manager with British squad Madison-Genesis, and an all-round good egg outside of work.
To base a character assassination on one brief exchange following a lost race was ridiculous. Anyone who has attempted to interview Mark Cavendish immediately after a stage he felt he should have won will know the score. It won’t be pleasant; it won’t be pretty. But it sure as heck is not personal. Winners don’t like losing. Simple as that.
I had the good fortune to meet Nicole Cooke at The Tour of Britain recently. She was delightful and interesting, enjoying life post-cycling working at a high level (she always was a smart cookie) for a big financial firm in the City. I didn’t mention that probably the most painful telephone interview I ever conducted was with Nicole back in her world-beating days: ten minutes of monosyllabic answers to my poorly-researched questions before I threw in the towel and ended the call. And I had based my opinion of one Britain’s greatest cyclists on that encounter alone.
Embarrassing moments involving superstars of cycling? Oh yes, there’s been a few. I was at a lunch near Roubaix following a tonking from Bernard Hinault over the wet pavé one chilly February. He smashed away at the front all morning, leaving us trailing in his wake, much as he ever did. As he rose to leave the restaurant, I remembered the framed photo of him stashed under the table that I was supposed to get signed.
Rushing over, pen in hand, spluttering in Franglais to make sure he realised that the autograph was not for me, but a race prize, it all started going wrong. “Uh, c’est un prix pour competition amateur en Angleterre, er… c’est ne pour moi, er…”
As if he cared either way.
The pen dug into the beautiful print of Hinault in full flight on the cobbles, a gorgeous shot of the great man. No ink flowed from its so-called ballpoint. The Badger shot me ‘the look’. I winced. He tried again. Another scratched outline of his signature now disfigured the print above the previous abortive attempt.
The spluttering Franglais restarted: “Ah, zuts alors! Pardon, Monsieur Hinault, c’est incroyable! Er, er, avez-vous un stylo, peut-être?”
He calmly proceeded to the restaurant reception, found a working pen, signed then handed back the now slightly soiled photo, then gave me ‘the look’ again. I shrank several inches that day. And have never, ever, again requested an autograph.
We are hosting the ultimate bike show in London this week – the Rouleur Classic – as I’m sure you are aware by now.
Alongside the ultimate racing bikes and equipment to be found in today’s peloton, we have a glittering array of star guests lined up – including the ultimate star: Eddy Merckx.
Thankfully, I have met Eddy before, so will hopefully be able to engage in conversation without turning into a gibbering wreck, despite my first racing bike having a picture of the man on its headtube.
Famous people are, on the whole, just like you or I – only famous. They are recognised wherever they go, asked to pose for photos, sign autographs, engage in conversations with people who know everything about them, yet they know nothing in return.
If they do not behave “normally”, it is because we don’t allow it. So I’ll be doing my best not to be star-struck; not to take a selfie with Eddy, despite the overwhelming temptation; and I will not – most definitely not – be getting any autographs on copies of Rouleur. My aim is to remain professional at all times, for the sake of journalistic integrity.
But, hey, no promises. It could easily fall apart at the very first sighting. And I now have a pen that works…
STATS THE WAY, UH-HUH UH-HUH
18 – Grand Tour wins
27 – Monuments
9 – World Championships
A taste of the riders attending the Rouleur Classic
Bradley Wiggins meets a world-famous Belgian, Kenny van Vlaminck (Rouleur Classic Friday and Saturday)
Double-bubble for Nicole Cooke in 2008: Olympic gold followed by the World Championships
Want to interview Cavendish? Best do your homework