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Tour de France Mania

The wheels start spinning on SBS's Tour de France coverage tonight. Legs newly shaved, Mike van Niekerk will be glued to the screen.

by Mike van Niekerk

Those in France can catch the action from the side of the road, a cafe or a handy window.

Those in France can catch the action from the side of the road, a cafe or a handy window. Photo: Reuters

The wheels start spinning on SBS's Tour de France coverage tonight. Legs newly shaved, Mike van Niekerk will be glued to the screen.

When I told a friend I was planning to take two of the next three weeks off work so I could sit up all night watching the Tour de France live on television, she asked me how I would be spending my days.

"Riding my bicycle down Beach Road," I replied. "Perhaps trying on some new team Lycra at Le Knicks in Black Rock. Definitely getting a closer shave on my legs." What else is there to do when you're a cycling tragic in the grip of tour fever?

Oh yes, there's also sitting back for hours reviewing the morning training ride over coffee at Beach Road's cycling hub, Cafe Racer. Except for the next three weeks, the talk will mostly be about whether Jan can beat Lance - and whether we can expect any fireworks from Basso, Bortolami, Boogerd and Gonzalez de Galdeano.

Deft pronunciation in 15 European languages is as much de rigeur for the cycling tragic as a wardrobe full of trade team outfits and a bicycle that costs more than the GDP of a small Pacific nation. AdvertisementAdvertisement

For instance, the professional racing season includes spectacular one-day epics such as Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem, the last of which, if pronounced correctly, like clearing your throat and hawking at the same time, is almost like a secret handshake for fellow trainspotters at Cafe Racer on a Sunday morning.

Such is the lustre of the top European trade teams that their latest designs set the tone for the fashion-conscious in Beach Road, decked out in matching sets of knicks, gloves, caps, jackets and booties. Then you discover glamorous names such as Quick.Step, Lampre-Caffita, Saunier Duval and Brioches la Boulangere make glue and floor coverings, or are banks, lotteries and chain-store bakers.

Well who's going to know that in Australia? Especially when the glamour of European bicycle racing only pops above the radar once a year for the average sport fan, traditionally focused on AFL, cricket, swimming and rugby. Despite rival tours in Italy, Spain and even Down Under, there is only one that is simply referred to as "the tour". It is the ne plus ultra of bicycle racing, the pinnacle of the sport.

Until SBS-TV announced it would broadcast all 21 stages of the 2005 Tour de France live, the best way to follow the tour closely was to go over to Europe with a bicycle, do a bit of riding, catch the action from the side of the road and then retire to a handy cafe to watch the rest of the race on television. Hundreds of Australians do that every year. Ten years ago, I made the trek to see Miguel Indurain, the last great tour champion before the Lance Armstrong era, win his fifth race in succession.

The first stage I saw, at a little crossroads in the Belgian Ardennes near Liege, was both exhilarating and anti-climactic. Having pedalled furiously across Belgium from Maastricht in the Netherlands, I arrived weak and dehydrated barely moments before the two-man breakaway of Indurain and Johan Bruyneel - later to become Armstrong's brilliant sporting director at US Postal - slipped past my blurred vision. Ten minutes later, the rest of the field appeared in the near distance. Then they were gone, leaving a dream-like memory of colour and movement, and a fluttering wind caused by 180 bicycles travelling together at 50 km/h.

Yet just being there, experiencing the high drama of the motorbike outriders, the clattering helicopters overhead, the snaking caravan of support cars and the massed cohort of riders themselves, left me elated and a little emotionaI. I had just witnessed for the first time the Tour de France.

The nature of my devotion to cycling these days means I generally have to take out a mortgage on my bicycle, and my wife is always catching sight of a flashy new item of kit that I will unconvincingly claim I have had for ages. But I am not alone. I have a friend whose bicycle is always black, the hope being that his partner won't notice when he regularly upgrades it. These are guilty pleasures.

More addictive is the time spent on the saddle. I know otherwise perfectly normal people who think nothing of riding from St Kilda to Sorrento and back before lunch on a Saturday. Most mornings of the week, I join scores of fellow cyclists at 6am for a group ride down the Nepean Highway to Mordialloc and back up Beach Road - passing huge groups of riders going the other way.

On Monday this week, as the night fog thickened around us in Beaumaris and the four-degree cold gnawed at our faces, I observed to my friend Ernie riding alongside: "This is what we do for fun."

In some ways, suffering is part of the attraction. Perhaps more than any other sport, cycling requires sustaining high levels of pain for long periods of time - often in foul weather.

Anyone who recalls the Australian Jay Sweet alone and adrift in a world of pain behind all the riders in the first Alpine stage of the 1999 tour as thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour crashed around him will know the meaning of the word heroic. Sweet finished that day. There are hundreds of stories like that.

So the Sunday club racers and the Beach Road riders, never thinking to aspire to such great heights, do know just a little bit about what their heroes put themselves through.

Amazingly enough, Beach Road has given the world some top cyclists. When word spread on Monday that the Victorian Simon Gerrans had been selected by his French team, AG2R, to ride this year's tour, there were smiles of delight.

Gerrans was once a regular on Beach Road and at the Glenvale criterium racing circuit, as was Baden Cooke, now vying for his second tour Green Jersey for his team, Francaise des Jeux.

Cadel Evans is another local boy turning up for his first tour start tonight, alongside Queenslander Robbie McEwan in the Belgian Davitomon-Lotto team.

So we admire Lance Armstrong, we respect Jan Ullrich and we have a sneaking regard for Ivan Basso. But when the tour gets going just after midnight we will be closely following the fortunes of 10 young Australians spread across six teams, some of whom have the ability to set the tour alight and make middle-aged tragics such as myself well and truly grateful we can watch their exploits live.

Now, shall I wear my Francaise des Jeux outfit in honour of Bradley McGee or my Quick.Step outfit in tribute to Michael Rogers?

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