Tomo's 25 Tours: a celebration of our commitment to the Tour de France

Today we launch a new online documentary series, 'Tomo's 25 Tours' to celebrate not only SBS' 30-edition commitment to the Tour de France, but Mike Tomalaris' impact on cycling in Australia since covering his first Tour de France in 1996.

Celebrate Mike Tomalaris' contribution to cycling in Australia with new online documentary series Tomo's 25 Tours

Celebrate Mike Tomalaris' contribution to cycling in Australia with new online documentary series Tomo's 25 Tours Source: Supplied

I can vividly remember the first day I arrived to report on my maiden Tour de France for SBS.

It was a Thursday evening. I made a bee-line to the city of Den Bosch in The Netherlands for the Tour's Grand Depart. 

The year was 1996. 

I heard and learned so much about the history of the world's biggest annual sporting event, but couldn't really appreciate its enormity and significance on a world scale until I arrived.

I quickly learned the Tour was massive then - as it is now.

Tomo on debut in 1996 with his crew
Tomo on debut in 1996 with his crew Source: Mike Tomalaris

But 24 years ago the three-week spectacle was essentially a race for Europeans which only gained international popularity by "outsiders" from English-speaking nations such as Australia and North America, through the increased coverage on television.

I'll be honest - I was excited to be at Le Tour for the first time, but a little apprehensive at leaving my post as a reporter based in England covering the European Football Championships (Euro 96) in the weeks prior.

It's not commonly known that I was a journalist and commentator in world football - the world game - before I was attached to the Tour for as long as I have.

At Euro 96, I was traversing across the hotbed cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds in the north, covering an event for SBS rivalled only in terms of popularity and prestige, by the FIFA World Cup.

When the boss told me "we want you to travel to the Netherlands for the Tour start and 'Australianise' the event" my initial reaction was "really?"
"But I'm having such a wonderful time here in England and the tournament is reaching the pointy end," I replied.

Nonetheless, I took on the assignment which turned out to be a career-defining move.

My job was essentially to top-and-tail the daily highlights packages screening at 6pm at the time, and talk to the Aussies slowly making a mark in world cycling.

The three Australians that made the 1996 start line were Neil Stephens, Patrick Jonker and Scott Sunderland.

They followed in the footsteps of Phil Anderson and before the "Aussie Arrival" of Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady. Henk Vogels, Brad McGee, Baden Cooke and Allan Davis, to name a few.

Tomo at the 1996 Tour de France
Tomo at the 1996 Tour de France Source: Mike Tomalaris

I honestly thought my first Tour would most likely be my last.

Little did I realise the snowball effect the magnificent event would have on Australian television viewers and to be still involved in 2020.

The reasons for SBS management sticking with the Tour over the years is ten-fold. None less than the spectacular television images that are provided by the French host broadcaster.

Although viewing numbers were tiny back in 1996, word soon got out of this brilliant spectacle called Le Tour.

Although some viewers didn't quite understand the concept of a three-week bike race, most were attracted to the coverage for everything else the Tour has to offer. And it is so much more than the just the pushing of pedals.

The success of the Australian riders was also responsible for the growth in viewing numbers. The lads from "down under" arrived in droves and were not just making up the numbers for their respective trade teams.

Gone were the days when it was simply an achievement for Aussies to be selected in Tour teams. They had come to Europe for a reason - to win! And win they did.

From O'Grady's three-day stint in the yellow jersey and stage victory in 1998 to McEwen's breakthrough victory on the final day in Paris in 1999, Australian riders gained an affinity with European cycling fans.

The Tour, for a small television crew, wasn't easy back then.

Tomo with former Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini at the 1996 Tour de France
Tomo with former Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini at the 1996 Tour de France Source: Mike Tomalaris

The days were long in our efforts to produce a quality product and to "go beyond the call of duty."

But I knew from the moment I arrived the Tour was a different beast from anything I had previously covered as a journalist in my career.

From reporting at FIFA World Cup tournaments and Olympic Games, the Tour was unique in every way - and still is today.

You're on the road from start to finish. There is no let-up for members of the media especially in the days of pre-internet and GPS.

Unlike many other sports it's not confined to one location such as a football field, a basketball court or a golf course. I mean, let's face it you could be in any city of any country when covering these sports.

Not surprisingly, French was the language of the Tour. Press releases, media conferences, rider interviews (with non-English-speaking cyclists) were all done in French. A language so foreign to us back then.

Fast-forward 24 years and English has become the language of the Tour with French a close second. Why? It's now a global event.

The number of non-French and non-European riders has provided the catalyst for the Tour's international appeal in the 21st century.

Most Europeans under the age of 50 years prefer to speak the "trendy" English language. As a result it's made our job at SBS much easier.

In 2020, SBS celebrates 30 editions of Tour de France coverage - quite a milestone.

The commitment, the passion and love for the event runs deep among us all at the multicultural national broadcaster.

From the numerous managing directors and program executives who have come and gone since 1991, to staff members that may not necessarily be directly involved in production, I can honestly claim the Tour runs through the veins of every SBS employee.

These days the Tour is an important and significant part of SBS's annual program schedule.

Along with the FIFA World Cup and the Eurovision Song Contest, it attracts advertising revenue from the corporate world, and therefore eases the burden of relying on government funding to operate.

Advertisers and sponsors clamour over each other every year for a slice of the Tour pie. 

Above all, we like to think we've changed the television viewing habits of Australians every July.
The Tour is a release from the traditional "footy" codes we tend to watch in the colder months, and a form of escapism for those with dreams to travel to Europe as a holiday destination.

Of course, cycling has become a huge sport and recreation among regular Australians as a result of the Tour coverage on SBS.

We've come to know the riders, share their journey, their exploits, their emotion and triumphs.

And when the Tour is over for another year a huge section of viewers will either jump on two wheels themselves or wait for the Tour's next edition 12 months later.

Where would we be without the Tour de France on SBS? For 30 memorable editions, SBS has given the Tour the TLC it deserves. SBS is the home of the Tour and hopefully always will be.

Here's to another 30 years of wonderful television.

Tomo's 25 Tours

Episode 1: 15 June – 1996 Tour Debut

Episode 2: 17 June - 1997 The Aussie Arrival

Episode 3: 19 June – 1998 O’Grady Wears Yellow

Episode 4: 22 June - 1999 Robbie McEwen

Episode 5: 24 June - 2003 Centenary Tour

Episode 6: 26 June - The Lance Era

Episode 7: 29 June - Team Lotto - Cadel and Robbie

Episode 8: 1 July - SBS Early Years

Episode 9: 3 July - The Passion for the Tour de France

Episode 10: 6 July - 2011 Cadel Evans

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7 min read
Published 15 June 2020 at 2:46pm
By Mike Tomalaris