Tour of dreams: the cycle of longing
Australians have dreamt of winning the Tour de France for a century. Of all the world’s great individual sporting contests, it has until now remained outside our grasp. Edwin Flack claimed gold on the track at the first modern Olympics; our swimmers regularly beat the best in the pool; and our track cyclists often have dominated the velodrome. But until now cycling’s greatest challenge has escaped us.
Ever since Don Kirkham and Snowy Munro contested the twelfth running of the ‘Grand Boucle’ in 1914, Australians have returned to France in search of victory. Kirkham, a 27-year-old dairy farmer from Carrum in Victoria, had won the Goulburn – Sydney classic in 1910 and 1911 before venturing to Europe three years later.
Munro, also from Melbourne, rode a world record time to win the Warrnambool to Melbourne road race in 1909. Riding over the rough, unmade roads of France, the pair of Australians impressed the locals with their endurance. They eventually finished 17th and 20th respectively before returning to Australia to escape the ravages of the First World War
Their cycling careers didn’t take off as they expected. Munro remained involved in the sport, helping to establish the Herald-Sun Tour decades later. After retiring for a few years, Kirkham made a comeback before being hit by a car, contracting pneumonia, and subsequently dying of TB.
While he felt that backward local officialdom rejected the knowledge he gained from his European experience, there was one significant voice listening. It was a young man who would reignite the aspiration to win the world’s greatest race, Hubert Opperman.
Opperman, already a star of the track and road in Australia, began training with the older rider, learning all he could in the process. Writing in his autobiography, Pedals, Politics and People, Opperman later described Kirkham:
His legs and feet dropped and turned without a quiver, as smoothly at the end of a long ride as when he first left the mark. His experience fell on me like a tailor-made coat.
Having reached the pinnacle of the sport in Australia, Opperman used the knowledge he gained from Kirkham to chase the holy grail of cycling. In 1928, he led two other Australians and a New Zealander to France, where he finished a credible 18th. He subsequently claimed one of the most prestigious track events in France, the 24 hour Bol d’Or, riding a record 909 kilometres and then continuing on to claim a new 1000 kilometre world record.
Opperman returned three years later, but a bout of dysentery ruined his chances. He finished 12th in the event, including a fourth placing in one stage. He later won the greatest non-stop endurance race of the era, Paris-Brest-Paris, covering the 1,166 kilometres in 49 hours and 23 minutes to claim victory by mere seconds.
The Great Depression and the Second World War interrupted any prospects of Australians returning to France, but the challenge was resumed again in 1955 by a brilliant young cyclist from Geelong, Russell Mockridge. A training crash in the days before the start, and bronchitis during the event robbed his health. Riding for the team of the great Luxemburg climber, Charly Gaul, Mockridge eventually finished 64th, the first Australian to complete the three week enduro since 1931. Hit by a bus and killed a few years later, Mockridge never returned to participate in the great challenge again.
Although Don Allan rode two tours in the mid-70s, it was the emergence of Phil Anderson in 1981 that raised hopes of an Australian victory. In 13 starts, Anderson finished 10th twice and fifth twice. In the process, he won two stages, and became the first non-European to wear the yellow jersey. But personal rivalries on his French teams hindered his chances of claiming the ultimate victory.
Anderson wasn’t the only Australian on tour during the 80s and early 90s. Riders such as Stephen Hodge, Allan Pieper and Neil Stephens – who won a stage in 1997 – were the pioneers of the modern Australian presence.
In subsequent years, the Australians became more prominent. Stuart O’Grady, Robbie McEwen, Baden Cooke claimed stage wins. McEwen and Cooke also won the sprinter’s Green Jersey competitions.
O’Grady and others, such as Matt Goss and Simon Gerrans, took prestigious one-day events or won stages in the Grand Tours. Michael Rogers time trialled his way to the World Championship, as did Cadel Evens on the road.
But Tour victory continued to elude the Aussies. Cadel Evans has come tantalising close before, losing to Alberto Contador by just 23 seconds in 2007, and 58 seconds to Carlos Sastre the following year.
Cadel Evans’ win will fulfil a century-old dream amongst Australian cyclists to win the Tour de France.
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