“I’m a good sprinter, but I’ve got no endurance. Even 100 metres is too far for me. I enjoy my cycling, but don’t have the right physiology for it.”
A trim, slim Jonathan Edwards sits across the table, possibly playing down his bike riding prowess whilst describing his running ability, but probably not. This Olympic and world champion, and long-time triple jump world record holder, doesn’t really go in for the humblebrag schtick. He was genuinely an okay young athlete – nothing special, winning at school, but not showing huge potential. Once at university in Durham, studying physics, it all clicked, and this late-developing performer beat the world.
“It is a very unlikely story, but more so for me because I wasn’t that good when I was younger,” Edwards says, regarding his athletics career that exploded into the public consciousness following the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg. He broke the world record twice within the space of 20 minutes, recording 18.29m (or 60 feet in old money), a distance that still stands today. Yet Bob Beamon’s phenomenal long jump record set in 1968, which went unbeaten for the best part of 23 years, seems to attract mention far more than the equally impressive jump by Edwards.
“Beamon suddenly made a massive improvement on the previous record,” Edwards explains. “That said, mine was a 30cm improvement, and I broke it twice in one day. Interestingly, the current long jump record holder, Mike Powell, has held it longer than Beamon did. Beamon was 1968-91, then ‘91 to present day. This year I will have held my record as long as Bob Beamon.”
Post-athletics, Edwards proved to be an adept TV presenter, working for the BBC covering a variety of sports, before joining Eurosport in 2017. Thrown in at the deep end at that year’s Giro d’Italia, he’d have been under scrutiny from a fickle, knowledgeable and often highly critical Eurosport audience. Edwards flourished, thankfully, but not without initial reservations.
“I desperately wanted to do it, but I was petrified before doing the Giro. Firstly, will I survive three weeks on the road? I like travel, but I like my home comforts too. Actually, after two or three days, I sent a text to my agent saying I’m never doing a Grand Tour again! But you just need to get in the mindset of, whatever happens, don’t get stressed. And it completely changed.
“And for the Tour, I couldn’t tell you whether I had been away for a week, a month, or a year. A completely different existence, and I loved it, being in the Grand Tour bubble. If you let bad hotels, long transfers and rubbish food get under your skin, you are not going to enjoy it. It was a good life lesson. I don’t know if it came from being an athlete: always planning ahead, the next competition, accepting a bit of compromise.”
Yet the Giro has its advantages, as anyone working on the race will tell you: “The food is great, so is the coffee. I think we ate our weight in paninis at the Giro,” Edwards claims, despite his svelte appearance. And the Tour? “It’s all fermé by 9pm. You think: does anybody live in France? It wasn’t quite as romantic as I thought it would be.”
As host for the pre- and post-stage shows on Eurosport, Edward’s role is to set up the day ahead with the help of his former professional co-stars, then analyse the race in a manner that even a first-timer can understand. Lest we forget, cycling is not the simplest of sports to comprehend – especially Grand Tour races.
“I have got Brian Smith or Sean Kelly or whoever beside me. I need to get us on air, off air, and get the best out of the experts. So I need a reasonable knowledge of the main stories, but I am setting the scene. I am not the expert, but I know enough to get the best out of them. It’s almost like a narrative. For the Tour, I pretty much watch every second of the stage. I don’t need to necessarily, but I want to get the narrative right in my head. I want the whole picture.
“If I think they are using too much jargon and making assumptions on the part of the audience, I can say ‘but what do you mean by that? Explain.’ And I think I’ve enough knowledge to know if it’s not clear.”
Edwards’ love of cycling goes back to the 1996 Tour and Miguel Indurain’s attempt on a record sixth consecutive win. All hope for the Spaniard’s ambitions went out the window on the road to Les Arcs at the end of the first week. “The commentary was in French: ‘Indurain est lâché’. He was dropped on a climb. I remember it vividly. I also remember my early days of watching cycling and wondering how it worked. He’s in the lead, but he’s not in the lead…
“And that goes back to being a presenter. Hopefully, you can explain these things to people who are watching for the first time.”
In the post-Indurain era, it was Lance Armstrong who caught Edwards’ eye, unpopular as that admission might be in these enlightened times. “I always loved Lance. And for all that we know now, it doesn’t take away the emotion of watching it at the time and loving it.”
Having come from athletics, where the next doping scandal is always just around the corner, to another sport where drug misuse is a permanent fixture, Edwards’ thoughts on the respective approaches to cheating are interesting. Athletics attempts to brush transgressions under the carpet, while cycling takes a more pragmatic approach.
“There is a completely different mindset in cycling to athletics regarding doping – acceptance is the wrong word, but there is a realism about it, maybe because cycling has been more open about it. In athletics, perhaps it is not admitted.
“If there is a group of people that deserve anger and annoyance, it’s governing bodies. They are the ones that are there to police the sport. People are always going to push the boundaries. I love cycling but I wouldn’t want to be a cyclist in a million years. It’s all about pain, potential disaster, such a hard sport. The hardest. You can see why people take drugs, and it is up to the governing body to deal with that.”
Edwards shows us his latest pride and joy, a gorgeous steel bike featuring the Ritchey Break-Away system that will allow him to pack the machine into a suitcase and hopefully get in some early morning miles before Tour stage starts. There is an abundant boyish enthusiasm from this fifty-something-year-old – regarding both his new bike and his upcoming work – that is infectious.
“There was still a wide-eyed ‘kid on tour’ feeling on the first one. It will be interesting this time to see how it compares. But it is different every year: a new route, new riders. It’s intoxicating, enchanting, the way it plays out.
“It is an amazing privilege.”