Thursday, June 30, 2011

Inside the Tour - seasoned print sports journalist

While a cyclist like Phil Anderson blazed the trail for future Australian cyclists, Rupert Guinness was one of the first Aussie journos to write about modern cycling and the Tour. Currently covering cycling (and rugby) for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of the book What a Ride (and others), Rupert's looking forward to getting 3 hours sleep a night over the next three weeks. This wearer of fine Hawaiian shirts answered my questions to give us another insight into the Tour circus. 

TdC: So when are you off to the Tour? (oops, he’s already there)

RG: Leaving Sydney June 28….Paris Wednesday, June 29 early in the morning. I’ll meet one of the Velo News crew who I follow the Tour with at Charles de Gaulles airport. "Then we plan to take the TGV to Nantes, then cab it to our hotel at Clisson (25km away) and be there in time for a glass (or too many) of rose by 3.30pm!

TdC: We know riders would get nervous before taking part in the Tour, how about yourself? What do you feel:
- this many days out of the Tour (it was about a week or so when this asked)

RG: I am usually nervous that I won't get to speak to all the people I need to, to provide as comprehensive a lead-in and preview of the Tour, while at the same time get ready to have everything for the race when it starts. It all works out in the end, but I find the "to do" list is always as big and no matter how well I try and be organised I am always chasing the clock on the day I leave. When I do leave, I also have to make sure I have enough stories in the system at work so they can publish stories for that day you lose while in the air!

- the night before
RG: The night before the Tour starts I realise that all the hypothesising that has gone on for weeks or months could mean nothing! The Tour is about to start and what matters is what happens from the first kilometre! I usually feel at peace then, even if it means all the preview work is now past - history, or material to be proven wrong - which is okay, because we are all wrong sometimes (or too many times). I am usually really excited about what will happen, knowing that come the Tour's end in Paris I will be surprised many times over - and also, I must add, most probably shocked!  It’s about being ready for anything - and in most cases that is being ready for the unexpected. I also always take time to be back with my old touring mates from Velo News - even if they didn’t work for Velo News when I did, but there is a tie there. Finally, I also take a little time out just think about the riders and everyone in the entourage and hope they all get through safely. 

- the morning it all kicks off?
RG: I always wake up early (well, I have to, to make contact with the SMH desk before we hit the road). But on the first day I am just anxious to see the race get under way and look forward to see a result and all the fall out to write about. It's only the start, but after so many weeks of anticipation it is a start! It’s also the first day you are tested to get all your work patterns in place. It usually takes me several days to get into the swing of things and that is usually a result of error and slip ups - easily fixed by knowledge through the years of what works, but you need to be reminded in the first days. It’s the same for our travelling group. We all have different deadlines and needs, but we all try to finish by a certain hour so we can leave to find our hotel and eat dinner, even if it means we are working through and after dinner. It all comes naturally after a few days.

-And what did you feel your very first tour
RG: My very first Tour was in 1987 when Stephen Roche won. I was working for Winning Bicycle Racing magazine and at the time writing a daily diary on Roche. So I was taken back that I got to do that on my first Tour. I was also amazed by the size of the race at the time, and the circus around it - and the carnival of it all. It is much bigger now of course, but then it was still a huge thing. Although, I believe there was then still room for more intimacy between people. Now, the race is so big, it’s mostly about everyone getting in for what they need ... a sad thing, but a fact of life when so much money and importance is placed on an event that is more international. But my first Tour, I recall asking my predecessor at Winning (and one of my current touring mates) John Wilcockson who has now covered more than 40 Tours (to my 23, incl 2011) what he felt about his first Tour. He said: "Fantastic. I will always remember it." I would use the same words ... it is clearer in my mind than most Tours since!

TdC: Describe an average work day there.
RG: The day begins for me at about 6.30am. I get up, call the SMH to check if they have received overnight stories I have written), then I go for a run (40-60mins). That is the ONLY part of the day that is to myself as we share accommodation (2-3 in a room) and cars and from the moment we arrive at stage start there are ALWAYS thousands around you. We always leave to get to the stage start about one hour before. When we leave and arrive depends on where our hotel is from the finish - that can be from 100km away to actually being on the start line! What we do in the day varies according to needs - our group has 2 cars; but these days the best thing is usually to park in the press derriese (behind) and use the time you have to do interviews and let the stage start and then take the alternative route on autoroute and rejoin the route with about 30km to go and get to the finish about 1-2 hours before.

