He’s best known around the world for his engaging commentary for over 16 years of the MotoGP races, these days for Eurosport, and this year has also been covering the British Touring Car Championship for ITV Sport – but not many of his ‘petrolhead’ listeners and viewers realise that super-busy Englishman Toby Moody was a racing cyclist in his formative years and remains a huge fan of the sport.
We spoke to Toby as he made best use of a rare day off to catch up on his DIY jobs around the house, and he put his paint brush down for a couple of hours to chat about his own experiences, the current mess in Pro Cycling, and a bit of motorbikes too.
You likened the 200pmh pack to ‘a peloton’ when you were commentating on the MotoGP round at Motegi, Japan – so you know a bit about cycle racing?
“Yes, I’ve followed the Pro cycling scene for a long time, with a bit of a lapse in the mid-naughties when it all became a bit predictable.
“I’ve been paying more attention to it for the last few years though, and particularly recently.
“My heroes were Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, guys of that era.”
You used to race yourself, didn’t you?
“Yes I did, but it was a while ago.
“I was in the Worcester St. Johns CC and raced as a schoolboy and junior, mostly time trials.
“In fact, I was told recently that I still held the club junior record for 10 miles: 22:20, and that was when I had only just turned 16 in 1988, so I would have been on an 87” restricted top gear. Of course the guys these days have tri-bars and disc wheels but back then you just raced on your road bike.
“I got under the hour for 25 miles as a youngster a few times too.”
You’ve clearly got a good memory for statistics and numbers, but how much do you remember of that record day?
“Yes, I’m pretty good at remembering numbers, and [my co-commentator at Eurosport] Julian Ryder is amazing at remembering quotes, so between us we make a good team!
“I can remember it was a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-September, but afterwards there were mutterings that the course at Severn Stoke was short… but it was re-measured not so long ago – and is indeed the full distance!”
Did you aspire to progressing through the ranks and maybe one day turning Pro?
“Nope, not at all.
“I loved riding my bike purely for the speed element; I loved the release, the freedom…
“And it was the first thing I was any good at, I wasn’t clever at school, so it ruled out going to university really.”
You worked as a youngster for the Benetton F1 team?
“Despite not going into further eduction, I was always determined to do well and apply myself at whatever I was doing. My folks used to race cars, and so of course I got into them too, and applied for lots of positions in that industry.
“I got offered a part-time job at Benetton in 1989 and I remember I used to ride to work on my lovely Brian Rourke roadbike.
“The following year, 1990, I changed jobs and worked at ProDrive, in their Banbury office. They raced a BMW E30 M3 with François Chatriot, and I was seconded to him; eighteen years old and working for a guy who was winning international rallys – just superb. I even remember the reg. number of the BMW: D116 POV!
“I used to visit my pals who went to Uni and spent their entire grants and any spare time on the usual student pastimes – they reckoned I was lucky, but I felt, even back then, that I wasn’t lucky so much as I was seeing what happens when you worked hard and networked hard.”
But you ended up commentating rather than being a race engineer – how come?
“I remember it well, it was September 1992 and there was a Hill Climb competition for specialist cars at Shelsley Walsh. My dad was an official there and was doing the public commentary on the races.
“I said to him that I ‘would quite like to have a go’, and he was a bit reluctant at first, but agreed to put me on the microphone for some of the practices, nice and low-key. I was anxious but got into it pretty quickly, and from then on I did a fair bit at various races for a couple of years.”
And then the big break?
“Yes, in February 1996 I was out working at my other job – woodworking and cutting logs, and got a message that there was someone asking for me.
“Turns out one of the other freelancers that I knew was working in a rally team and took a call from a chap from Dorna [the owners of MotoGP] to say they were looking for a commentator.
“At that time I had a home office setup with my own fax machine and so on, so I faxed him my CV as requested, then I went back out to cut some more logs.
“My dad came out to find me after a couple of minutes to tell me ‘that chap from Spain wants you to call him’.
“I was to fly to Spain and do a test, so I crammed as much motorcycle-related information into my head from VHS tapes and magazines as I could, and went over.
“They put me in a booth with a pair of headphones, a mic, and a monitor showing an old race – one of the 500cc races from the previous season – and I was just told to commentate on it. After a few minutes a fella came in and said ‘OK, that’s fine.'”
So you were flung in at the deep end?
“Really, yes. I was on a six month probation period, sort of an apprenticeship, but the first race was the MotoGP in Malaysia and off I went.
“And 17 years later I’m still at it.”
What’s the best bit about your job?
“The adrenaline buzz I still get every time I watch and commentate on a race.
