Carlton Kirby, Eurosport’s go-to man for cycling commentary, has legions of fans who tune in for his witty repartee with cycling great, Sean Kelly. Known by some as the ‘language mangler’ and 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: Things Carlton Says @saidcarlton. Ride Velo went to the Eurosport headquarters in West London or as Carlton refers to it, “The Feltham Institute for Young Offenders,” to meet the man, learn what it takes to call a bunch sprint on a stage of the Tour de France and find out how to make Sean Kelly corpse on live TV.
Coming from a Sheffield Comprehensive whose school band was Def Leppard and which includes alumni of children’s TV presenter Dom from 'Dick and Dom', not to mention Sebastian Coe as Head Boy, Kirby must have been destined for great things from an early age. But his route to becoming one of the most listened to commentators on TV was not a straightforward one.
Drawing comparisons to Norwich’s most famous broadcaster, Alan Partridge, he did a stint at Radio Norfolk. But his first big break into the world of broadcasting came as the Head Controller of Tuvalu’s radio station, based on a Pacific atoll one and a half miles long and densely populated with 4,500 people who looked like rugby players, “men and women, that is – the main topic of conversation was either about your pig or the weather.” After 14 months without even a telephone he was rescued by a Swedish freighter and returned to the UK to land a job on TVAM’s sports desk. He’s never looked back since.
Describing his body shape as “coming from the Bjarne Riis school of cycling,” Carlton’s large frame and “Popeye forearms” don’t necessarily associate themselves with the skinny world of cycling. Actually his sporting background was as a rower but he had always used the bike for training in the hills of Derbyshire. He caught the cycling bug, big time, as a 17 year old working as a forklift driver in France where he “smashed up biscuits on a galactic scale.” At the time Bernard Hinault was in his prime and when the Tour de France passed through the town he was staying in, he was gripped by what he describes as “the greatest sporting event on the planet.”
Carlton learnt his trade as a commentator in Motorsport and Speedway while the holy trinity of Phil Ligget (ITV), David ‘Duffers’ Duffield (Eurosport) and Hugh Porter (BBC) had all the cycling tied up between them. But it was here he developed the ability to call a sprint. It’s a skill he uses brilliantly in cycling in what he describes as a “crescendo sport" where hours of build up lead to a couple minutes of frenzied activity. He explains how he has to “tell you who’s where, what they’re doing, what everyone else around them is doing, what jersey they’re wearing, perhaps even their nationality and mash it all up, and tell you who’s a challenger, who’s likely to win, who’s making mistakes, all of that information thrown out there…the word count over the last minute of a blanket sprint is just quite ridiculous. I’ll get to the end of it and I really won’t know what I’ve just said.”
He records the data of every stage onto what he calls the "Kirby Codec", a grid that contains all the relevant information from the day: placings, jerseys, who was in the breakaway. It's an easy way to refer back to what has happened on all the races he's commented on.
And how does he fill in the hours leading up to that when there’s not much going on? “Honestly? No idea! In fact, to be honest I think that’s where you really earn your money as a commentator when there’s absolutely bugger all going on…I do have a vast and bizarre photographic memory because I’m dyslexic…I have a vast lexicon of photographs in my mind…I can start waxing lyrical about anything you want: crop rotation, farming of trees, the type of roof tiles that they’re using and the benefits of them, what they’re going to be selling in the bars. I’ll tell you a story about when I went to such a bar, how far away it was from this place. It’s all there. Everyday is about telling a story and if you’re a good story teller then you’ll keep people engaged for sometimes, four, five hours and they’ll still be there on a transition day because they’re just enjoying the breeze that’s being shot.”
He says that his relaxed persona on air is actually a self-preservation defence mechanism where he chills out and starts to crack jokes. It’s these points in the race where the @saidcarlton Twitter account starts pinging. Some recent favourites from this year’s Vuelta: “Nothing worse than a salty tap,” “Looks like the bone meal’s had a good scattering,” “…sponsored by Skoda. There are other cars available” and, “a lot of chicken sheds round here…don’t know why. Maybe they just like chicken.” When a co-commentator declares his favourite wine to be Chateau Lafitte, Carlton’s instant response? “You did what on your feet?” Mikes were off for about a minute apparently.
It’s easy to forget, as a viewer, that all this is going on amid the pressures of “a busy game in terms of what you have to deal with. You have counters in your head, production staff telling you what pictures are coming up, fading in, when the interviews are coming, when graphics are being played in, when we’re going to break, so all that’s going on. You’ve got your co-commentator with you, you’ve got race radio on, and anything up to six screens to look at, front, middle and back of peloton, data screens, history screens, Twitter. So it’s distracting and the best way to deal with it is just to make the audience feel comfortable…I go laconic and people think I’m taking the piss. People who know me know that I’m not. I do tease, but it’s done with great affection and with great respect.”