Old days, we used to stay on the course and follow breaks and go ahead of them on the course and savour the stage more; but nowadays - again - there are so many accredited cars and people, its safer and more efficient to just go ahead. But many of the routes and climbs I know from early Tours. Sometimes I go on a motor bike that is available to print journos; but you lose a day of writing for the paper, websites and all the other modern media outlets. After the stage, we do interviews and usually leave the press room - that can be anything from a tent to an ice rink, basketball court or even church (old days) - about 8-8.30pm and set off to find our hotel. All the time we are still working on various stories. For the SMH I usually do an immediate one for online, then a main story and secondary story for the paper and also a daily The Breakaway column for the paper. It also all goes on line. I am usually writing at press room, through dinner, in back seat of car en route to hotel and then at hotel - but at a comfortable pace by the end. However, usually it is 3am or 3.30am when I actually turn the lights out - realising that in 3 hours I'll be up and doing it all again. Its all good fun, as exhausting as it is, especially with the daily moving of hotel. The big test is when things dont go well, such as over booked hotels, having to sleep on the floor, finding the kitchen is closed etc etc ... Gotta keep an open mind!

TdC: For us that can’t be there and never been - briefly tell us what the whole TDF circus is like.

RG: I have described alot of it above; but the one thing about the Tour is that while there are 198 riders they are the minority. The whole entourage is about 4,500-5,000 strong and while all of France is on holidays, it is THE occasion for the celebrities to be see. Everybody want something from somebody - but that is what makes the Tour, especially with the proximity of fans with the riders. As I said, from the moment I wake at 6.30am to when I turn the lights out at about 3am there are always people around you - and enthusiastic emotional people. WILD!
I could go on all day about this ...

TdC: So imagine you’re 80. What moment do you think you’ll recall the most

- Of the tour
RG: Sorry but the biggest impact was the day Fabio Casartelli died in 1995, followed by the next stage when the peloton rode over the longest and hardest stage in the Pyrenees - in scorching weather - as virtual cortege. This year has been tragic with the deaths of Wouter Weylandt and Xavier Tondo, but being there in 1995 and having to report on the incident was hard, especially as he came from  the team that was my "round" as I worked for the American Velo News guys then.  

But happiest moment? Wow, there are many: as an Aussie would say witnessing Robbie McEwen win his first Tour stage in Paris when he rode for Rabobank, and also Stuart O'Grady's claim of the yellow jersey in 1998 and he said: "not bad for a freckly bastard from Adelaide." He also said it showed the yellow jersey was not a myth beyond Australian reach - and from that day on, his words have paid dividends.

- Of cycling generally
Seeing an Australian stand atop the Tour podium on the Champs Elysees, wearing the yellow jersey and capturing in my memory (if not camera) the golden hue behind him, contrasted by the silhouette of the Arc Triomphe in the background. It is still THE best scene that not only celebrates the winner but also the finality of another Tour done. Whatever year that happens, it will just reinforce to me that the wild dream of one day reporting about an Aussie victory that was sparked for me by Phil Anderson becoming the first Aussie to claim the yellow  jersey was really worth it .... On top of that, I really must admit that there are two other moments that I love - the chance to sit down with friends in an old village and enjoy a glass as the sunsets, and the overall enthusiasm of the millions who follows the race - the beaming smiles. Even f you feel it’s a bad day when you wake, you always finish thinking that it is amazing an event in a sport with so many issues is so resilient.

TdC: I can imagine on the day you're leaving to come home from France there'd be a sense of relief it's over,but do you suffer post tour lows?

RG: There are post Tour lows - as much as I am keen to go into the SMH office and see colleagues (and find out the gossip), it can be deflating to realise that from your last story the Tour is really not important. Everyone has already moved on to the next event ... but that's life. It still sucks because you want to continue living the Tour.

TdC: Do you think you'd ever go the Tour if you weren't working on it?

RG: I’d love to ... but with the full kit and kaboodle: a caravan, BBQ, bikes, TV and all the stuff you need to set u home anywhere on the route and just wait for it to come - while having a party at the same time. One day I will do it ... but can I do it without applying for my accreditation, I suspect not, because I feel I'll always want to have it - just in case!!!

TdC: Finally, fave part of France, -and wine/food

RG: I used to live in the Alpes Maritime in Southern France, but I love all of France - actually my least favourite place is Paris - well, that’s not quite right. It’s a beautiful city, but I just love the wide expanses of unadulterated country. I love al the wines, all the colours, Bordeau and Bourgine reds are great. Bordeau whites too and of course, anyone who knows me would be expect me to mention the good old rose - one of my favorites is Bandol. Food? Love it all, but when on the Tour and having trouble finding a place that is open, you can always rely in the Asian restaurants.

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