“I’m racing with them; in the bunch, braking, accelerating, overtaking, crashing, living it.”
And the worst?
“Well, watching someone lose their life, live, as you commentate – as with Marco Simoncelli last year, is just awful.
“It’s how things are these days, the immediacy with live sport, Twitter and streaming though, and we have to deal with it as best we can.
“When my dad was commentating at a race at Silverstone in 1968 someone handed him a note that simply said ‘Jim Clark dead’. That happened at Hockenheim in the F2 race. Dad just read the note and had to carry on talking, without missing a beat.
“Even though we all know motorcycle racing is a very dangerous sport, and thankfully fatal accidents are not that common, it’s still very difficult for everyone.”
The paddock really pulls together at a time like that?
“Yes, it’s a very small world. It’s strange though – there are people who, although they believe that it’s happened, they simply can’t get their head around it, can’t accept that it’s possible.
“We’ve all had to come to terms with it in our own ways… it’s not as if I was socially very friendly with Marco, had his number on speed-dial or anything like that, but we liked each other and there was a respect there – we had a ‘professional friendship’, if I can put it like that.
“Marco is very sorely missed, he was the type of rider every other rider wanted to be like; driven, of course, but impulsive, inspirational, truly in love with his job.”
Did you ever feel the motorbike racing bug nibbling at your heels?
“No, not at all, but I do have a competitive urge that I satisfy with my own Hill Climb car that I bought with a pal four years ago. We’ve improved the engine and so on, and set a few records, so that’s enough for me.
“I won’t take unnecessary risks, for example there’s one Hill Climb course I just will not do, I don’t think it’s worth it. Too dangerous.”
So it’s the challenge more than the ‘need for speed’?
“Oh, I love the speed element, I’ve taken motorbikes on track days – although I avoid the last session! Tired bodies, light going, dew settling, it’s a recipe for disaster…
“But that’s the thing with sportsbikes – if they were only inventing them today for the first time, they wouldn’t be alllowed: 160bhp or 180mph for 13 grand, or a Ducati Panigale for £15,000.
“When you think about it, that’s the two wheeled equivalent of a Ferrari Enzo! The access the man on the street has to top end technology, £’s per mph, it’s amazing.”
The MotoGP and World Superbike series are now owned by the same folk, Bridgepoint – will that make a difference?
“Oh yes. Has to. Not so much next season, but we’re waiting for information on the rule changes that are being finalised for season 2014 – we should know more this weekend actually.
“But really, MotoGP is, should be, the equivalent of F1 – it should continue to be more about prototype machinery and new developments, cutting edge stuff.
“WSB is more accessible, and should go more that way, be more like the Touring Cars that I’ve been covering this year.
“But the whole thing needs looked at; for example Honda runs teams in both series, Suzuki doesn’t support either, Yamaha and BMW run in only one and not the other… it’s not clear for the public and it’s not great.
The other thing is that the governing bodies need to be stronger, they need to have the whip hand , be more decisive- I guess there’s a parallel there with the UCI too?”
Indeed – so what’s your view on the Armstrong / USPS debacle, have you been following it?
“Following it? I’ve been immersed in it!
“I’ve read the ‘Reasoned Decision’ and all the affidavits from the witnesses, loads of comments and pieces about it, and I’ve been following the discussion on Twitter, via Shane Stokes @SSbike, ‘Inner Ring’ @inrng, David Walsh @DavidWalshST, and ‘Not Pat McQuaid’ @UCI_Overlord, amongst others. There are a number of cycling journallists that are pretty bold – far more outspoken than their motorcycling bretheren in the main.
“Am I surprised by what’s come out? Not really, if I’m honest.
“When Armstrong won his fourth, then fifth and sixth Tours, despite the fact that he was taking cycling from being a big sport to a massive sport, there was a little voice in my head insisting that something wasn’t right here… even Michael Schumacher or Valentino Rossi haven’t managed that many wins on the trot (on a level, fair playing field) of their sports’ top prize.
“I have pals that were jumping in their cars to go and cheer Armstrong on the Col du Télégraphe when he was on his way to winning number seven, and they were totally taken in by the tale. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it; I hate cheats! and I felt certain that what was happening wasn’t as it seemed.
“The latest revelations have exposed the deeply corrupt history of pro cycling but doping has long been known to be an issue in the sport, of course. When I was a lad I tried to get sponsorship for my cycling club, and I remember approaching one of the bosses at Canon Europe, Shaun Pickering [son of Ron Pickering and ex-Olympic and Commonwealth Games heavy thrower]. Shaun wouldn’t entertain the idea of putting his company’s money into cycling because of what he understood to be the potential for a scandal.”
