LIMBERS UP FOR THE 100th TOUR DE FRANCE
E’S riding that bike like a sprocket heading for the moon, which is not a place, it’s a planet, and he’s riding to that star,’’ intoned the mercurial broadcaster Phil Liggett during the 2000 Tour de France. And the man they call ‘‘ the voice of cycling’’ has hardly paused for breath since, still searching the back of his brain for images to convey cycling’s ‘‘ world of hurt’’ to his millions of listeners.
He’s back on Saturday night to call the race again with those flights of rhetorical brilliance, when SBS celebrates the event’s 100th edition.
The coverage will be even more extensive than last year’s, when more than six million people tuned in to watch the race unfold across the French countryside and the SBS website recorded its highest ever average daily browser numbers.
This year the tour is more spectacular too, for the first time featuring a twilight finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris for the final stage. The race also visits Corsica, which will host the Grand Depart for the first time, and includes the climb on Mont Ventoux and a double ascent of the Alpe d’Huez. Only three riders have been able to take the yellow jersey on the Alpe and keep it to Paris. With its bends, steep gradient and crowds of spectators, it has been called ‘‘ a climb in the style of Hollywood’’.
Australia’s Cadel Evans, the 2011 winner, will battle it out for the maillot jaune with last year’s runner-up Chris Froome and two-time champion Alberto Contador. Australia’s own team, Orica-GreenEDGE, which debuted last year, lines up with Matt Goss and Simon Gerrans seeking its first win.
And, TV voyeurs that we are, we’ll be
The Tour de France will be a spectacular affair in this, its 100th edition
waiting in those dark moments on the couch after midnight for a sight of surreal carnage, barbed wire, upturned press motorbikes, bleeding cameramen, and torn Spandex scattered across the road. ‘‘ The history of the Tour de France was chiselled into these walls of rock by men willing to ask more of themselves, knowing that this time for some, the answers from their bodies would be . . . no more,’’ Liggett once said.
The Tour is such riveting TV because it is simply the most physically gruelling and emotionally demanding endurance event in the athletic world, sadomasochistic in its intensity. Even more so this year when it’s supposedly drug-free.
Some see it as a kind of fable, a modern version of a medieval mystery play that in terms of suffering and redemption tells us something of the nature of masculinity and our passion for heroism. That’s just one of the things that make it such a unique TV experience, something in which to immerse yourself, even if you know little of the sport.
Abounding with paradox, cycling at this level is also arguably the most modern sport, the coverage brought to us in fast alternating cinematic grabs as the race accelerates towards and away from us on our TV screens. And in this digital era it is perfect for TV, which just loves sensationalist coverage of the real thing. The Tour is the ultimate reality-TV series as new camera and editing technology puts us on a bike ourselves, making a break up a mountain with the star riders, on the road scrambling for our machines in a spill, or heaving along, breathless in the peloton.
The word — drawn from the French where it means ball or, more loosely, platoon — is the term for the bunch, pack or main group of riders in a race. Like most of us really, even if we have never owned a bicycle, always finding ourselves stuck somewhere in the middle, hoping desperately for one of Liggett’s ‘‘ trips to the moon’’ — which is how he describes a rider’s legs suddenly finding momentum from nowhere.
The race’s intensive coverage takes us behind the scenes, peeping, spying and watching strong people breaking down, crying, suffering and confessing. We want to see how people cope as their dreams collide with reality; it’s the basis of almost everything we watch. And it takes place in a contrived, brutally hard-nosed commercial setting. In fact the race started almost inhumanely in pursuit of the franc, the riders given little support or backing, described at the time as little more than ‘‘ chain-gang workers’’.
As Tour de France: The Story, a fine French doco directed by Jean-Christophe Rose, which SBS is airing on Friday (with an English commentary), rather dramatically shows, the race started as a publicity stunt in 1903 (there were breaks during the world wars).
Sales of L’Auto newspaper, ancestor to today’s L’Equipe, were falling badly and editor Henri Desgrange was desperate to find a way to win a circulation war with competing sports newspaper Le Velo. Miraculously, as it turned out, a six-day race, which became the tour, was suggested to Desgrange as a sales promotion.
Sixty riders departed from the now famous Cafe au Reveil Matin in Montgeron on the southern outskirts of Paris at 3.16pm on July 1, and quickly became faceless shadows swaying in the dust. Of these, 21 were sponsored or professional racers; in the pack were disreputable racers who competed under pseudonyms.
