I cannot remember when my love affair with the Tour de France first started. All I know is that when I first met my then wife-to-be, she was both bemused and amazed that I would arrange my social calendar around the nightly 6pm SBS highlights package. She could not believe that a bike race in some far-off land, and a Spandiard by the name of Miguel Indurain, could hold me in such thrall. It is worth noting that we have now been married for 19 years, and she loves the Tour (almost) as much as me.
So when the opportunity to take some well-deserved long-service leave presented itself, there was very little argument encountered when it was suggested – by me – that maybe we should see the Tour in the flesh. Via the internet, we plan a two-month holiday which begins with a visit to the birthplace of Mrs Smokie’s parents, and ends with the Old Trafford Test Match.
Two short flights (Malta – Rome, Rome – Nice) and the five of us are standing on the Cote D’Azur. Nice is pumping…every back-street is teeming with humanity, mostly tattooed, mostly French, but plenty of others in between. Even after the culture shock provided by Malta, my three teenaged sons are overwhelmed. “Get off your i-pods and suck it all in,” I tell them.
As fortune would have it, our apartment is only a block away from the Tour’s Stage 4 course. It is the day of the team time trial, and Nice’s streets are chockers. Barriers everywhere. Gendarmes working overtime. Spectators bustling. I actually turn to my wife and say “We are here. We made it to the Tour!” We find a spot on an early corner and settle in. I am familiar with this particular back street, as it is the spot where I almost cleaned up the entire Movistar team with the hire car earlier in the morning.
The SBS does a brilliant job, but like many a television coverage of sporting events, it cannot ever hope to convey the scale of the exercise. The Tour caravan is a case in point: it is a preamble, a curious mix of nonsense, promotion, anticipation and manufactured fervor, existing purely to entertain the assembled masses. Spectators scramble for the freebies on offer, mostly caps and tokens, but the grabbing for the treasure is good-natured. It goes without saying that there are more Australians dotted around the course than you can poke a stick at.
All of a sudden the first team careers towards us, then off again. Every four minutes or so a team comes flashing by, and the crowd roars its appreciation. The colour, speed and cohesion are exhilarating to behold. I am enthralled. The day ends with the Australian team Greenedge posting the fasting time, and Simon Gerrans taking yellow. Even I am almost moved to sing “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”…but not quite! We rush back to our digs to watch the highlights – broadcast in French, but who cares! We know the result. I tell the boys that I reckon this will be big news back home.
What’s left to do but take a leisurely drive down to Monaco for a spin around the Grand Prix circuit? As I discover, no mean feat when you are driving on the opposite side of the road, have a wife clinging on for grim death in the back seat, and do not have a full appreciation of local road laws. But I am like Mr Toad: “Beep Beep”, adrenalin pumping from finally just being a part of the Tour. The boys film us driving through the hairpin and tunnel.
A grand day out, indeed. And my love affair with the Tour continues.
Hopefully we can see a little more cycling action tomorrow.