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Oct 30, 2015 – This year, he attended the Tour de France for the 26th time, having reported every winner from Greg LeMond to Chris Froome, yet he’s only 44 years old. And he looks even younger.
Words by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
His name is Raymond Kerckhoffs, a senior sportswriter for the biggest newspaper in the Netherlands, De Telegraaf, which has a daily circulation of 460,000.
Furthermore, he’s head of the AIJC, the French acronym for the International Association of Cycling Journalists, which has a major influence on how the sport of professional cycling is reported on websites and newspapers around the world. It has delegates from 15 countries (including Australia, Great Britain and the United States), a five-man board comprised of journalists based in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, and Kerckhoffs is the president,
AIJC delegates report on working conditions for the press at every major bike race, and these reports have a large bearing on what you can read about those races. For instance, in his report on conditions at this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic, British journalist Alasdair Fotheringham of The Independent, wrote: “The innovation of the top three finishers being available for interview [in the press conference] means we can look to interview those riders who did not finish in the top positions at the finish, knowing the first three are guaranteed interviews. This means in turn a much richer coverage of the race is possible, which increases its interest and therefore makes more coverage likely.”
Other factors that the delegates assess, besides the press conferences, include accreditation, race websites and live tickers, Internet speed and cost, on-site access to the teams at starts and finishes, and the pressroom (including size, distance from finish, noise level, any presence of non-professional journalists and the quality of refreshments). The AIJC’s mission is to improve all of these factors and generally improve the quality of reporters’ working conditions.
Kerckoffs began writing about bike racing when he was a 14-year-old schoolboy, and produced his own cycling magazine that he called Wieler Peloton (or the Cycling Peloton). He printed “almost 100” copies and sold them to teachers, to students who liked cycling and to readers, who saw his “just for fun” magazine advertised in their national cycling publications Wieler Revue. “The main problem was that I needed pictures for my magazine,” Kerckhoffs remembers. “But I grew up in Limburg, where there are a lot of cycling races, so I took my own picture at a couple of races, and I sold some to the national magazine, that needed pictures for amateur and junior races. So I started out as a photographer for Wieler Revue before they asked me to do a little article with the picture, and that grew and grew….” That resulted in him writing stories on cycling for regional newspapers and when he was still in school he was already writing articles for De Telegraaf.
John Wilcockson: Raymond, did you ever race bikes yourself?
Raymond Kerckhoffs: Yes, but not in races. Not far from I grew up we had a training circuit, on closed roads, where the local racers trained two evenings a week. On the few times I went there to ride with them I saw the difference. I could follow them but when I had to go on the front they directly dropped me…. After a couple of weeks it was always the same problem and you got to realize that you are better at some other things!
Wilcockson: When did you report your first Tour de France?
Kerckhoffs: In 1990, the last victory of Greg LeMond. I only did one week there. I finished my high school that year and before that Tour I went with a member of the Buckler team to the Dauphiné, where I made some articles for Wieler Revue. That’s where I met the media team from the Tour de France, including press officer Philippe Sudres. He saw me working there and asked if I was also coming to the Tour. I said I didn’t think I could get accreditation, so he said he would arrange it for me and asked how old I was. I told him I was just 18 years old, and he said: “You are now the youngest journalist in the history of the Tour!”
Wilcockson: What took you from there to become a big reporter with De Telegraaf?
Kerckhoffs: I think the difference you make as a cycling journalist is to work hard, to know a lot of people—and people have to learn to trust you, so they can sometimes say something which is not directly published—but most of all I work hard, keep contact with a lot of people, and then you hear a lot. In my first years, my best point was that I was a good news-getter. And that is still one of my main strengths.
Wilcockson: You’ve worked through the period of Lance Armstrong and the EPO era. How do you feel about that era, now knowing a lot of the things that you didn’t at the time?
Kerckhoffs: I can understand what kind of problems those riders had. Riders in that generation did not find out about EPO, they were victims of EPO. And the problem in those years was that EPO was not detectable in drug tests. Your red blood cells could go to a limit of 50 percent, and EPO was easy to buy. For example, where I lived, there was a place 5K away, across the border in Germany, a pharmacy that sold EPO. So it was very easy to take it, and it improved your performance between 10 and 50 percent. So I can understand that generation, when for years and years everybody is doing it, and everybody inside the peloton talked about it, you can understand why they made that choice.
Wilcockson: How do you feel about that era as a journalist, when you perhaps knew it was going on but couldn’t write about it?
Kerckhoffs: The difficulty is if you look at just one period, of course everyone has cheated and they have lied to us. But if you look at those 10 to 15 years, for a journalist they were fantastic, because sometimes you found something out and you could write a story…there was always something going on, always some big stories. Look at the Tour of ’98; at one point the police went to the hotel of TVM. It was crazy but I was working there next to a satellite van from CNN. That’s something as a sports journalist you never see, huh? So in one way it was also an adventure to see what kind of route we were living…and when you look back it is very easy to say that journalists closed their eyes. We didn’t do that.
We asked Armstrong the questions. We asked Armstrong, what’s this, why this? His answers were also news, for example, if you asked the question, “What is going on with the L’Équipe story about 1999?” [A story that was published in late-2005 reporting that, in retroactive testing, some of Armstrong’s urine samples from the ’99 Tour were positive for EPO.] I visited with him two months after L’Équipe came with that story, and I was the first journalist with whom he really talked about it. So I had a fantastic story. It was his answers—which were lies. But still at that point you did journalism because the newspapers all over the world [reported on] the things he said. It’s too easy [to say] that he lied to you. A lot of journalists are saying, hey, cycling, everybody looked at [those riders] and closed their eyes. But look today at what’s going on with FIFA in soccer, what’s going on in athletics [track and field], what’s going on in swimming, and if I now read the [stories by] journalists who followed the world championships in athletics, there’s just two or three words [on the doping there]. We wrote, as cycling journalists, hundreds of pages about doping at the Tour de France already in those years. So I still think we were better than a lot of journalists who work now in other sports.
