There is something magical about the Tour de France, an almost mythical-like quality that is difficult to put your finger on, but the feeling is unlike any other bike race. The romance, the drama, and the scandal that have been part of the Tour de France throughout the 120-year history of the great race is legendary. I have been lucky enough to spend the past two weeks on tour at the Tour de France, recording with The Cycling Podcast. And I have to say, it was exhilarating to be back in France for this grandest of races, which is an absolute phenomenon of an annual sporting event. The crowds were back in force this year, after a covid-induced hiatus the past few years, and the pent-up energy and passion on the roadsides of France was evident up and down the route.
This, coupled with the emergence of two great champions for the current era, fighting it out toe-to-toe, has made for a potent mix and resulted in some of the best racing we have seen in years. I just love seeing the Pogacar vs. Vingegaard rivalry shaping up, it’s really one for the ages, on par with some of the greatest cycling rivalries in the sport’s history.
For us Aussies, having a true GC contender up there in the mix for the first time in many years, and to see Jai Hindley take Australia’s first yellow jersey in nearly a decade, was thrilling. You could feel the energy and excitement of the Aussie contingent, in the media and among the fans lining to roadsides – and what it told me was, we know we’ve got something special in Jai Hindley, and that’s it’s only a matter of time before we see him in true contention for the overall.
On a personal note, it was fantastic to be back at the Tour. Walking around the team buses, seeing old seeing friends and teammates, and getting that race feeling again, made me realise what I miss (and don’t miss) about racing. But it was particularly special because the Tour de France is something different – it’s in its own league. It’s not a race that I ever got to do as a rider, but I think that’s why I’m such a fan of it. Being there now as a non-rider, I got to really absorb the atmosphere of the race, to understand the French people’s romance for it, and to absorb the intensity of the Tour – just to take in the whole circus.
People talk about the circus around the TDF, but it’s hard to convey what it’s really like until you see it first-hand. The way the race is packed up and moved along continuously for three weeks is incredible to witness, it really is a Tour on Wheels. There are essentially three TDF’s happening, each always two days ahead, it’s incredible to see the pack-down, and how much goes into it.
Being on the other side of the fence now as a non-rider gives a whole new appreciation for the riders, and what they endure. The heat has been oppressive this year, one of the hottest Tours of the past few years, and teams and riders had to battle hard in the face of it. Watching from the sidelines, I had so much respect for the riders, because the tough memories of racing are still so fresh for me.
As a pro, I felt the pressure of everyone else always wanting me to do the Tour, but having been more of a Classics man myself, I was always consumed by the cobbled Classics and I almost didn’t really care about the Tour. But after this experience, I can really understand the love for this race and just how crazy it is. It’s like nothing else, and I really encourage people to come see it for themselves to fully appreciate it.
Invariably at races, I get asked if I’m missing the racing, and I can happily say that no, I’m not missing it. I have seen the level go up so much even since I retired, and the intensity of the riders, how protected they are, and how much more intense their lives are now as pros – and that’s something I don’t miss.
It was fun picking their brains as a journalist, enjoying a few cold beers, and recording the pod for The Cycling Podcast, it’s completely new for me to experience the sport like this, something that as a pro I really underestimated. So right now, I am just really enjoying being a fan of the sport – and being a cycling fan is fun! Who knew.
Throughout the Tour, I had the privilege of chatting with the formidable cycling author and historian François Thomazeau, and if you haven’t listened to this fascinating episode of Life in the Peloton, The History of the Tour, head over to the website now and take a listen!