IT’S watched by millions of fans around the world, some of whom are not all that interested in the actual racing. LAWRENCE MONEY investigates the sex appeal of the Tour de France:
IT WAS a broken ankle that first drew my attention to the remarkable attraction that sweaty blokes on bikes seem to have for the female of the species. In particular, sweaty blokes on bikes in the Tour de France. The bonny bride mentioned it one day in passing. “My friend Deb loves the Tour de France,” she said. “Started watching it in 2006 when she was convalescing with an ankle in plaster – she’s been hooked ever since.”
Really? The Tour de France? All that lycra? All those shaven legs? I gave Debra Beasley a buzz. Yes, she said, she had gone back to live with her parents while the ankle healed and she began watching the Tour with her dear old dad. “I started getting into it, trying to work it all out. Who was winning each stage, the strategy behind it all. Now I watch it every year. I particularly like Gabrielle Gate’s segment where he takes you to the areas along the route, shows the cuisine, the wines.”
The hunky fellas – well-toned muscles shiny with the sweat of frantic competition – have not gone unnoticed either. “There was one rider in particular,” says Deb, “a Swiss rider named Fabian Cancellara who was pretty gorgeous, but he’s retired now.”
I soon learned that Deb’s fascination with those cycling heroes was not unique. The bonny bride’s matron of honour, Annette, turned out to be a Tour junkie too. Loves the glimpses of the French countryside, the colour, the movement, those sexy blokes. So I was not surprised to see a series of Tour de France paintings bob up on Melbourne art teacher Kate Bond’s Facebook page recently, worked up from sketches she made two years ago when she watched the race live in France.
Same story. Kate puts aside three weeks each year to follow the race on TV. So what is this magic that draws her in? “It’s not just the bikes,” says Kate. “It’s the whole aspect of this enormous event. My husband Ed watches with me. He has a couple of racing bikes. I suspect we see only the tip of the iceberg with the Tour. We don’t see the management, don’t see the admin, but we see these glorious athletes and it’s so entertaining. It’s brilliant.”
Kate will be back in Paris next week, recharging the batteries for another batch of Tour paintings from her previous sketches. “On the first Sunday of the month the Champs Elysees is closed for the public to walk along,” she says. “That’s what I want to do. Each July It’s the scene for a final, horrifying flat-out sprint for the Tour. The race is already won the previous day but they yet again put themselves in peril.”
Such is the passion — much as it was when the Tour started in 1903. Launched as a circulation–booster for L’Auto newspaper, the event was almost cancelled the following year because of the inflamed emotions. Cheating was widespread, riders were beaten up by rival fans and the leaders in 1904 were disqualified. But the race did its job with circulation – L’Auto’s sales rose from 25,000 to 65,000 that first year and by 1908 they hit 250,000. Its main competitor, the Le Velo newspaper, went out of business.
Next year’s Tour will be the 105th (it was put on ice during the two World Wars) and the female spectators will no doubt, be just as keen. But females won’t be competing. The Tour has always been a male domain. A half-hearted attempt at a women’s version was made between 1984 and 2009 with a pared-down event called the Tour Cycliste Feminin, Smaller prizemoney, shorter length, fizzled through lack of funding.
The blokes cycle on. The sheilas keep watching.
Kate Bond’s Tour de France exhibition will be at Croydon’s Wyreena Community Arts Gallery in 2018.
Lawrence Money has twice been named Victoria's best newspaper columnist by the Melbourne Press Club. He wrote columns for 37 years on the Melbourne Herald, Sunday Age and daily Age -- and in Royalauto and Your Sport magazines -- before retiring in 2016 after a 50-year career in journalism.
He still treads the speaking circuit, does radio gigs, tweets on @lozzacash and chases a long-gone 13 golf handicap. He clings to the eternal hope that the Melbourne Demons will once again win a flag.