Wilcockson: I know you have high standards for journalists in the AIJC. How many members do you have, and what exactly does the AIJC do?
Kerckhoffs: We have about 400 members. It is an association, and our main goal is to improve the working conditions for the professional cycling journalists, and we are concentrated on the WorldTour races, the big three tours and the world championships. We talk a lot with race organizers, with the UCI, how there can be improvements…. If you look now to the mixed zone [where riders can talk to TV, radio and the press], it’s really good that the written press can also do their work there. But we can see in a changing world when the TV rights become more and more important that there is a little bit of pressure to throw out the written press—and so the AIJC is working to keep a good position for the written press and the photographers.
Wilcockson: Give us an example of where you’ve helped to improve conditions.
Kerckhoffs: We made an idea at the Tour de France about having a mixed zone at the start podium, so if you have to speak to, say, three riders from three different teams—which is sometimes difficult at the team buses because you have to be in three places at once—you know now that you can go to the mixed zone and everybody has to pass there. So that’s one example. Also you saw a couple of times that the pressroom in the Tour de France is not at the stage finish and then you had the problem: Do you stay in the pressroom, do you have to get to the finish, or do you have to be at the buses? Now, we’re working with the Tour, Vuelta and Giro organizers, if the pressroom is not at the finish, then the place where the buses have to park is near the pressroom, so you know all the riders have to come to the buses and you have one central place easier to work.
Wilcockson: Did you work with the UCI on the world championships like this year’s in Richmond?
Kerckhoffs: Yeah. I had a good contact with the UCI press officer Louis Chenaille about the ideas we had, because in 2012 at Valkenburg it was a really good world championships for the press; in 2013 the logistics were traumatic in Florence—the mixed zone didn’t work, for instance. Then came Ponferrada in 2014 where they changed some things—and a rider would come across the finish line and he had to go through the mixed zone…. And so we said to the UCI, we’ve got to keep this as the standard—look at the plan in Ponferrada and try to implement that everywhere in the coming years. I think they are really good improvements.
Wilcockson: One subject that Americans are very interest in is women’s racing…and now there’s going to be a UCI WorldTour for women. But, particularly in Europe, there’s very little written about women’s racing. Is there a reason for this?
Kerckhoffs: It’s true that that’s true. And the strange thing is that we in the Netherlands have really good champions like Leontien van Moorsel, Marianne Vos and now Anna van der Breggen. It’s the same if you look to men’s soccer and you look to women’s soccer…. It’s the way it is. In cycling, you see all the big races for men on the television, but for women only sometimes like the world championships. I think that it has to grow in a natural way. You can’t say we think this is important and journalists have to report it. Women’s racing has to grow…and the main thing is that when there are more of their races on the television and more people are watching them, more stars are being born. It’s a way that, step by step, has to be taken.
Wilcockson: But you already have female cycling stars in the Netherlands….
Kerckhoffs: And sometimes we write about them. For example, at the world championships, one day we had two big articles about women’s cycling and only one small one about the men. But that was the week of the world championships. When it’s, say, the Tour of Flanders, everyone has watched the men for six hours and they want to read everything about the men, and so there’s only room for something small on the women.
Wilcockson: How do you, as a European, feel about the progress of American cycling?
Kerckhoffs: It’s not really growing. We can conclude now that even the good years of Lance Armstrong have not improved American cycling. If I look back, in the level of interest that we look at it in Europe, the Tour of California today is not much different from the Coors Classic back in the 1980s. And after seven years with Lance Armstrong and really a lot of American journalists in the Tour de France and in Europe, I thought that cycling became much more popular and that you saw more young riders on the bike in America. But if you look now to the new stars, those were the kids who would have started cycling 15 years ago at the start of the Armstrong period. And I really don’t see a lot of them. You have Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky, but Armstrong was not the main reason they got into the sport. It’s strange but I don’t see the influence that Armstrong has had on the positive side that I expected. Also, BMC is an American team but I don’t see it as an American team. Cannondale-Garmin is more of an American team but it’s also international. So maybe it would be good if one of those teams concentrated more and more on American cycling, maybe started an espoir team for the evolution of young talent, so you have a real American team. For example, U.S. Postal was much more of an American team….
Wilcockson: Last question, what do you think about the health of cycling worldwide—and not just from the point of view of doping?
Kerckhoffs: It’s absolutely growing. I did the Tour Down Under three times in Australia, and the public is really enthusiastic. There are a lot of people on stages like Willunga Hill. It really feels like a big Tour de France stage, and if you watch the coverage of the Tour of California, cycling there is also very popular. And when we went with the Tour de France to Yorkshire, there were really a lot of people. Like in Utrecht at the Tour start this year. But when you go to Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, and there are maybe 500 to 1,000 people at the finish, those races are not growing. So cycling has to see how we can make those races bigger for the public because they are races that are so important to cycling. What I don’t understand is that in the last 10 years everything about cycling has grown, there’s been a boom, but everything around professional cycling has stayed on the same level: no more international sponsors, not much more money in the WorldTour, and if you look at the Tour de France it has only one major sponsor that’s international, Skoda. The others are all French. And if you look at the Giro, they’re all Italian sponsors. It’s crazy that pro cycling is standing still while the rest of cycling is booming. That’s something to work on.
Wilcockson: Thanks, Raymond.
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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.