A Yarn With Rupert Guinness

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If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The same analogy can be used with bike racing. The media obviously gives most of its attention to the athletes of any given sport, but what about the individuals who record its great moments? The journalists who cover it are the ones who shape its reality for us at home. Rupert Guinness is Australia’s longest standing cycling journalist, and a fine one at that. He’s on his way to covering is 24th Tour de France and comes from a day when journalism wasn’t just rehashing press releases. I had a chat with Rupert over a glass of red and spoke with him about his remarkable career which has helped lift the profile of cycling to where it is today.

Tell me about the first Tour you covered?

It was 1987 and the Tour de France started in West Berlin when it still had the wall up. I was on the same plane as the ANC Halfords team with Shane Sutton being one of the four Aussies in the Tour [along with Phil Anderson, Allan Peiper and Czech-born Australian citizen Omar Palov]. To make the landing you had to fly over East Berlin as well and you could see the stark difference between these two countries. I remember Shane Sutton peering out the window and he looked back at me and says, “mate, that sure says something.” You could see such a difference between all the lights and movement in the West and then this drab and grey land in the East. The last thing you could imagine there was a bike race.

I didn’t realize how strong it was [how strongly politicised the Tour had been that year] until I landed. You saw the 7-11 team getting photos taken at Check-point Charlie for example and you could see in the background the East in contrast with the glitz and glamour of the west. I didn’t realize until later that West Berlin had bought the rights to start the Tour there and the course went along the border when it was just a fence, there wasn’t wall everywhere, and you could see No-Man’s Land, the guards with rifles peering out, the watch towers, and it was such a contrast of social environments with this major event taking place right in the middle of it. It was quite interesting really.

How did it come about that you went over there?

I had this idea to follow Phil Anderson because I really wanted to write a book about him at the height of his career. In 1986 I was over in Colorado doing triathlons and I was training for the Ironman. I went and followed part of the old Coors Classic and that’s where I met John Wilcockson, who was then the editor of the old Winning Magazine. After that I came back to Melbourne, didn’t have a job, and thought, “Gee, I’d like to go and fulfil this dream about writing a book about Phil” so I wrote a letter to John Wilcockson and I addressed it to Winning Magazine. They said they’d be needing an editor in Europe and asked if I like the job. So basically I said, yeah, I’d love the job, and they paid a one way ticket for me to go over. I became the editor of the English edition of Winning and the European correspondent for the American edition [March 87’].

Eighteen months after that I freelanced and I used to do a bit of work for Cycling Weekly and was also the European correspondent for Velonews. I’ve always covered the Tour de France for the Australian papers and the World Championships.

What was it like reporting back at the beginning of your career in contrast to today?

Today everything’s all about ‘now, now, now’, you know, with Twitter and that. Back then there was no such thing as the internet so everything was by telephones. They still had typewriters actually when I went over there so the press room still had the noise the clackety clack from the typerwriters. Computers were coming en vogue so the press room got quieter but the computers were pretty archaic. So I’d do it that way, otherwise I used to dictate a lot of my copy to Australia using the public telephones. The press room then, you had these telephonic chains. There were these 6 or 8 old ladies from France Telecom who would connect your calls through and you’d have a running account that you’d have to pay for when you got to Paris. With some of the first computers we’d use you’d have this system where you’d have this old telephone and you’d push the cable from your computer into this set of couplers and somehow the words would slowly get transmitted…it was very very slow. If you pushed harder the words would seem to go quicker!

In this age where everything is wanted and needed ‘now’, what changes have you seen in cycling journalism itself?

I think then, you had more time to develop relations with people and spend an extra 20-30 minutes talking to someone and then giving yourself more time to have considered opinion or analysis of a subject or a personality. Whereas now everything is coordinated by media officers so you get your 5 minutes and somehow you’re meant to come up with a deep probing piece on what makes a rider tick. In the past I think you had calmer environment where the rider and journalist could both sit down and be relaxed and talk about something. You knew there was at least 24 hrs (in the case of a newspaper or 4 weeks or 6 weeks for a magazine) until the paper came out before anybody would have whatever information you’re about to write about. Whereas now there’s agencies, websites, journalists there and quite often by the time you get back to the pressroom or your laptop, it’s already up online.

I remember doing Stephen Roche daily diary for Winning magazine. It was just a handshake agreement between us – there were no contracts, no managers, no fee, just a handshake. That year he went on to win the Tour of Italy, Tour of France and World Titles and during the Tour de France we’d be sitting beside each other in a gutter on the road doing his daily diary. These days you just wouldn’t have that access and space to do that. It amazes me that I had the opportunity to do that. I appreciate it much more now than I did back then.

Benard Hinault and Bernard Thévenet presented you with the Trophee de la Fidelite (translated “Trophy of Loyalty”) on your 20th Tour? You’re the only Australian journalist to receive this medal. What was that like coming full circle to these legends of the giving you this honor?

It was great. I didn’t really appreciate what it meant until after. To be honest, I remember the day it happened in 2008 and it was a nice little ceremony and people are taking time our of there day to appreciate what you’ve done. It was a far more touching moment that I thought it would be. It is a significant moment and the atmosphere that they create to stop and take stock of it all is great. I still have that medal at home.

Throughout all of the years you’ve been covering cycling, have there been any years you’ve been jaded by the sport for any reason?

When I was living in Europe it is was from 1987-96. I didn’t come back to Australia because I was jaded. I was just fatigued from spending so much time going from one bike race to the other every week.  I wanted to move back to Australia while I was younger rather than older. I was 35 then, I’m 50 now. I wanted to come back and miss France rather than come back and hate France. I wasn’t jaded then at all.

During the Armstrong era it became a bitter experience, particularly the environment in the press room. At that time here was a lot of hate going on between Armstrong’s camp with what they though was friendly media and unfriendly media.

I had and still have a good healthy relationship with Armstrong but I was on his blacklist twice. Guilty by association basically. I used to travel with David Walsh who spear headed the accusations against Armstrong over doping. David and I were, and still are very good friends and he was driven by this belief that Armstrong was involved or associated with doping.

The first time I was on the blacklist I emailed Lance Armstrong. I told him that you’re accusing the media of making conclusions based on your relationship with Dr Ferrari, and that he’s blacklisted me because David Walsh is a friend of mine he’s jumping to conclusions about my view on him. He [Lance] said “fair call” and took me off the blacklist.

I got back on it again in 2003 for the same thing with David Walsh. From that time onwards it was tense until he [Armstrong] retired. There was talk in the press room about Armstrong giving access to journalist who told him about who was saying what about him. There was a feeling that this sort of thing was going on. It was an environment in the pressroom that was quite uncomfortable to say the least.

Between 1998 and 2003 was an era where everyone involved in the sport was one – coming to terms with the depth of the problem with doping, and two – where they stood on the issue. Being through all that you get relationships that are challenged and tested. It was an uncomfortable era I would say.

How do you view responsibility as a cycling journalist?

That’s a good question. I think there is a responsibility. I’m not going to lie..In the past I could have pursued the issue of doping stronger than what I did in those formative years. I was a lot younger then too and had this idealistic vision of the sport and the dream. One thing that’s come out of those uncomfortable years is there’s a greater awareness of the responsibility of the media to be on top of these issues. At the same time, I think there needs to be balance between what’s fact, and what’s fiction and what’s faction. There’s a lot of information that people can know about, yet in order to back it up and have it in print – that’s another step all together. To back yourself up and be challenged in the court of law about it is what newspapers get all the time.  While on some websites or blogs people come out with accusations. If it’s true and there are angles to pursue it that’s all interesting, but we’re made to be accountable on every single fact. We do get things wrong in the mainstream media too, I’m not saying that, but there’s got to be some balance with getting it right and fulfilling the reasonability of revealing incidents, accusations or facts of controversies which bring the sport into disrepute.

