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Aussie invasion of Le Tour

Take an ostensibly British team, Sky, make an impossibly gangly and skeletal half Aussie called Bradley Wiggins - born in Belgium of an Australian father – its leader, surround him with eight riders including the world’s fastest road sprinter Mark Cavendish and two of Australia’s best cyclists – Michael Rogers and Richie Porte. Then see if you can knock off the reigning Tour de France champion, Cadel Evans, also Australian.

01 Jul 2012

By Adrian Rollins, Australian Medicine editor

Take an ostensibly British team, Sky, make an impossibly gangly and skeletal half Aussie called Bradley Wiggins - born in Belgium of an Australian father – its leader, surround him with eight riders including the world’s fastest road sprinter Mark Cavendish and two of Australia’s best cyclists – Michael Rogers and Richie Porte.

Then see if you can knock off the reigning Tour de France champion, Cadel Evans, also Australian.

While Evans will rely on support from a collection of cyclists drawn from the US, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Norway and France racing under the US-registered BMC Racing Team banner to help defend his title, it is testament to the increasingly Australian flavour of the world’s most famous bike race that its two main contenders have such strong ties Down Under.

This year 12 Australians from seven teams were at the start line for the 99th Tour de France, which began on Saturday with a 6.4 kilometre time trial in the streets of the famous Belgian town, Liege.

And they are not there just to make up the numbers.

In addition to Evans, who many pick as favourite to repeat his heroics from last year and win the yellow jersey as overall race leader, at least two Austrlaian’s – Orica-GreenEDGE’s Matt Goss and Rabobank’s Mark Renshaw – are contenders for the sprinter’s green jersey, while Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) could steal an opportunist stage win, and Matthew Lloyd (Lampre-ISD) is a chance to win a mountain stage and vie for the polka dot King of the Mountains jersey.

In the absence of Alberto Contador, who has been suspended from racing after testing positive for a banned substance, and last year’s second place winner, Andy Schleck, this year’s Tour is, on paper at least, one of the most open in years.

The cast of contenders for overall victory includes Italian Vincenzo Nibali of the Liquigas-Cannondale team, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal of Team Garmin-Sharp, Luxemberger Frank Schleck of the US team Radioshack-Nissan, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde of the Movistar team and Dutchman Robert Gesink racing for Rabobank.

But in the minds of many it is likely to come down to a battle between Evans and Wiggins, turning the Tour into a virtual Ashes on wheels.

It is certainly something that both Australian and British cycling fans can be expected to play up over the next three weeks as Evans and Wiggins slog it out through almost 3500 kilometres of racing, including 25 mountain passes and more than 100 kilometres of individual time trialling.

The Tour draws massive crowds.

In recent years it has been estimated that up to 15 million people have lined the roads of France to cheer the racers on.

In recent years Australian and British fans have become an increasingly common sight on roadside as the race passes – something that veteran cyclist Robbie McEwen – who works as a coach at Orica-GreenEDGE after retiring from racing at the Tour of California in May – says is appreciated by the riders.

McEwen told Bicycling Australia magazine that although the riders might not have the chance to acknowledge support while the race is on, they are certainly aware of it and he himself likes to go back after the finish and spend some time with the fans – as I can attest.

I was among the throng of spectators – estimated to number close to 1.5 million people – lining the Champs-Elysees when McEwen won the sprint finish at the end of the 1999 Tour.

For the race leader, the final stage is usually a procession, but the sprint on one of the world’s most famous boulevards is hotly contested, and McEwen’s victory – and the subsequent celebrations – made a very long day worth it.

One of the best vantage points on the Champs-Elysees to view the Tour’s final minutes (aside, that is, from the temporary grandstand erected at the finish line) is at the bottom of the avenue as it makes a right hand turn onto the Place de la Concorde, forcing the racing peleton to slow, giving fans a close-up view of the cyclists.

But to secure a spot, spectators begin arriving before 8am, and by mid-morning the crowds along the entire two-kilometre long avenue are several people deep.

By the time the race arrives, usually around 4pm, excitement is high, and the final few laps of the Champs made by the racers pass by in a blur.

Perhaps the best part of the day is when the race ends and the riders begin their celebrations.

The Champs – like a suburban footy oval following a match – teems with people as fans mingle with riders, the beginning of revelries that go on well into the next day in bars across town.

It’s a great way to see Paris and meet with people from all around the world who share your passion for cycling – including more than a few Aussies.

Getting there:

Return flights to Paris from Sydney in July start from around $2500.

Accommodation:

Hotels close to the city centre can cost upwards of $400 a night in July, but if you are prepared to stay further out or do without a bit of luxury you can budget on around $150 a night. But be warned, you need to book ahead.


Published: 01 Jul 2012