For 100 years the Tour de France has captured the imagination like no other sporting event. Which explains why each July, cycling devotees treat the world’s greatest cycle race as a veritable religion, going to extreme lengths to absorb every one of the 21 stages covering 3500-plus kilometres.
That could mean striking out into the late-evening chill to meet up at one of several city bars where self-confessed tragics of “Le Tour” congregate over French red wine and cheese to scrutinise each stage; but there is another breed that takes their devotion much, much further – all the way to France.
Keith Winsor has stepped up from the former class to the latter. A Sydney-based director at Westpac, his Tour de France parties were legendary; he would decorate his house with tricolour flags and jerseys, and invite 20 or so people around for ‘Tour trivia’ and French food and wine, before settling down to watch the race with mates from the Dulwich Hill Bicycle Club.
Nothing like being there
However, for the past two years Winsor has scrutinised the Tour at the closest quarters - from the French roadside. As the cyclists whiz past he’ll be sitting there enjoying French cheese, Toulouse sausage and duck breast and drinking local wines.
His trips are organised by Tour de France Travel; one of several companies that cater specifically to cycling devotees. In 2012, TdF Travel organised a week in the Pyrenees for Winsor. Last year he was in the Alps, arriving a few days before the professionals so he could pedal up some of the most famous mountains in cycling.
“I got to ride Alpe d’Huez last year,” he says. “It really makes you appreciate how tough a race the Tour really is.”
Ryan O’Neill, the founder and CEO of Australian Cycling Executives, is so smitten by the Tour that he even organised his honeymoon around watching the race - to the surprise of his new bride.
“I managed to convince my wife we should go on a campervan holiday for six weeks in France,” he says. “It just happened to coincide with the Tour. That first night she said; ‘Oh, the Tour comes through here tomorrow, Ryan’. I said, ‘Oh really? We’ll make sure we watch a bit of that’. Little did she know that 15 of my friends had just pulled up beside us in their own campervans, ready for a week of following the race.”
Tour de month
O’Neill says it’s not unusual for his executive colleagues to put their lives on hold for the month that the Tour runs. “The Tour falls at the start of the new financial year when the budgets have been done and the strategies for the year ahead have been set. If there’s ever a good time to get away, it’s July 1,” he says.
For the past seven years, architect Garth Davies has taken his annual holidays in July, spending the entire time in Europe and much of it chasing the Tour. “I just love it; everyone is there having a great time, and you get a tour of France built into the bargain,” Davies says. “The best way to do it is to stay in a chateau in the Alps. We did that one year with a heap of mates. Each day we’d cycle 100km along a route of the stage and finish at the top of a hill to watch the race. We’d have a picnic by the side of the road and then cycle back to our chateau. This year I’m taking a Brompton (a folding bike). My wife is sick of me hauling around a big bike bag.”
Closer to home
For those who can’t afford to spend a month in France, there are other ways to practise their worship of Le Tour.
Many will head out to city cafes in the middle of the night to watch key stages live. “We’ll see around 25 people turn up and stay to watch the race until 2am in the morning,” says Danny Barnes, manager of the Rapha Cycle Club in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
“The coffee comes out at midnight to keep us all going, and we’ll have some food, followed by a couple of glasses of red wine from the area in France where the stage is being held. There’s no money involved; it’s just a destination for like-minded people to enjoy the race.”
For the past two years Mebourne fans of “Le Tour” have headed to Domestique, a pop-up bar that exists only for the annual race. Co-founder David Chestwig says last year up to 200 people a night crammed in to watch the event live on a big HD screen.
“We’re expecting up to 300 this year, we had to turn people away last time,” Chestwig says. “You can always spot the Tour fanatics; they arrive in the colours of their favourite teams. We certainly see a lot of Lycra on the night.”
Chestwig says not everyone who turns up at Domestique is an ardent cycling fan. “I was talking to this one woman last year and she told me she doesn’t really follow the cycling but loves sitting at the bar with a glass of red and looking at the castles and the countryside.”
This year Domestique will be popping up in Kerr Street, Fitzroy, in an event space called The Baron Said.
The 101st Tour de France runs from Saturday, July 5 to Sunday July 27 and covers a distance of 3664 kilometres.