Matt Rendell Interview

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10/1/2004| 0 comments
by Ian Melvin
Matt Rendell.
Matt Rendell.

Matt Rendell Interview

Ian talks to Matt about his book A Significant Other - Riding the Centenary Tour de France with Lance Armstrong.

A few months ago I picked up a copy of A Significant Other by Matt Rendell.  As I discussed in my previous review, the book turned out to be a great read although I had initially been a little wary, unfairly making comparisons with many of the other Tour ?journals? of recent years.  I found it to be one of those books where every time I contemplated closing the pages, I was drawn back into it through the excellent narrative of Rendell and the eye witness accounts of US Postal?s Colombian domestique Victor Hugo Pe?a.  Last month I had a chance to catch up with Matt and discuss the book.


Matt Rendell discovered cycling late.  Growing up in a small English village, he was a middle-distance runner whilst at school, following in the footsteps of his Grandfather who excelled in the British scene of the 1930?s.  It wasn?t until he moved to Italy to study that he first developed an interest in cycling.  Time spent in the cities of Rome, Florence and Trieste during the 80?s fueled his new found passion.


After returning to the UK to take up a position as an academic historian and linguist in London, Rendell picked up a little casual work with the small production Company VTV that produces the Tour de France for British viewers.  ?Just about the first thing I ever did for VTV was to subtitle an interview with Chepe Gonzalez, stage winner at the 1996 Tour de France at Valence, and I remember thinking, ?What?s your story??? explained Matt.


After a time in the capital, office politics finally got the better of Rendell and in an effort to ?clear my head?; he set off along the length of South America on his bike with a friend in tow.  After crossing Patagonia and most of Chile, Rendell set out on his own, determined to make it to Colombia?I contacted Radio Caracol and was immediately welcomed into the community of Colombian cycling by the commentators Marco Tulio, Alfredo Castro and RCN?s Hector Urrego.  I made a low budget, but extremely well received TV documentary about the spirituality of the cyclists from the Colombian town of Sogamoso and race-walkers from the Ecuadorian town of Cuenca.?  The film was so well received that a literary agent made contact and before long the book ?Kings of the Mountains? had hit the shelf and was awarded a national prize for sports writing.


During a spell writing for a leading cycling magazine in the UK, Rendell was again approached to write a book, but this time for a publisher looking to release a series examining closely the life of an elite athlete.  ?I said, ?I have this friend on US Postal who has had to give up all his ambitions in order to help Lance Armstrong win the Tour,?? explained Matt to David Luxton, the agent. ?David?s face lit up; I dialed Victor Hugo there and then on my mobile phone and he said, ?Let?s do it.??


I wondered why Victor Hugo was Matt?s choice of rider to work with.  After a period within the industry, I was sure that he would have had numerous contacts with more widely recognized riders.   ?Victor Hugo is someone I?d wanted to write about for a long time.  I was already interested in Colombian cycling for a number of reasons, not least, initially because I had found so much friendship and warmth towards me.?  Rendell continued to explain that he believed that the success of Colombian cycling to be very much an anomaly and therefore, a test case for global sport.  ?After all, does sport belong to the athletes and communities that invest their resources, however meager, in producing them, or does it belong to the Credit Card companies and Soft Drink manufacturers that merely seek to associate themselves with the performance of remarkable athletes?  Sport is only partly meritocracy.  Cycling, like other sports, tends to want to benefit from the best manpower available while privileging athletes of the same nationality as the team sponsors ?. these are the sorts of issues I?m interested in personally and professionally, and writing about Colombian cycling in ?Kings of the Mountains? and about Victor Hugo in ?A Significant Other? has allowed me to explore some of them.?


In hindsight, the selection of Victor Hugo was quite inspirational. Instead of his expected build up to the Tour and the Prologue Time Trial in Paris, the Colombian experienced one drama after another and as Rendell explained, shortly before the race began, he feared that US Postal would be lining up without the former Giro stage winner.  ?Victor Hugo was held up at gunpoint by thugs who stole his papers and left him with no passport or racing license; he was unable to get a Spanish visa to return to his home, car and brother in Spain ­- utterly unreasonable on the part of the Spanish authorities.  Because of his visa problems he missed the Tour of Belgium, which was to have been his qualifying ride for the team, so he came within a hair?s breadth of missing the Tour altogether.  He finally started the Tour on a French tourist visa, in flagrant violation of its terms and conditions; and then he became the first Colombian to ever wear the yellow jersey.?


On paper, the idea of a Tour diary is a fascinating proposition and I know that I for one am always keen to gain an insight into that magical world of the professional peloton.  ?The cycling shelves are full of dreadful cut and paste histories of the Tour that don?t contain one original interview -­ despite the hundreds of ex-Tour riders out there - and should never have been published.  I wanted to position myself as far from that genre as possible by allowing Victor Hugo to portray a domestique?s life in his own words, and then to provide the sort of historical, sociological, technical, but also philosophical context that athletes can hardly be expected to describe insightfully; on the whole, they?re too busy being athletes to undergo the sort of education that leads you to thinkers.?


Rendell explained that during the Tour, he was able to speak to Victor Hugo, ?a few times but neither of us had time to kill.?  He added that, ?a few days after the Tour had finished, we watched together video footage of Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Luz Ardiden stage, which forms the backbone of the book.?  For many athletes a book collaboration will usually entail a professional writer interpreting their words but as Rendell explained, refreshingly, this wasn?t the case.  ?Victor Hugo is acutely observant and remarkably articulate, and his words are precisely that - his own.?  Such is the trust between Rendell and Pena that the Colombian did not even request to review the book before going to print.  As Matt explains, ?I?m not interested in writing any sort of authorized account of anything; I can?t see the point, and I can?t understand anyone that does.  I want to look with my own eyes and write down what I see, within constraints that I, and no one else, chooses.?


As we finished our conversation, I asked Matt what the book meant to him. Is it simply another step along the road to literary stardom?  Talking to him, no, I don?t believe so.  Is it a personal thank-you to everybody who touched his life in Colombia?  Maybe.  Rather, as Matt explains himself, ?during the medicals in the run-up to the 2004 Tour, we were in the same hotel as US Postal and I gave Lance a copy.  I inscribed it, ?To Lance, A little book about cycling and friendship.?  That?s what the book means to me: cycling and friendship.?


Click here to read our review of the book or use the link below to buy the book.


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