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Notes, highlighters and the delusion of control – Ned Boulting's Tour de France

Tour de France 2022 Ned Boulting
Riders racing through Paris on the final stage of the 2021 Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images)

We all prepare for the race in different ways.

Spectators across the continent have earmarked their week’s holiday possibly years in advance, and are packing their bags, loading the caravan with supplies and heading for Alpe d’Huez or Roskilde – my youngest is at a music festival there right now, blithely insouciant of the Tour de France’s imminent arrival.

Mark Cavendish started preparing for his non-presence at the 2022 Tour de France as soon as his triumphant 2021 Tour was completed, only to find out that not even the complete manipulation of an entire British national peloton would change the mind of the QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl decision-makers.

The publicity caravan is ready to roll; its brightly painted carbon fibre onions and oversized cheeses are fixed atop its insane variety of float vehicles. They are supplied with enough free samples to run an average French household for a thousand years.

Fred Wright’s Dad, Phil, prepared for his son’s second participation by buying 35 packs of Panini stickers in the hope he’d get one with Fred’s face on it. He opened the first pack: Fred was there. What he did with the other 34 scarcely mattered after that.

Defending champion Tadej Pogačar has spent the last few weeks in a bio-bubble, with the UAE Team Emirates rider anxiously avoiding anyone or anything that might be harbouring the virus; seemingly the only thing which could prevent the young Slovenian from the inevitability of win number three.

Behind the scenes at ASO, and in the committee rooms of Copenhagen’s city council, the race has been uppermost in their everyday lives for years already. Even at the offices of my employers ITV – tiny by every conceivable measurement – planning has been ongoing since November when the route was announced.

Back on the road after two years of remote broadcasting from a car park in Kent, there was much to be done: new Brexit regulations to observe and pay for, COVID-19 protocols to observe, hotel rooms from Copenhagen to Paris to be booked.

Soaking the sponge

Then we stumble chaotically into the scene: Gary Imlach, Daniel Friebe, Matt Rendell, Chris Boardman, Pete Kennaugh, David Millar and I clatter into town clutching notes and highlighters and, in the case of Matt, enough box files to fill a reasonably sized town archive.

We know what awaits us, in the sense that we are veterans of so many Tours between us that most have lost count (it’s 20 for me this year!). We understand that our best-intended plans to stay on top of the event, in command of every detail and generally with our heads above water will last approximately three days before we start to sink below the surface and drown in the murky depths of a race which is much, much more than its constituent parts.

For me, commentating at the Tour is the annual high point of a year-long endeavour that never lets up. To have the bank of understanding of Bauke Mollema’s form, Pierre Rolland’s tactics and the who, exactly, Clément Champoussin could beat in a selective sprint is the painstakingly assembled product of sitting squarely on my backside watching weeks and months of bicycle racing, taking notes and soaking in the details like a sponge; one I will wring slowly dry over the coming three weeks.

Ned Boulting in Tour de France preparation mode

Ned Boulting in Tour de France preparation mode (Image credit: Tour de Ned)

The battle for yellow will be intriguing, in the sense that the challenge to Pogačar may come from an unexpected corner. There are riders, and climbers, in the race who have nothing to lose and every reason to attack as frequently as they can (Romain Bardet, Aleksandr Vlasov, Dani Martínez etc) – the spectre of the final 40.7km time trial looms large.

There are others whose ability will haunt Pogačar until stage 20 is resolved; Primož Roglič (obviously), Geraint Thomas (refreshingly) and Jonas Vingegaard (potentially race-winningly).

But it’s the green jersey which I think has the potential to make the 2022 Tour one for the ages. For the first time, it is the avowed intention of Mathieu van der Poel to race to Paris, where Wout van Aert won the final stage in 2021. How those two legends set about racing one another in the points competition, and how Peter Sagan might play a decisive part in that, is one of the aspects of this Tour I am greatly looking forward to.

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2022 has also been the year when the breakaway came of age. The overall level, physical, technical and tactical, in the bunch is of such a uniformly high standard now, that the days of handing the break a double-digit lead seemed consigned to the dustbin of history.

We saw it at the Giro d'Italia, and at the Critérium du Dauphiné. I expect more very, very close catches and the odd stage that slips through the grasp of the peloton.

But it all begins in Copenhagen. The Danish nation has been waiting for this for a long time. It goes without saying that they are going to smash expectations – this Grand Départ will be special. That much is already secure – but it’s about all that is.

Ned Boulting is on tour this Oct/Nov with his one-man stage show Re-Tour de Ned. Tickets are available at www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/ned-boulting

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Ned Boulting
Ned Boulting

Ned Boulting has covered the Tour de France for UK broadcaster ITV since 2003 and is now the channel's lead commentator for the race. He's the editor of The Road Book Cycling Almanack, the author of several non-fiction books about professional cycling and co-host of the Never Strays Far cycling podcast with former pro rider David Millar.