What does the Tour de France mean to you?

Cadel Evans in front the Arc de Triomphe as he celebrates winning the Tour de France in 2011.
Cadel Evans in front the Arc de Triomphe as he celebrates winning the Tour de France in 2011. Photo: Pascal Rossignol

If you ride a bicycle regularly, do you have to care about the Tour de France?

I've been thinking about this after a recent exchange with a fellow cyclist, who said everyone in his office knows he cycles to work, and every July they want to talk to him about the world's biggest race.

"It's crazy, because I couldn't give a rat's about the event," he said, or words to that effect.

Australia's Orica-GreenEDGE on their way to winning the team time trial in this year's Tour de France.
Australia's Orica-GreenEDGE on their way to winning the team time trial in this year's Tour de France. Photo: Getty

It's not just the Tour. A larger question is, what impact does the professional sport of cycling – with its victories, its star performers and its controversies, many of them doping-related – have on everyday cycling, and the perception of cycling by the wider community?

Britain is undergoing something of a cycling renaissance at present, and many have claimed that recent sporting successes have helped to drive acceptance and awareness of cycling. Last year's Tour de France win by Bradley Wiggins (subsequently knighted) and a fistful of cycling medals at the 2012 London Olympics certainly kept Spandex in the spotlight.

Of course, this razzle-dazzle is only part of the picture. Consider London, with its congestion charge, a well-funded share bike scheme that's not strangled by helmet laws, and plans to spend a further $1 billion on cycling infrastructure – sensible and forward-thinking measures to make the city cleaner and more liveable in the future.

Simon Gerrans of Australia in the yellow race leader's jersey with his Orica GreenEDGE teammates.
Simon Gerrans of Australia in the yellow race leader's jersey with his Orica GreenEDGE teammates. Photo: Getty

Did Cadel Evans' Tour victory in 2011 help bring a better attitude to cycling in Australia? Will media coverage of Orica-GreenEDGE's four-day hold on the yellow jersey in this year's event have a beneficial effect on interactions between motorists and cyclists? It's hard to know.

One of the curiosities of that wonderful invention, the bicycle, is that it defies categorisation.

Is cycling a sport and recreation activity, or is it more importantly a means of transport? Or should it fall under the "health and wellbeing" category for its beneficial physical and psychological effects? You'll note I used the phrase "ride a bicycle" in the first paragraph – many people who travel by two wheels every day do not think of themselves as "cyclists".

Nevertheless, sports stars can often be expected to be across all aspects of bicycling, and this can lead to conflicts. A case in point was a press conference with Sir Bradley, after a cyclist was run over and killed by a bus near an Olympic venue.

Although clearly fatigued from racing, and saying "I'm probably the last person to be on the soapbox", his comments about his perceptions of cyclist behaviour, road danger and legal responsibility in accidents caused controversy in the advocacy community, and he subsequently had to spend a lot of time clarifying his views.

But let's give it some context – imagine racing driver Mark Webber, interviewed after a grand prix, being asked whether he thought CBD speed limits should be dropped to 40km/h?

It's true that in Australia we love our sports stars. If they're winning medals, they're heroes, be it for running, shooting or synchronised swimming. But does this mean a bit of that love attaches to the sport itself?

Or, can it even have the opposite effect? I've heard too many people ridicule recreational cyclists for their gear and apparel. Even though you might ride some 100km on a Saturday morning, "you're not Lance Armstrong", and so shouldn't be wearing cycling-specific clothing, in their eyes. (Haters gotta hate - somehow, similar prejudice never attaches itself to runners wearing compression garments, swimmers in budgie-smugglers or surfers in wetsuits.)

Personally, I love cycling in all its forms. I cycle for fitness, utility and holidays, and gleefully sacrifice my Julys to watching the Tour de France. In an inspired window of work/life balance, I have been running a nightly live blog on Fairfax websites for every stage of the tour this year.

I know there are many keen cyclists who don't care about professional cycling. I also know there are people who love watching the Tour de France, but almost never ride a bike. And some have been inspired to start riding bikes by watching the Tour de France.

I'd like to think that good feelings about Australia's successes on the world stage help to make our society feel better about all aspects of cycling.

But at the very least, perhaps the best message the public can take away from the Tour de France is to realise how exposed bike riders are. Be they racers, commuters or day-trippers, all cyclists, with their lightweight bikes and largely unprotected bodies, are vulnerable road users – including the supermen of the sport, as they fly up and down the Alpine passes.

Even if we don't all choose to spend our time watching them, we need to look out for them.

Do you think the public's good feelings about professional cycling success flows on to cycling in general? Are you a bicycle rider who isn't at all interested in cycle races?

Tour de France live blog, nightly from 10pm

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter