Please forgive me, dear reader, for the following outburst: LA GRANDE BOUCLE! THE MEN OF JULY! VIVE LE TOUR DE FRANCE!!! Yes, it's that time of year again. Three weeks of drama, tension, glory, defeat and fatigue; and that's just what's going on in late-night lounge rooms across the nation.
I have a theory that a person's greatest passions tend to be things that they initially disregarded or even disliked. That's certainly been the case concerning my mid-life love affair with the greatest sporting event in the world (well, it is).
Until I got into cycling, the Tour de France was a thing of bafflement for me, despite the fact that my best mate was a Tour tragic when this condition was still relatively rare. We shared bachelor digs in the early 90s in a far-off land, and every day the unwashed dishes in the sink would rattle along to this tune, which some of you might recognise:
Andy would be hunched forward in a racing tuck on the couch, delighting in the deeds of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, the Tashkent Terror, while I would wander past saying such clever things as "they cycle for 200 kilometres, only to sprint at the end. Why don't they just race for 10 kilometres and save all the mucking about?"
Yeah, I know. Embarrassing now.
Somewhere in the middle of the noughties, when cycling came to rescue my failing knees, a passion for the Tour came along like a secondary affliction.
There's something Zen about plugging in to the SBS coverage. Like most meditations, it's all about time spent. Sure, there are interruptions, such as work, family obligations, ablutions and maybe even sleep; but even on Tuesday's rest day I found a part of my brain imagining the routines on the other side of the world: recovery, massages and perhaps the odd drug raid.
And when the race is rolling, it becomes an immersive experience. Like life itself, the moments of drama and achievement tend to be separated by long periods of uneventful progress, with the peloton rolling along, chasing some three-man breakaway of nobodies that's doomed to fail, and Paul and Phil droning on and on with the same old measured anecdotes and observations, and gorgeous green fields and helicopter shots of chateaus, cows and community constructions, with those shimmering alpine lakes and flag-waving gendarmes, and lines of honest citoyens shouting "allez, allez," and more talk of "that's why all 198 riders should stay in the front of the bunch" and "this is what's known as a natural break" ... and then you wake on the couch at 4am to discover you've drooled on your skivvy, the TV is playing some awful popera album and you've no idea whose lunge earned him a place among the immortals.
Then there's the mountain stages, where the talk turns to masks of pain, suitcases of courage and "dancing on the pedals", as some of the fittest men in the world put themselves through grinding, searing agony to gain a few seconds' advantage. As I sip my tea I am eternally grateful that my many cycling failures are suffered anonymously on uncrowded backroads, and not with a motorbike-mounted camera shoved in my face while a babel of voices shout into microphones, "O'Reilly's cracked! He's going backwards! Dear, oh dear ..."
Then again, I have cracked on a few alpine passes, and survived to ride again the next day. My transformation from unbeliever to worshipper was complete in 2009, when the vindicated Andy and I spent a week following the Tour on one of the best holidays of my life. In an increasingly faithless world, I can heartily recommend this as a pilgrimage for any true believer. Your July nights on the couch will never be the same.
So who's going to win this year? Write your prediction for the top three finishers, in order, and tell us your favourite thing(s) about the Tour de France. Entries will close at 6pm AEST today.
The winner, as selected by our judges (me and my colleague Matt) will receive a $50 gift voucher to be spent at the Australian bike shop of their choice. Winner announced in this blog on July 26.