Stunning vistas. Historic chateaus. Roadside cows. French cuisine. Dulcet tones. And, of course, cycling. For thousands of Australians, long winter nights mean one thing: the Tour de France on SBS.
For the first time in 30 years, Covid-19 has disrupted that love affair. The Tour de France has been postponed until 29 August, and there is no certainty the race will go ahead. In ordinary years, the Tour is a many thousand-person circus, rolling through small French towns for three weeks in the midst of European summer. That spectacle is beamed back to Australia in all its glory, as we sit firmly glued to the couch – blankets providing warmth and SBS offering entertainment.
Stage one was initially scheduled for Saturday, featuring 170 undulating kilometres around Nice. The glittering waves of the Mediterranean, the sunny beaches of the Côte D’Azur and the French Riviera’s opulent cultural landmarks were set to fill out screens. Instead, in the weeks ahead SBS will broadcast stages from years gone by, “as live” each night. A small consolation.
Like many Australians of my generation, my Tour addiction began in the mid-2000s, as the exploits of Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady and Baden Cooke heralded a golden age of Australian sprinting. Cadel Evans’ heroic 2011 Tour victory fuelled this passion further; I would gather with friends, Turkish takeaway in hand, to spend the night on beanbags in front of a widescreen.
As the outside temperature in Canberra dipped below zero, France’s sun-drenched meadows were all the more enchanting. The rise of social media then made Twitter an indispensable companion, with commentary bingo, #TourSnacks and #TrollDJ turning cycling lovers into an online community.
Late night viewing appeared the natural way to consume such compelling television; it was not until I left these shores that I fully appreciated the distinct cultural significance of Australia’s Tour. Studying in the United States, I would set my alarm for 7am to watch the race’s daily denouement over breakfast. Living in the UK, the Tour was an early afternoon affair – a race tracker in one tab on an office desktop, or, sometimes, the final kilometres streamed discreetly on an iPhone.
Australians have no such concerns – our digestion of the Tour is uninterrupted by the banalities of everyday life. For once, the tyranny of distance and our concomitant time zone work in our favour. Cycling may be a global sport, but only in Australia is the Tour de France such a fixture on free-to-air evening television. Since 1990, public broadcaster SBS has shown highlights from the grandest of the Grand Tours every night. From 2005, every stage was broadcast live.
Our Tour is a paradox: cycling is both central and peripheral. Consecutive generations of Australians have been transfixed by the panoramic scenes, Gabriel Gaté’s Taste Le Tour segments and, until recently, the melodic rhythm of commentary stalwarts Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.
Surreptitiously, under the cover of verdant mountainsides and grand castles, SBS taught Australia to love cycling. The sport has boomed, at both a participation and elite level – thanks in large part to the Tour de France. Despite the wintery conditions, our roads always seem to bear more lycra-clad users each July.
Nightly viewing figures average around 200,000 (for a cumulative total of over four million) – certainly more Australians than follow the sport closely in ordinary times. “I don’t usually watch cycling, but I love the Tour,” is an often-heard expression during July. Bleary-eyed colleagues are common in workplaces for three weeks every year. Even for casual viewers, the steep hill-climbs and epic city sprints became mandatory viewing – despite their 1am timing.
Without this cultural phenomenon, Evans may never have won the hallowed yellow jersey; the Australian rider credits SBS for stoking his interest in the sport. Would Mitchelton-Scott have flourished without the default backing of thousands of Australians fed a steady diet of World Tour cycling? Would this nation, halfway across the globe from Europe’s heavyweights, have consistently produced world class cyclists, without Le Tour on SBS?
Thankfully, Covid-hiccup notwithstanding, it seems unlikely winter nights without the Tour on SBS will become a permanent reality. The broadcaster’s deal with Amaury Sport Organisation runs until 2023, and the French group has previously hinted that it values consistency over cash. Unlike the Giro d’Italia, which in 2017 ditched SBS for an exclusive deal with Eurosport, there has been no indication that the ASO will end its three-decade relationship with the channel.
In 2017, I had the privilege of covering the Tour de France. Putting the experience into words was often challenging – even the beautifully-curated television coverage fails to convey the race’s frenetic atmosphere. The Tour is like the Melbourne Cup, every day, for three weeks, in a different place each day. Even that comparison sells it short; the Tour is really like no other sporting event on earth.
Yet as we drove thousands of kilometres through Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, scrambling for interviews and missing most of the actual racing, I felt a brief pang of longing. My rather more sedate lounge room viewing experience, in the company of dear friends and delicious takeaway, is special in its own way. The Tour de France on SBS is a unique Australian experience. In the three weeks ahead, it will be sorely missed.