Eiffel Tower triumph a red-letter day for Brad McGee and Australian cycling

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ON THE ROAD and on the track, cyclist Brad McGee, OAM, did it all – and RON REED watched much of it unfold. McGee is now being applauded by the greats of Australian sport:

BRAD McGEE’S cycling career had many great moments, which is why he is being inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame this week. The one that may or may not be the most memorable for him, but is for me, was his win in the prologue on the first day of the Tour de France in 2003, which was the first time I had witnessed the world’s greatest bike race live – up close and personal, as they say. How close? Well, being unused to the chaotic nature of the media scrums that engulf the riders at the end of all stages of Le Tour, I found myself buried beneath it, on my hands and knees on the road that runs past the Eiffel Tower in Paris, desperately trying to listen to McGee explain in at least three different languages to scores of other journalists how he felt about becoming only the third Australian, behind Phil Anderson and Stuart O’Grady, ever to wear the famed maillot jaune, signifying race leadership.

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The trouble was, there was no guarantee he would be wearing it when the dust cleared. McGee had been the 189th of 198 starters, meaning there were nine still to finish after he completed the 6.5km course in 7 min 26.26sec, two seconds faster than anyone before him despite his rear tyre slowly but dramatically deflating over the final stages. As he slid off the saddle, Briton David Millar threatened to snatch the triumph away from him only for his chain to come off 150m from the finish. Millar still finished second and it was a matter of conjecture whether the two mishaps cancelled each other out or McGee ended up with a lucky break. As they say, look at the scoreboard.

Riding the Tour for the third time, McGee admitted he still had not learned to control his nerves properly. He confirmed as much in the bluntest way to the massive international TV audience. Noting that his heart had been pumping at 140 beats to the minute, three times its normal resting rate, he said he wasn’t surprised. “I was shitting myself.” His Aussie accent did not prevent the message getting across loud and clear, much to the amusement of the locals.

Brad McGee
Bradley McGee, Baden Cooke and Matthew Wilson ride alongside during the third stage of the Tour de France Pic: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

The sense of occasion, and therefore the pressure on the riders, is always massive at the “grande depart” of the Tour but it was magnified greatly this time because it was the centenary race, although only the 90th time it had been held because five had been sacrificed for each of the two world wars. For that reason, it started in Paris which hadn’t happened for many years and hasn’t happened since. And just to add to McGee’s pressure, he was riding for a French team, Francais de Jeux, whose boss Marc Madiot, had predicted he would win the great race within five years. Madiot’s respect for Australian riders was so pronounced that he had two others in the nine-man team that year, Victorians Baden Cooke and Matthew Wilson.

All up, there were a record seven Australians participating, including three other all-time greats of Australian cycling, O’Grady, Robbie McEwen and Michael Rogers. It should have been eight because a young Cadel Evans was forced out at the last minute by a broken collarbone. Collectively, these seven young men put Australian cycling on the map like never before.

McGee held the yellow jersey for three days. On stage one, McEwen finished second, taking over the sprinters’ green jersey. On stage two, Cooke, also a sprinter and a rival to McEwen, triumphed after McGee set him up at the finish – an amazing sight for cycling aficionados who were completely unaccustomed to seeing the race leader doing the donkey work for an unknown team-mate. The leader is the king and everyone else is there to help him, not the other way around – unless they’re Australian mates, it seemed. As well as the stage win, Cooke found himself wearing the white jersey for best young rider.

So, after three days Australia was in possession of three of the four main jerseys (the king of the mountains wasn’t in play at that early stage) and had two of the three wins plus a second. My report in the Herald Sun newspaper filled a page with a massive headline shouting Greatest three days in the history of Australian cycling. Big call? Nobody disputed it. The excitement never quite dissipated with Cooke and McEwen still fiercely contesting the green jersey on the final day in Paris, with Cooke prevailing narrowly in what was never surpassed as the greatest moment in his fine career.

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That Tour was won, as usual back then, by the now disgraced American drug cheat Lance Armstrong. McGee never did fulfil Madiot’s prediction. But neither he nor anyone else will ever know if he could have and would have if he had not had the misfortune for his career to coincide with the doping era while he tried to do it clean. Five years ago, he posed the angst-ridden question aloud when he wrote: “It doesn’t get any easier to deal with something that deeply concerns you and yet something you have little control over. Once again, I am disillusioned. And I ask myself: “Could it have been that bad?”

Regardless of the uneven playing field, McGee was a constant high achiever throughout his 10-year career. He was the first Australian to lead all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain. He won two stages of the Tour and one of the Giro. He helped win the team pursuit gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, one of five medals in all. He has five Commonwealth Games golds and two world championships, all in track pursuit events. He is now the coach of the Australian road team and head coach of the NSW Institute of Sport.

While the Paris prologue remains a highlight – “You’re king for the day, it’s pretty good,” he says – it probably comes as no surprise to those who know him well that the Olympic gold medal ranks just that little bit higher. Why? Because it was a team effort. He won it with Brett Lancaster, Graeme Brown and Luke Roberts, and says now: “There was just a high level of trust and respect and a little bit of fear. You’re warming up with three blokes who can essentially rip your legs completely to pieces. But the realisation we were connected and about to go out there and do something pretty special was an awesome feeling.”

McGee is one of eight new inductees to the Hall of Fame, where he joins more than 500 elite performers from right across the sports spectrum. He fits in very comfortably indeed, both as a performer on the field of play and as a good bloke off it.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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