Australia’s interest in the Tour de France began a long time before Gabriel Gaté alerted the appetites of the nation to one of the greatest annual sporting events in the world. For this, we must thank Australian cyclists Duncan "Don" Kirkham and Iddo "Snowy" Munro, who blazed the trail around France from start to finish 98 years ago.
The year 1914 seemed a long way off when Cadel Evans became the first Australian to win La Grande Boucle in 2011 and carry the Australian flag along the most hallowed, cobbled boulevard in the world – avenue des Champs Elysées.
This year marks my 40th Tour. While I have not won any, I have followed every day since 1973 as a journalist or commentator, which no other English-speaking broadcaster can lay claim to. It is said there is no cure for Tour fever and I have to agree: July in the UK remains a mystery to me unless the Tour pays a visit. Whether as a rider or as an avid follower, those who have witnessed the Tour de France have unwittingly committed to a lifetime of allegiance to a most spectacular sporting event.
In my early days, I even dodged a bomb while on duty. It was 1992 (the year Spain hosted the start of the Tour de France) and the Basque terrorist separatist group ETA blew up my car in Barcelona, believing I was French. That was back when the 'end of the stage’ used to mean a leisurely meal with fine wine and brandy before the restaurants stopped serving at nine o’clock in the evening. Now, with television providing saturation coverage for each of its 24 days, the evenings are spent driving to the next finish with a fast-food restaurant or roadside cafe being the inevitable end to a long day behind the microphone. Mobile phones long ago replaced the amusing scenes of Colombian journalists with a kilogram of coins – no exaggeration – hunched over a roadside telephone box, phoning in during their live programs to talk to the sleepy listeners of Bogatá. The SAT NAV system, too, has introduced its own set of challenges, often leaving us cutting our way out of overgrown forests that were clearly marked as roads on the screen attached to our dashboard. Or, in the extreme case of an American commentator, no dinner at all after the system directed him toward a town with the same name, but 100km off-course!
Despite the 2012 Olympic Games starting in London just six days after its finish in Paris, the Tour de France is more popular than ever. This year, the race winds its way from Liège in Belgium, through to Paris, in France, with Cadel again a favourite to repeat his win.
I believe Cadel will achieve a podium finish at least, now he has had a taste of the winner’s maillot jaune (yellow jersey). But there are at least 10 other cyclists, such as Frank Schleck and his younger brother Andy, of Luxembourg; Brad Wiggins, of the United Kingdom; and Alejandro Valverde, of Spain, who all believe 2012 to be their year.
In 2013, despite attempts by terrorists, strikers and dope-takers to bring the Tour de France to its knees, it will celebrate 100 editions. What will that mean to me? Easy, it will mean I have missed 59 of them.