Breathtaking views. Historic castles. Roadside cows. French cuisine. Tones Dulcet. And, of course, the bicycle. For thousands of Australians, long winter nights mean one thing: the Tour de France on SBS.
For the first time in 30 years, Covid-19 has disrupted this love story. The Tour de France has been postponed to August 29 and there is no guarantee that the race will continue. In ordinary years, the Tour is a circus of several thousand people who crisscross small French cities for three weeks in the middle of European summer. This spectacle is broadcast in Australia in all its splendor, while we sit firmly glued to the sofa – blankets offering warmth and SBS providing entertainment.
The first stage was initially planned for Saturday, with 170 hilly kilometers around Nice. The sparkling waves of the Mediterranean, the sunny beaches of the French Riviera and the opulent cultural monuments of the French Riviera have been set up to fill the screens. Instead, in the coming weeks, SBS will broadcast scenes from past years “live” every evening. A small consolation.
Like many Australians of my generation, my addiction to the Tour began in the mid-2000s, when the exploits of Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady and Baden Cooke heralded a golden age of Australian sprinting. Cadel Evans’ heroic victory on the 2011 Tour fueled this passion; I met with friends, Turkish dishes in hand, to spend the night on beanbags in front of a large screen.
As the outside temperature in Canberra fell below freezing, France’s sunny meadows were all the more enchanting. The rise of social media then made Twitter an indispensable companion, with bingo, #TourSnacks and #TrollDJ turning cycling enthusiasts into an online community.
Listening late at night has emerged as the natural way to consume such compelling television; it was only after leaving these coasts that I fully appreciated the distinct cultural significance of the Australian tour. As a student in the United States, I set my alarm clock at 7 am to watch the daily outcome of the race during breakfast. Living in the UK, the Tour was an early afternoon affair – a racing tracker in a tab on a desktop, or, at times, the last few kilometers discreetly broadcast on an iPhone.
Australians have no such concerns – our Tour digestion is uninterrupted by the mundaneities of everyday life. For once, the tyranny of distance and our concomitant time zone work in our favor. Cycling may be a global sport, but it is only in Australia that the Tour de France is such a device on free evening television. Since 1990, the public broadcaster SBS has been broadcasting the highlights of the largest of the Grand Tours every evening. From 2005, each stage was broadcast live.
Our Tour is a paradox: cycling is both central and peripheral. Consecutive generations of Australians have been pierced by the panoramic scenes, the Taste Le Tour segments by Gabriel Gaté and, until recently, the melodic rhythm of commentary pillars Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.
Surprisingly, under the cover of green mountains and large castles, SBS has taught Australia to love cycling. The sport is booming, both in terms of participation and at the elite level – largely thanks to the Tour de France. Despite the winter conditions, our roads still seem to accommodate more users covered in lycra in July.
Night viewings average 200,000 (for a combined total of over four million) – certainly more Australians than watching the sport closely in ordinary times. “I don’t watch cycling in general, but I love the Tour,” is a phrase often heard in July. Teary-eyed colleagues are common in the workplace for three weeks each year. Even for casual viewers, the city’s steep climbs and epic sprints have become mandatory visits – despite their timing at 1 a.m.
Without this cultural phenomenon, Evans might never have won the sacred yellow jersey; the Australian driver credits SBS with his interest in the sport. Would Mitchelton-Scott have thrived without the default support of thousands of Australians fed a regular World Tour cycling regime? Would this nation, halfway across the European heavyweight world, still produce world class cyclists without Round on SBS?
Fortunately, despite Covid’s hiccups, it seems unlikely that winter nights without the SBS tour will become a permanent reality. The broadcaster’s agreement with Amaury Sport Organization ends until 2023, and the French group has already hinted that it values consistency over cash. Unlike Giro d’Italia, which abandoned SBS in 2017 for an exclusive deal with Eurosport, there is no indication that the ASO will end its three-decade relationship with the chain.
In 2017, I had the privilege of covering the Tour de France. Putting the experience into words was often difficult – even the beautifully organized TV coverage fails to convey the frenzied atmosphere of the race. The Tour is like the Melbourne Cup, every day, for three weeks, in a different place every day. Even this comparison sells it short; the Tour is unlike any other sporting event on earth.
However, as we traveled thousands of kilometers through Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, rushing for interviews and missing most of the actual races, I felt a short feeling of desire. My rather quieter living room viewing experience with dear friends and delicious take-out is special in its own way. The Tour de France on SBS is a unique Australian experience. In the next three weeks, he will be sorely missed.