Do you think cycling journalism getting worse or better?

It’s changing, but I am not convinced it’s changing for the better. I’m not here to say I’m a great writer or anything, but certainly great writing is become in less supply. I don’t think that’s the desire of the people who are writing. I just think it’s the industry and the demand of the market that’s out there. As I said in the beginning, now there’s the need for information now, whether it’s a 140 characters in a tweet or 200 words typed up on a blog or whatever, I think. Everything is going so fast and the time usually devoted to well written pieces is less available.

What’s the hardest story you’ve ever had to write about?

The hardest story was about Fabio Casartelli in the ’95 tour. He was riding for the Motorola team which I followed all the time. Many kilos ago I’d go riding with my neighbor in Canne Phil Anderson and those guys. I remember the morning that he died I was making my way to the startline and I felt this brush of a rider who went by me and it was Casartelli.  I said to the journo beside me, “he’s the one guy I’ve never written anything in-depth about”. I didn’t know 3 or 4 hours later that he’d be killed in this accident. I remember being in the hearing the awful words that everyone hates to hear. I realized very quickly by the urgency of all the voices that this was very serious. You could hear the helicopter coming in and meanwhile the race was continuing on. It was hard to interview riders at the finish and you had to tread very carefully with the obvious sensitivities.

Then the next day the riders rode in a cortège, like Wouter Weyland last year. No one really knew how the peloton was going to ride that day. It must have been about eight hours – they rode really slow. It was a 258km stage in the hottest day of the Pyrenees. By the time they finished it was almost dark and the last kilometer one of the Italian riders beckoned the Motorola riders to come to the front. I remember that it was so dark and all you could see was the silhouette of the peloton coming into the finish. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, but was one of the most emotionally sapping things I’ve seen as well. When I was trying to write it up later suddenly out of nowhere I broke into tears. It still touches me today when I think about it. It was a tragedy obviously, but it was just a beautiful and natural way for the peloton which is often seen as the “bad guy”, the evil peloton,  who were able to do something like this, that rests with me as the most powerful moment.

Watch from 10mins onwards

I hear you’ve been writing a book on Cadel Evans?

Yeah, it’s a story on Cadel’s Tour win. It’s not just about those three weeks in July, it’s also a story about his two years at BMC. It basically starts when he finished at Lotto goes up until him wining the Tour and into the early days of his defense the beginning of this year (Tour of Romandie). So it’s a portrait of Cadel in that period and what has gone on in his life and what went on behind the scenes with the team and what they did to get to get where they are today. Not just a Tour de France winning team, but coming from a pro continental team.

It’s due to be released 22nd of June. It’s my own story on his Tour campaign, so it’s not a biography or anything like that. Obviously I have spent time with him to talk about how things went on, but it’s in my voice and not so much Cadel’s story.

Last but not least, tell me about your iconic Hawaiian t-shirts. How did that come about?

As with most things it was a mistake. This was all before SBS started covering the sport in ’91 I had a couple of Hawaiian shirts…I just like the feel of them. They were good for all seasons. Physiologically I’m the sort of a person who changes with the weather. I put on layers similar like a pizza. I do like my rosé and pizza! I feel comfortable in these Hawaiian shirts. They were easy to wash. You don’t need to iron them. Those were the practical reasons for them too. At big events like the Tour when you are in a car with four other people and you needed the people you’re travelling be able to see where you are. Before mobile phones came on board they could say, “Oh there is Rupert, I can see him!”

Also, the I started to think about the media scrums and how riders could recognize me when I put my arm through the crow. They would know that’s me calling for you know.

And then after a couple of cameo appearances on SBS one or two people made comments about it and somebody you know these things just snowballed and then you get tagged with it. You go through that embarrassing part of it and then you know… A the end of the day I think as journalist you gotta be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. It is an outdoor sport and people have fun with it and you may as well laugh and not take yourself too seriously. It’s an add-on point of interest in my little world and a place of the sport which give people some joy.

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