The Tour de France I love and hate

A fan cheers wildly during the 2014 Tour de France | LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images


It was a wire agency report on the fifth stage of the 1981 Tour de France that planted the seed of my interest in the race that has drawn me back for all but two of the past 30 years.

That report was about Phil Anderson, then 23 and two years into his professional career on the French Peugeot team. In that fifth stage on June 30, he became the first Australian to claim the Tour leader’s yellow jersey – the maillot jaune – and the first non-European to do so. As memorable as his feat, was how he claimed the yellow jersey; and then, who he beat to do it; that being, the French hero and eventual five-time Tour winner, Bernard Hinault.

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The stage from Saint Gaudens to Pla d’Adet in the Pyrenees was won by Belgian Lucien Van Impe. Behind Van Impe, Anderson was fighting all the way to the mountain finish with Hinault; the Australian was remarkably oblivious to the charismatic but fiery Frenchman’s legendary stature.

Unwittingly, Anderson even insulted Hinault, offering him a drink as they went pedal stroke for pedal stroke; Hinault swiped it to the ground, letting Anderson know how he took it.

For the French media, Anderson’s audacity to take on Hinault, who was then a two-time Tour champion, who went on to win the 1981 race, was a major story. Anderson went on to finish 10th overall in that 1981 Tour, but his ride that day was only a sign of the things to come in a career that saw the Australian go on to finish in the top 10 five times, including fifth twice.

Phil Anderson (Panasonic) in action during the 1985 Tour de France | Gilbert Iundt; Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

My knowledge of the Tour then was drawn only from a slide that my French teacher at school had shown in a class one day. It was probably taken in the 1970s, of fans happily cheering the peloton from their roadside table that was laden with baguettes, cheeses and wine.

But the theatre of Anderson’s breakthrough in the 1981 Tour — how he, ‘the Pauper’, took on and beat Hinault, ‘the King’ — and then how his career progressed soon after that day fuelled my desire to one day go to France and actually cover the race.

It also stoked hope that I would be there should Anderson win it. Anderson never became the first Australian to win the Tour, but the hope turned real in 2011, when Cadel Evans finally won it after finishing eighth on his debut in 2005, fourth in 2006 and second in 2007 and 2009; and that “something’ in the Tour sees me returning this year for the 28th time.

The Tour: The highs to the lows

Still, it has been a roller-coaster journalistic ride between my first 1987 Tour and this year’s 103rd edition that starts at Mont Saint Michel in Normandy on Saturday. Anderson’s 1981 success was the catalyst to me leaving Australia in 1987 to live in Europe for nine years, first as editor of the English edition of Winning Bicycle Racing Illustrated in Brussels and then as the European correspondent for the American publication, VeloNews.

But for all the races those years living in Belgium and then France led me to — from the one-day spring classics to week-long tours and world championships that during that time were held beyond Europe and as far away as Colombia and Japan — the Tour was always the summit of a season. It was to cycling what the Super Bowl and grand finals are to football, but held every day for three weeks — not counting rest day/s — or close to four when I first covered it in 1987.

Ever lasting are the memories of the Tour — some better than others — that I have returned to year after year writing for various publications, now including ESPN.

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Chief among those memories are that first 1987 Tour won by Irishman Stephen Roche, whose race diary I wrote for Winning (often with both of us sitting in the gutter in a time before the team buses of today); the 1988 race won by Pedro Delgado of Spain, who had lost to Roche the year before; and 1986 Tour winner Greg LeMond when he claimed his second and third wins – in 1989 after being shot in 1987 while turkey hunting in the U.S., when he surpassed the French race leader Laurent Fignon on the last day’s time-trial into Paris to win by just eight seconds. Those were memorable years. Then in 1990, the five-year reign of Miguel Indurain began, after which the dark clouds of doping rolled in and pushed the Tour into the blackest years in which many riders were caught up in drugs scandals. The scandals included expulsion from the 1998 Tour of the French Festina team for doping, the 2006 Operation Puerto drug probe, and Lance Armstrong’s 2012 doping confession that saw him lose his record seven Tour titles from 1999 to 2005 and banned for life.

The Tour: Cause for cheers and, sadly, tears

The Tour has not just been about doping controversies, as much as some may argue otherwise. While skepticism about performance will likely remain as a consequence of doping in the sport, there has been plenty of cause for laughter, cheers and, sadly, tears.

