The Foxley Docket recently had the opportunity to talk to TV presenter and journalist Matt Barbet, whose impassioned approach to reporting the news has seen the Cheshire native in front of the cameras at the BBC, on Channel 5 and on ITV. Throughout his illustrious career, Matt has seen it all, from the devastation caused by an earthquake in Haiti to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, to the reception room of Buckingham Palace, where he received a tongue lashing from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh himself. We discussed his status as a Celebrity Ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, his passion for cycling and mingling with the monarchs.
THE FOXLEY DOCKET: You completed the London Marathon 2016 – how did you prepare for this? How vigorous was your training schedule in preparation? Do you think being a regular cyclist helped at all? What made Educate for Life your chosen charity?
MATT BARBET: The London Marathon this year was the second one I had a go at, having finished it before in 2010. Back then I didn’t follow any particular plan other than racking up the miles, and I paid for it! I finished in just over 4 hours, which was fine, but I felt I could do better.
Educate for Life is charity I have known almost since it began, as I covered their story for the BBC. We kept in touch, they asked me to become a patron, and then dropped a big hint they would like me to take their sole place in the Marathon. How could I say no?
In the intervening years, I’d taken up cycling as that first marathon had put such a toll on my knees. Riding the bike though made my legs a lot stronger, so when I embarked on a proper routine for the 2016 marathon, I didn’t have any of the niggles I’d suffered with previously. In fact, I followed a plan I’m now evangelical about called Run Less, Run Faster, where I combined three runs of differing intensity every week with two bike rides. It worked a treat and I knocked 49 minutes off my time, coming in at 3h23m. Now, I never have to do it again!
TFD: It’s no secret that you’re a keen cyclist, having competed in L’Etape du Tour in the French Alps and presented two series of The Cycle Show, contributing regularly to biking publications including Cycling Plus and Bikes Etc – when did this love of riding start? What is it about cycling that you love?
MB: I’ve always loved cycling, and grew up riding mountain bikes and BMXs in the hills around my childhood home in North Wales. My twenties weren’t exactly a time of plentiful exercise, so after getting married and becoming a dad in my early 30s I figured I’d better up my game. The London Marathon (see above) was my first stab at it, but afterwards I got properly into cycling as I’m more built for it than long distance running.
Most of all, I love the feeling of being in the moment. Propelling yourself through the landscape, for mile after mile, is the most liberating feeling I’ve experienced.
TFD: What bike are you riding at the moment? What makes it perfect for you?
MB: As an obsessive, I have four bikes and would always like another! The one I ride most is an S Works Venge Vias, which is the same as the bike ridden by double World Champion Peter Sagan. Therefore, it is the world’s fastest bike… It’s at the vanguard of the latest crop of aerodynamic road bikes, so while it isn’t particularly light, it is noticeably quicker under power than others I have ridden.
I also have an Italian-made Colnago, which is a thing of beauty, a Condor single-speed, for getting about, and an American stainless-steel Independent Fabrication.
TFD: What’s been your most memorable experience while biking? Is there anywhere you’d love to ride, but haven’t had the chance to yet?
MB: So many places, and so many more I’d like to go to. Completing the Etape on the iconic Alpe d’Huez was memorable, as it was so difficult. It was 36 celsius on that last climb, so I’m not afraid to say I shed a tear as I crossed the line.
I’m looking forward to heading to Bormio in the Dolomites next May to see the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia ride through. It also means I’ll be able to tackle iconic climbs like the Stelvio and the Mortirolo for the first time, and on an Italian ride. Just a bit excited.
TFD: You’re an Ambassador for The Prince’s Trust. Why is The Prince’s Trust important to you, personally? What are you hoping to achieve?
MB: The Prince’s Trust is important to me not because of what it means I can achieve, but because it helps others achieve their potential. Young people from all walks of life sometimes need a bit of a helping hand, and the Trust is often there to provide it. It’s a remarkable organisation, and the numerous success stories it has facilitated really motivate me.
TFD: On October 2nd, you completed the Prince’s Trust 90 mile ‘Palace to Palace’ ride from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle. Having recently recovered from a broken elbow, how was the preparation process leading up to this? Did it make the ride, which before you “wouldn’t have thought twice about” more difficult?
MB: Preparation was fairly minimal, so doing the ride was a bit touch and go. I’ve ridden that kind of distance many times before, but not under those circumstances, so to say I was apprehensive is an understatement. I didn’t want to let them down, but I really didn’t want to come off and risk breaking my elbow again. Physically, it was all fine in the end, but those nerves took a bit of getting over. Clearly, I’m getting old and starting to worry more!
TFD: Your journalism career has taken you everywhere from Afghanistan’s Helmand province with British troops to the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Haiti. Have any experiences while in these locations stayed with you?
MB: Of course, so many of them – and covering the whole range of emotions. Haiti was already a desperate place before the earthquake, but afterwards, well, some of the things I saw were like hell on earth and I will never forget them. I don’t really need to elaborate more.
Afghanistan was obviously dangerous too, but in a different way – being embedded with the Army, it was arguably safer than lawless Port au Prince. Flying low along the Helmand river valley looking out of the back of a Chinook is utterly thrilling.
In rural India, I remember meeting a young family with their 18 month old daughter. Her name was 47. Yes, the number. They hadn’t come up with a proper name for her before they signed up with a charity to get some help, and when they were asked what she was called, they couldn’t say, so she became the next number on the list, and it stuck.
TFD: How do you prepare yourself for heading into these sorts of environments? How do you unwind afterwards?
MB: Journalists doing that kind of thing will usually have completed a hostile environment course. The one I did was run by former Royal Marines, who prepared us for being kidnapped, interrogated, ambushed, that kind of thing. But really, seeing the worst of human misery and desperation with your own eyes is something you cannot really prepare for. I suppose the professional distance imposed by the job of reporting also serves to protect you from the emotional toll, in a way, but not completely. After frantically covering Haiti for several days, once I was finished and on the plane home, I did struggle with reflecting on what I had witnessed. The fact I’d become a father for the first time the previous year made it that bit more difficult.
TFD: As a quintessentially British publication, it’d be rude not to ask about your Royal ventures – you’ve met the Queen, and fronted Channel 5’s coverage of the Royal Wedding. Can you tell us a bit about this? How was the experience on a whole? I understand Prince Philip gave you ‘a bit of a telling off’ upon meeting The Queen?
MB: Yes, he did! I was fortunate enough to be invited to a reception in Buckingham Palace in late 2011, and the big names were all there – Her Majesty, Prince Philip, Charles, Camilla, William & Kate. There were hundreds of guests, but we were all announced to the Queen and the Duke, bowed and shook their hands. Once I was back in the reception room where we’d started, the Royal Family started to mingle. I found myself next to historian David Starkey, who was talking about previous monarchs with Prince Philip. The Prince caught my eye, and caught me off guard, so I introduced myself and put out my hand. He didn’t reciprocate, but did exclaim “I’m not shaking your bloody hand again!” before walking off. Mr Starkey wasn’t best pleased.
TFD: You’re an avid supporter of Liverpool FC – why are they your team of choice? what’s been your favourite Liverpool ‘era’? Who’s been your favourite player to don the red shirt?
MB: I was born in Chester, which is pretty much down the road, and my father’s side of the family come from Wallassey on Merseyside. We are all Reds fans as a result, but it also helped that I grew up in the 1980s when they were dominant. Ian Rush was my favourite player then, but Steven Gerrard is probably my favourite of all time. He was a talisman who absolutely led by example, and never gave up. Great qualities.
Catch Matt Barbet on 5News and follow him on Twitter @MattBarbet