Magic Spanner-The World of Cycling According to Carlton Kirby
Book Review: Described as “Eurosport’s legendary Tour de France commentator,” Carlton Kirby has nearly three decades’ experience in calling pro bike races and his new book, written with Robbie Broughton, not only provides often-hilarious insight into what it is like to be a broadcaster under extreme pressure, but also some worthwhile comments about the nature of pro racing.
For those without access to satellite broadcaster Eurosport, it is worthwhile first to check the “About the Author” bit at the end of the book to get an idea of Carlton Kirby and his unusual style. “He has been working in broadcasting for over thirty years, over which time he has accumulated legions of loyal fans who are drawn to his witty and, at time, excitable style. Known by some as the “language mangler” for his “Kirbyisms” (occasional strange musings about not just cycling but the very fabric of life), loyal listeners have set up a Twitter account of his humorous comments…”
“Excitable style” is a severe understatement. It is always a source of amazement to hear Kirby go full on when a sprint is in the final meters and he is shouting away, possibly at higher wattage than the riders themselves. This is even more striking because for many of the major races his commentating teammate is Sean Kelly, the legendary Irish champion. It has taken Kelly several years on Eurosport to become understandable through his thick Irish brogue; much of his commentary (when he does speak at all) seems to be an attempt to cool off Kirby. It is an Odd Couple pairing that works quite well. The other commentator with whom Kirby works often is Dan Lloyd, a one-time pro who is much younger and a lot calmer.
Sean Kelly working with Kirby on Eurosport
Kirby is not afraid to tell a joke on himself and the book opens with something that seems to come from “Mr. Bean” as the commentator finds himself standing naked in a hotel corridor as a group of Japanese tourists attempt to get out of a locked fire exit. This is not the only embarrassing position Mr. Kirby finds himself in, seemingly naked fairly often. Much of the book reads as if the author, not entirely sober, is sitting next to you at a bar and is unstoppable as he regales you with well-told stories of his experiences.
All aspects of pro racing from the media viewpoint are covered in very brief chapters that generally end with a bolded and totally unrelated Kirbyism: “My gran said nothing cools you like a cup of tea. She was nuts.” Or “My brain is like a box of frogs on acid.” These non sequiturs are certainly indicative of his style on air but also tend to discount his professionalism. There are only a few tips about how he prepares for races and it is clear that he has to rely on his excellent recall for his work. Eurosport, unlike many other broadcasters, covers entire races, not highlights, so in many cases the commentators have to fill in up to five hours. And in those five hours there will a be a lot of nothing much happening. The breakaway has gone, a non-threatening gap allowed by the peloton and so it will go until the last hour or so—what to do? Carlton Kirby can apparently talk on any topic as the race rolls on through the countryside – tile manufacturing, cheese, cloud formations, heated Benedictine being popular in Hartlepool, in the northeast of England. Kirby can wax eloquently on the making of gaufrettes (wafers) as he actually worked as a forklift operator in mid-1970s at a biscuit manufacturer in La-Haye-du-Puits.
On Tour with a hero… the best of the bikers… a moto god that helps us @Eurosport_UK and @Eurosport bring you the finest cycling coverage via @EUROMEDIA_ His name is Patrice Diallo… we love him pic.twitter.com/LqMpvT0nYp
— Carlton Kirby (@carltonkirby) July 10, 2019
Filling this airtime is really a challenge. During the final stage of the 2019 Tour de France, nothing more or less happened until Paris itself was reached so Kirby and Co. Invited listeners to send in their suggestions about food items that sounded like pro riders’ names. “Stefan Küng Pao Chicken” was one example—this went on for some time. Actually, quite a long time!
There is much related to logistics – driving from town to town at breakneck speed, the frightening French security people, the publicity caravan, and the hotels. Ah, the hotels! In one of them, Kirby inadvertently trashed his tiny room by kicking over a wardrobe in his sleep, which then crashed through the window. But then on another occasion he gets to sleep in the King of Italy’s bed, so it all balances out.
One of his ‘Five Lions’ Bradley Wiggins
Of course, as a commentator part of his job is to interview riders. He shows a bit of chauvinism in outlook as the individual riders he writes about are predominantly British. His “Five Lions” include Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome (“He has no inner demons. He is a demon.”), Geraint Thomas, Simon Yates and Mark Cavendish. From a public relations standpoint, the only one that seems to work well with the media is Thomas, who is engaging and friendly. Froome gives out what he wants to, Wiggins was unpredictable and Yates is distant. Cavendish, for whom Kirby has a fan’s admiration, blows hot and cold. Considering how recent this book is it is unusual that Cavendish is still being described as a contender when his last really good year was 2016, followed by illness and decline and a lot of crashes since. But then Kirby tries to put a positive spin on things, even if it grates at times.
Froome, Thomas and Yates
In addition to the chapter on the “Five Lions,” there is one on post-ride interviews and their difficulty. Riders are exhausted and don’t want to be asked something stupid but they have different reactions as well. Nairo Quintana is as blank in interviews as he looks in racing, while Thomas, again, is a cheerful happy chappy and Cavendish hot or cold – and a cold Cavendish is best avoided.
Cavendish on a good day?
“Magic Spanner” is a reference to a Kirbyism wherein a mechanic provides a racer with a little bit of extra help which is not really allowed under the rules but is part of the game. The chapter on cheating is very amusing but nothing serious about how doping really impacts public perception, and popularity, of pro racing. Although he gushes about Team Sky, as it then was, and its professionalism, he makes no reference to the UK Parliamentary Report released in early 2018 that was critical of the team’s questionable actions related to performance-enhancing drugs.
The magic spanner at work
There is much between the lines that is very information in this book. One of the notable chapters covers money in pro cycling or, more precisely, the lack of it. The Tour de France gets by with significant subsidies from the French government but otherwise there is not much in the purse for racers. Kirby claims that 60,000 footballers make more than 300,000 Euros per year, compared to fewer than 500 cyclists are in that range. He and Kelly checked how much coming third in an intermediate sprint at the 2015 Vuelta would net you: 30 Euros. And we learn a bit about a team with remarkable staying power and zero money and the longest name in cycling: Androni Giocattoli (as it is usually called) has so many sponsors their names fill up the riders’ jerseys.
Professional sports are not just athletic contests but are also entertainment. Reading the candid “Magic Spanner” it is clear that entertainment is also an important role for commentators to fill. Kirby’s manic account of life on the edge of the peloton is a fun read but then, in Kirby’s words, “That’s the Danish bringing home the bacon.”
“Magic Spanner” – The World of Cycling According to Carlton Kirby
228 pp., illus., softbound
Bloomsbury Sport, London, 2019
Suggested Price: US$ 18.00/C$ 24.50.
“Magic Spanner” – The World of Cycling According to Carlton Kirby is available from AMAZON.COM HERE.
When not wondering who he can say things like “It’s thick rain. By that I mean sleet.” and get paid for it, Leslie Reissner can be found seeking out the King of Italy’s bedroom at www.tindonkey.com