You can’t help but laugh at some of the funny antics that can go on in a race. Likewise, at what happens among the hundreds of thousands of spectators who line the roads to watch it. Their thunderous cheers reflect what the Tour is all about: It’s not just a celebration of human endeavour, but also of La Belle France – her produce, terrain, culture and history.

Albeit with rider safety on a rapidly thinning line, the antics of some fans increasingly draws anger. But fans are not always to blame.

Who will forget the 1994 Tour when a policeman stepped out right into line of the peloton to take a photo as it sprinted to the finish of stage one into Armentières, causing a massive high-speed crash.

Or in 2011 when nearing the final and most crucial kilometres of stage nine to Saint-Flour, the driver of a French television car side passed the lead five-rider break, and struck and sent Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland into a barbed wire fence and Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha to the ground.

To another extreme, there are moments of sadness in the Tour — tragedy, too, as the 1995 Tour reminds with the death of Italian 1992 Olympic road champion Fabio Casartelli.

Castartelli was just six days from earning his first Tour finish when he crashed on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrenees, 30km into stage 15 from Saint Girons to Cauterets.

The moment in time when then Tour race director Jean-Marie Le Blanc announced Castartelli’s death on race radio, after he had been evacuated to hospital by helicopter and as the stage continued on towards its finish, lasted barely 15 seconds. But LeBlanc’s words, in the heaviest and saddest of tones, still ring hauntingly loud for me to this day. “We have some sad news to give regarding the rider, No.114, of team Motorola. Due to the injuries to the head, Casartelli has lost his life.”

As strong was the emotion of all in the race – from those in official, media and team cars following the race as they absorbed the shock, to the riders as they learned of Castartelli’s fate after being dropped and told of it. The emotion was similar a day later, on stage 16 from Tarbes to Pau that on paper was the hardest but also fell on the hottest of summer days. The peloton, taking charge of the day from organisers, produced one of the most beautiful yet heart-rending tributes for Castartelli, 24 and a married father of a baby boy, by opting to ride the stage slowly and as a virtual cortege before beckoning his Motorola teammates to ride off the front to the finish with one kilometre to go.

Lance Armstrong tries to hold off tears as a minute’s silence is observed after the death of team-mate Fabio Casartelli in 1995 | PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty ImagesEtched in memory, too, is the image of Casartelli’s Italian roommate, Andrea Peron, crossing the line first in a stage race organisers declared unofficial.

As strong was the image of Casartelli’s bike on the Motorola team car as it drove onto the Champs Élysées on the final stage into Paris — fittingly with a black ribbon attached to it.

The Tour: More than a bike race

But as every year passes, I am reminded that covering the Tour is not just about writing about the world’s biggest bike race; from its scandals and controversies to the theatre of brazen attacks, impressive stage wins and ultimately overall glory for one when it finishes in Paris.

For all, it is also about the adventure, the camaraderie among those with whom you travel in a shared car to and from the 21 stage starts and finishes and hotels in a journey that for a 3500km race can amount to 5000km by its end.

It is about the banter, the blend of humour and various musical tastes, and even the personal habits — the good and bad. It’s about the over-booked hotels, closed kitchens at dinner time, the traffic jams and rollover of wearing clothes twice before washing them for the first time on a rest day. There is the test of one’s patience when things go wrong, and one’s ability to laugh or to take a deep breath when really you feel like screaming, especially when the normally simplest of problems seemingly become harder as the race continues; or to support a colleague whose day has gone awry.

It is also about the moment you get to stop and appreciate the beauty of where you are — especially when alone, such as the time you get to go for an early-morning run or walk in the mountains or a forest or by the coast. Likewise, there are also times you stop and appreciate how your life at times when the Tour passes or stops at some of the economically and socially deprived areas of France for logistical reasons, to fit in with the Tour route planned well in advance, yet also driven by organisers wanting to support to areas and people in need.

The Tour de France may be just a bike race, and forever a dirty one to its detractors. But in the big picture, in many ways it is a microcosm of the bigger and troubled world we live in.

Like human spirit, the Tour will never be free of foibles or flaws. So does that mean we abandon it? After almost 30 years of experiencing its highs and lows, I am prepared to go the distance in a race that one can love and hate, pending the day … well, at least for now!

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