Cycling through history to the Tour Down Under
Road cycling has been growing in popularity for the past few decades. This week’s Tour Down Under in South Australia is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people to roadside vantage points throughout the state to watch some of the best riders on the globe contest the opening event of the 2012 World Tour.
Yet for the first few decades of competitive cycling, the track was the Mecca for large crowds of cycling fans. Beginning in Europe, but spreading quickly to the United States, Australia and elsewhere, the close action on the steeply banked velodromes captured the imagination of the public.
Throughout the first three decades of last century, cycling tracks were built in major cities. In the US, track cycling became one of the most popular sports in the nation. As in Europe, sporting stars and celebrities of the era were regular faces in the stands.
Riders such as the black American, Major Taylor, who also raced in Australia, were feted around the globe for their prowess on two wheels.
Six day races, comprising teams of two riders, would compete day after day, often in states of almost total exhaustion. Riders also contested the Madison, a hectic, long-distance relay event for teams of two riders, named after one of the most popular velodromes in the US, the first Madison Square Garden.
The golden era of track racing came to an end with the Great Depression and World War II. Although it resumed, along with road racing, after the cessation of hostilities, the velodrome never gained the popularity it had in its heyday.
Like so many other activities, cycling was affected by changing times. In particular, the invention of the radio, and later, television, helped to change habits. Of all sports, road cycling has been one of the biggest beneficiaries.
As a child, I can recall the riders in the Sun Tour race through the small town where I lived. Apart from the flash of the coloured jerseys, there was little to see. It was all over in seconds, perhaps minutes, if there was a break away or stragglers out the back of the peleton.
As this week’s coverage of the Santos Tour Down Under will demonstrate, this has all changed. Beginning in 1929, newsreels from the Tour de France were shown in French cinemas a day or two after each stage, boosting the already popular event. The first live broadcast was of the finish in the Parc des Princes, Paris in 1948. In 1963, a live broadcast of the entire race first commenced. Road cycling has not looked back.
Today millions of people worldwide watch the travelogue that is the Tour de France. The coverage, involving thousands of television reporters, crews, helicopters and cars, has spread to other major events as organisers and the media recognised the enormous advertising potential. In Australia, SBS has gradually expanded its coverage over the years.
In the English-speaking world, the voice of Phil Liggett has become synonymous with cycling. Following Robert Chapette, a former professional rider, who became the most well-known cycling commentator in France, Liggett has become the English-speaking ‘voice of cycling’.
A former amateur rider, Liggett eschewed a professional contract in 1967 to concentrate on a media career. His quintessential coverage has become the benchmark of cycling commentary. Together with Paul Sherwin, a former professional rider, with whom Liggett often shares the microphone, his knowledge of the riders and races is unmatched.
Whereas television has resulted in fewer people regularly attending some sports, such as horse racing, cycling has boomed. Thousands of people will line Old Willunga Hill next Saturday for the first hill-top finish in the 14 year history of the Santos Tour Down Under. Although the climb is only about four kilometres, the atmosphere will resemble the great climbs in Europe, such as the Col du Tourmalet or l’Alpe d’Huez.
If Simon Gerrans, who won the Australian championship at Mt Buninyong last weekend, or one of the other Aussies, can defeat the likes of Ryder Hesjedal, Daniele Bennati, Luis Leon Sanchez, or Alejandro Valverde, a winner of the Vuelta a Espana, the spectators on the hill will erupt.
Thanks to television, the spectators will be knowledgeable about the best riders from around the globe who now contest the event. In the early years, cycling followers flocked from across the country for a hope to see some of the best riders from Europe. These days it is a reality.
This year’s field includes two World Champions, Oscar Freire, who has won the Rainbow Jersey three times, and Alessandro Ballan; eight previous winners of the Tour Down Under; as well as some of the emerging stars of the sport, such as the Norwegian, Edvald Boasson Hagen, the Brit, Geraint Thomas, and the French rider, Sandy Caser. Then there are the superstars of the sport, Jens Voigt and Alessandro Petacchi.
In a little over a decade, the Santos Tour Down Under has blossomed from a convenient opportunity to escape Europe’s winter for early season training to a major event in world cycling.
That is a credit to the organisers and the UCI, and recognition of the place of Australia in international cycling. The fact that 18 of the 126 World Tour riders in the field are Australians, compared to four from each of New Zealand and Great Britain, and one from each of the US and South Africa, demonstrates the depth of cycling down under.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…