What’s your view on the riders in the USPS team who say they were effectively ‘forced’ to dope?
“I’m not buying that. They had a choice, but it’s difficult because they were driven by a desire to compete, or even to remain in the sport.
“I had a stand up row recently with a top [MotoGP] rider who insisted that he ‘had no choice’ but to race in conditions he knew were outright dangerous, but of course he had a choice.”
Aussie Moto2 and endurance rider Anthony West tested positive last week for a stimulant, methylhexaneamine, a substance commonly found in nasal decongestant sprays but banned under the FIM Anti-Doping Code (which subscribes to the WADA banned substance list), but he only got a four week ban – significantly different from what would have been handed down were he a ProTour bike rider. Why the discrepancy do you think?
“It’s not been seen as a big deal in the motorcycle world, I personally think this is a storm in a teacup. I don’t believe West had this substance in his system to help his performance.
“Why are the punishments different? Good question. Let me look up the relevant regulation in the rulebook right now…
“OK, there’s one sentence on an otherwise empty page; ‘Regulations are defined in the FIM Anti-Doping Code.’ That’s it.
“It’s fair to say that cycling is doing far more than other sports in this area.
“It may indeed be that doping can assist a rider to race his motorbike faster, but a far bigger factor in the result of a race is the potential to cheat or bend the rules with the machinery.
“If you totalled up all the bikes on all three grids on any race day [MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3] there’s a high likelihood that a fair percentage of bikes will have been ‘tweaked’ illegally. Not every bike is checked, scrutinised, at every event – in fact they don’t do nearly enough. I’d actually go so far as to say what checking does happen is woefully inadequate.”
What do you think of the UCI, or more specifically of Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen?
“Hmm. Firstly, if they just get to walk away from this mess then they are getting off lightly, that’s the easy option for all concerned. They need to be held to account.
“I think Paul Kimmage taking the fight to them in his counter-suit is exactly what is needed – and I think he’s going to win!
“If the UCI had anyone with any sense in their organisation, they wouldn’t be punishing and slandering those guys (calling them scumbags and so on) that are now breaking the omertá and blowing the whistle, they should be embracing the offer of insider knowledge.
“They should have been getting Landis and Kimmage in for a chat, ‘tell us what you know’, ‘what are your ideas for putting things right?’.
“Maybe it’s gone too far for that, but my feeling is that Kimmage now ‘owns’ the UCI.”
You’ve worked for Tour de France owners and organisers ASO in the past, haven’t you?
“I have. I covered seven Dakar Rallies for ASO.
“I remember discussing the doping problem in cycling with my boss Yann le Moënner, in 2005, whilst we were in the middle of Mauritania.
“We were chatting about the timing of the tests, and the overnight window that the riders have to ‘de-glow’. I asked about testing the riders in the evening and the race organisers having the results by the morning, before the start of the next stage. Yann said it simply couldn’t happen; too expensive, too short a timescale.”
Valencia is the last MotoGP race of the year this weekend – are you going?
“Yes, in fact I’m away today, a day earlier than normal, just the way the flights worked out.
“I’ll be in the commentary box with Jules [Julian Ryder] and Spalders [Neil Spalding].”
You sound like you have good fun when you’re covering the racing, and I’ve seen a video of you standing up when you’re working live?
“Yes, that just happens!
“Like I said earlier, I’m racing with the riders, I get wrapped up in it.
“I do need to peer out the window and see what’s happening too, so being on my feet makes it quicker! Jules is good at the things I’m not – you can’t have two guys who both want to say the same thing, doesn’t work.”
Lastly Toby, I have to ask; Rossi is back on a Yamaha next season, do you think he’ll do better than this year’s sixth place on the Ducati?
“He’ll be 34 in February, so despite being around for a long time, he’s still not that old.
“He can’t go any slower than he did this year – but then I said that at this time last year too!
“But you’re asking ‘will he win again?’ Well, the bike he’ll be on has just won the Championship. [Casey] Stoner’s retiring too so everyone moves up one slot, in theory.
“George [Jorge Lorenzo] is on his sixth season on the Yamaha, and if the team’s engineers feel that sharing information between Valentino’s and George’s sides of the garage will help them to win more races (and sell more motorcycles), then that’ll happen.
“So yes, I think he’ll win two races next season – I’d love him to win lots more than that, but I think two is realistic.
“And I’ll be there to share the action with you!”
With thanks to Toby for a highly entertaining and enjoyable chat, and a promise that if he can arrange a meeting with Valentino Rossi for me, I’ll make sure he gets to meet his childhood hero, one Stephen Roche!