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How I learned to love the Tour de France


On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

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Carn Cadel! ... with Bradley Wiggins on his tail, Cadel Evans sprints to the finish.

Carn Cadel! ... with Bradley Wiggins on his tail, Cadel Evans sprints to the finish. Photo: Laurent Rebours

Please forgive me, dear reader, for the following outburst: LA GRANDE BOUCLE! THE MEN OF JULY! VIVE LE TOUR DE FRANCE!!! Yes, it's that time of year again. Three weeks of drama, tension, glory, defeat and fatigue; and that's just what's going on in late-night lounge rooms across the nation.

I have a theory that a person's greatest passions tend to be things that they initially disregarded or even disliked. That's certainly been the case concerning my mid-life love affair with the greatest sporting event in the world (well, it is).

Until I got into cycling, the Tour de France was a thing of bafflement for me, despite the fact that my best mate was a Tour tragic when this condition was still relatively rare. We shared bachelor digs in the early 90s in a far-off land, and every day the unwashed dishes in the sink would rattle along to this tune, which some of you might recognise:

Andy would be hunched forward in a racing tuck on the couch, delighting in the deeds of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, the Tashkent Terror, while I would wander past saying such clever things as "they cycle for 200 kilometres, only to sprint at the end. Why don't they just race for 10 kilometres and save all the mucking about?"

Yeah, I know. Embarrassing now.

Somewhere in the middle of the noughties, when cycling came to rescue my failing knees, a passion for the Tour came along like a secondary affliction.

There's something Zen about plugging in to the SBS coverage. Like most meditations, it's all about time spent. Sure, there are interruptions, such as work, family obligations, ablutions and maybe even sleep; but even on Tuesday's rest day I found a part of my brain imagining the routines on the other side of the world: recovery, massages and perhaps the odd drug raid.

And when the race is rolling, it becomes an immersive experience. Like life itself, the moments of drama and achievement tend to be separated by long periods of uneventful progress, with the peloton rolling along, chasing some three-man breakaway of nobodies that's doomed to fail, and Paul and Phil droning on and on with the same old measured anecdotes and observations, and gorgeous green fields and helicopter shots of chateaus, cows and community constructions, with those shimmering alpine lakes and flag-waving gendarmes, and lines of honest citoyens shouting "allez, allez,"  and more talk of "that's why all 198 riders should stay in the front of the bunch" and "this is what's known as a natural break" ... and then you wake on the couch at 4am to discover you've drooled on your skivvy, the TV is playing some awful popera album and you've no idea whose lunge earned him a place among the immortals.

Then there's the mountain stages, where the talk turns to masks of pain, suitcases of courage and "dancing on the pedals", as some of the fittest men in the world put themselves through grinding, searing agony to gain a few seconds' advantage. As I sip my tea I am eternally grateful that my many cycling failures are suffered anonymously on uncrowded backroads, and not with a motorbike-mounted camera shoved in my face while a babel of voices shout into microphones, "O'Reilly's cracked! He's going backwards! Dear, oh dear ..."

Then again, I have cracked on a few alpine passes, and survived to ride again the next day. My transformation from unbeliever to worshipper was complete in 2009, when the vindicated Andy and I spent a week following the Tour on one of the best holidays of my life. In an increasingly faithless world, I can heartily recommend this as a pilgrimage for any true believer. Your July nights on the couch will never be the same.

So who's going to win this year? Write your prediction for the top three finishers, in order, and tell us your favourite thing(s) about the Tour de France. Entries will close at 6pm AEST today.

The winner, as selected by our judges (me and my colleague Matt) will receive a $50 gift voucher to be spent at the Australian bike shop of their choice.  Winner announced in this blog on July 26.

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  • Wiggins (sorry), Evans and Froome. Apart from the sheer admiration I have for their supreme athletic ability and endurance (anyone who's handle even a small hillock can have barely the slightest appreciation for the torture of the Alpine and Pyrenean stages) I love the scenery. I'll admit it, I'm a cultural cringer! Also, I often drool over some of Monsieur Gates' culinary efforts!

    Peter Solas
    Date and time
    July 12, 2012, 2:56PM
    • 1. Wiggins
      2. Evans
      3. Froome

      I must admit I am a Francophile, having lived there for a year in 2005/6, and I saw the Tour at the start of the Pyrenees in 2004. Listening to the Aussie commentators chat away about the chateaux and the cows makes me smile but what I love most about it is seeing these guys go through hell, fighting for victory. In few other sports do the athletes put quite so much over such an incredibly long period; for instance in football/soccer, overpaid pansies whinge about not being given the ball... in Le Tour, Wiggins et al fight, blood sweat and tears to the finish, with teamwork that puts any other sport to shame as they all fight not just for the team, but for one individual within that team who will take all the glory.

      Potts Point, Sydney
      Date and time
      July 12, 2012, 4:00PM
      • Wiggins, Froome, Evans.
        I love sitting with my wife on the sofa every year, ringing our genuine Swiss cow bell and screaming alez alez alez! The neighbours must think we're bonkers!

        Date and time
        July 12, 2012, 5:41PM
        • Great article, this rings absolutely true for me too! All of a sudden I have become a complete tour fanboi over the past 5 years. The only puzzling thing is, that none of the other tours even rate a mention in my sporting calendar, there is just something special the French Tour.

          Date and time
          July 12, 2012, 5:41PM
          • Make sure you at least catch the footage of the Paris-Roubaix

            Date and time
            July 13, 2012, 5:27PM
        • Cadel for sure. I too sit up most of the night, wrapped up in a blanket, listening to Phil whose voice I just adore. The scenery is unbelievable , France is such a beautiful country. The bike riders put themselves through such pain for us to enjoy. Cannot wait for the Olympics to see some of them on the track. Come on Cadel, you can do it. Oi,Oi,Oi................

          Date and time
          July 12, 2012, 5:43PM
          • 1. Evans
            2. Froome
            3. Nibali
            Wiggins will genuinely blow a foofer valve in week 2 and will withdraw due to 'injury' in order to prepare for the Olympics.
            There are so many elements that I love: the obvious ones of the downhill technicals, etc. But one that I always enjoy, for perverse reasons, is watching the optimism of the break-aways glancing over their shoulders as the peloton inevitably grinds their way over the gap. In their minds they are thinking about "today is my day of glory" but in their hearts they know the truth.

            Date and time
            July 12, 2012, 5:51PM
            • 1) Wiggins
              2) Evans
              3) Nibali

              Late night sessions on the trainer suddenly have a new purpose, soaking up the action and atmoshpere from thousands of kms away. These late night trainer sessions are absolutely crucial to offset the extra calories consumed, primarily coffee, pastries and pizza while taking in the tour action when not riding the bike on the trainer! What's not too love. :)

              Date and time
              July 12, 2012, 5:52PM
              • I hear ya Michael!

                Date and time
                July 12, 2012, 6:06PM
                • I was a tragedy when the Aus. Sportman of the year went to some everday tennis winner, #
                  there is not ONE athelete of any code, persuasion, sport who could have held Evens time trial pace for one minute let alone 50 plus
                  I pick him to win again as Wiggins foul mouth impacts on his performance
                  Wiggins is a very very good rider as is Froome, but it takes more than riding to win, ticker, attitude respect
                  if i had my time again i would be there too

                  stuart hearn
                  germany and buderim
                  Date and time
                  July 12, 2012, 6:13PM

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