Of course, Carlton has had his fair share of stick from viewers who can pick and pull apart his words at leisure. He tells of a security guard who worked at the Manchester Velodrome who deemed the commentator to be an arch enemy and would send him poisonous letters of how appalling he was. Another viewer castigated him on his English, directing him to a grammar site after signing off “from Sean and I” rather than, “Sean and me.” Meanwhile he was savaged by one viewer for being too pro-Sky, while another berated him for being anti-Sky. He took great pleasure in introducing the two. But the response he gets from the public is overwhelmingly positive, he says. “There are just so many genuinely really nice people and I’m stunned by the warmth and reception I get.”
Sean Kelly is, of course the straight man in the double act. As Carlton says, “you don’t want two people Charleying around. He keeps me on the straight and narrow.” And it’s obvious that Carlton holds the former Vuelta and multiple Classics winner in the highest regard, both as a cyclist and commentator. “He has such depth of experience at the highest level that I can pass to him a loose comment and he’ll be able to pick it up, run with it and gild the lily. The value added is huge with Sean, and if there’s nothing to add then I’ll just move on. Usually when he opens his mouth he’s got something valuable to say and that’s gold dust. To have that safety net behind you is just brilliant.”
Carlton has spent so much time with Sean Kelly over the years that he does the most extraordinary impersonation of the man. Recounting a discussion about how nutrition has changed over the years, Carlton slips into a perfect Irish, slow drawl that I’ve heard thousands of times on TV.
Kelly: Of course the zenith of the whole thing is pizza. You’ve got your carbohydrates… dairy… protein…you can have your fruit if it’s a Hawaiian, and you’ve got your tomatoes. It’s a complete meal for an athlete. The complete meal.
Kirby: Really? The complete meal? Are you pulling my leg?
Kelly: Of course I am you twat!
It’s a tough three weeks commentating on the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, and the pair spend an inordinate amount of time together, as well as the show's other presenters. Kelly always insists on driving in between the stage which suits Carlton as “there are no arguments about who picks up the speeding tickets.” Former racer, Juan Antonio Flecha is someone he “genuinely really values spending time with…looking at him you think he’s got to be a playboy but he’s teetotal, as good as gold, in bed by 8 o’Clock.” By the end of a tour Carlton is absolutely exhausted. He likens it to pacing a time trial: you have to time it just right so you’ve kept enough back for the end after which you should be completely empty. In fact he claims that he's so exhausted by the final stage that he rarely makes the wrap party with the crew, retreating to his room for a solitary beer.
While he admires the greats of our era like Froome (rather like Heineken, “He has depths he can plumb into that others never reach”) and Quintana, it’s often the underdog that he really roots for. He tips British sprinter Dan McLay as one to watch, while he holds the likes of Cancellara and Boonen in high regard, at the twilight of their careers: “They’ve done so much and still care, they still go on.” Of course, Sagan’s precocity at the beginning of his career, like the time he rode away from Nibali when he was supposed to be helping him, endeared him to Carlton as much as it did to all of us.
In over 20 years in the business he’s got to know some of the pros well. While Mark Cavendish once threatened to slap him on air, they made up when they found themselves sharing a taxi on the Tour of Turkey. Having two young children, (Carlton's are just 7 and 4) meant they had a lot in common, including an interest in motorsport. Now when they meet they rarely chat about cycling but “shoot the breeze.” Carlton tips him as a future motor cross star after his bike racing career. That, or “he’ll make a terrific commentator. A bit like me, he can photomap everything he’s done, even a minor race when he was at HTC years ago – he can remember exactly where he was, where everyone else was.”
It’s obvious that Carlton is a deeply emotional being and there are times when it all gets too much. “If I ever get wrapped up with a rider and what he’s doing I just start weeping. I really do get choked up. And I have to cope with Kelly looking at the ceiling: ‘Pull yourself together for God’s sake!’ Human endeavour really gets to me – when Quintana in last year’s Tour really went for it up that mountain to eat into Froome’s time, that was one when I really broke down.” He is still clearly upset at the recent death of David Duffield who he worked with at Eurosport. They were close friends and he remembers him fondly. “He gave me several words of wisdom, secrets of life. One was that Lucozade Sport is exactly the same colour as Scotch and American Ginger Ale.”
It’s been a fascinating and hilarious chat and you feel that Carlton could probably go on for hours if you let him, whether it’s his thoughts on French cuisine: “They’re great at sauce but they can’t do veg, the spuds are from tins, pre-sliced,” Italian food: “The best in the world but the worst breakfasts” or remembering driving through a bore hole to escape a mountain top finish in the Tour. But he leaves me with a special story about a secret cycling record that he is proud to retain, as yet unbeaten. “I actually hold the coast to coast record on [the Pacific Island of] Funafuti atoll... 350m it was. Killed me. It was across the airstrip.” Carry on commentating, Carlton!