The film has wonderful footage of the first finish — Rose uses digitally enhanced colourised archival footage — the riders arriving in Paris after 10,000 hellish kilometres, faces caked in mud. Then they are herded unceremoniously towards a finishing line behind a gate that the cameras of the time didn’t even bother filming.
Perversely, for the exploited riders at least, the tour was an instant hit. L’Auto’s circulation soared and Desgrange went down in history as the father of one of the greatest sporting events in the world. But racing remained a sketchy business in the beginning and was not always held in high repute — cocaine, chloroform, bull’s blood and the crushed testicles of wild animals the drugs du jour along with copious amounts of booze, riders even refuelling in bars and cafes along the route.
Since then, as Tour de France: The Story illustrates so vividly, the race has undergone
many changes: from the demise of the British cyclist Tom Simpson on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, to the performance of Lance Armstrong, the survivor, and his ultimate unmasking as an unconscionable drug cheat, and the successes of Eddy Merckx, nicknamed the Cannibal.
And like the great race itself, Liggett’s commentary remains a virtuoso display, unique on TV, one of the medium’s great presentations. Helped by his offsider, cycling veteran Paul Sherwen, he holds it all together for viewers, working with a crew of more than 80 and now broadcasting into the US as well as South Africa, Britain and Australia. They are the English-speaking voices of cycling, doing incredible distances during the race, always a day ahead of the riders in each day’s finish area commentary box. There’s a world feed, then individual country splits and they somehow segue between each, adjusting their comments to the different time zones and the racers of most interest to their home countries.
And there are, of course, what are known as the ‘‘ Liggettisms’’, those free-flowing flights of verbal fancy, often compared to Jack Kerouac on a mind-altering bike tour. Listen out for
‘‘ the elastic has snapped’’, ‘‘ he’s dancing on his pedals’’, and ‘‘ he’s holding on by the skin of his shorts’’. He mixes and matches his wellworn expressions, the combinations more entertainingly outlandish year by year.
Somehow Liggett and his team also manage to add a kind of travelogue commentary to that of the race, squeezing in mentions of Joan of Arc, Napoleon’s armies and La Belle Epoch. If the race passes a village where Jeanne Moreau lived or a deserted beach where Brigitte Bardot still wanders alone, they try to squeeze in a reference. It’s breathtaking work: cycling is the one sport to integrate landscape with furious action, each contributing equally to the experience.
SBS adds a little more touristic elan, with popular chef Gabriel Gate returning for the ninth consecutive year with his Taste Le Tour, a gastronomic journey that follows the tour route. He visits each of the regions just before the riders enter them, meeting the patissiers, vignerons, fromagers and, of course, the
cuisiniers. And while we will all lick our lips at Gate’s ratatouille nicoise, smoked trout terrine and tartiflette, we’ll really be waiting for the footage of gendarmes crashing into some cyclist’s hotel to seize the drugs, the judiciary arriving in their black cars. Ah, plus ca change,
plus c’est la meme chose.
‘‘ LIFE is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat; the redeeming things are not happiness and pleasure but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle,’’ Scott Fitzgerald wrote. He could have been talking about so many of us who reach our 40s and feel life somehow has passed us by. He also wrote:
‘‘ At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide.’’
The characters in the new 13-part ABC series The Time of Our Lives, which started last week (if you missed episode one you can still catch it online at ABC iView), haven’t quite reached that point but some of them are beginning to understand the first law of marriage: after the unsatisfactory resolution of domestic arguments, you never really make up, you just get used to the way you disappoint each other.
The show was created by Judi McCrossin and Amanda Higgs, who worked together on
The Secret Life of Us, the hit show about love, sex, friendship, carpet rash, vodka shots and how much pizza to leave in the fridge for breakfast. A big hit for Network Ten (those were the days), the series ran from 1999 to 2003 and revolved around a group of friends in their mid-20s to early 30s, living in a St Kilda block of flats. It was the most watched Australian drama in its target demographic of 16-to-39-year-olds for three years running.
Ever since, it seems, this new series has been on the minds of McCrossin and Higgs — another show with similar relationship themes but dealing with characters in their late 30s and 40s. They write in their production notes that they wanted the new show to ask the same questions they were asking of themselves as their own lives went their haphazard way. ‘‘ Do you need a romantic relationship to be happy? What do you do if you are in an unhappy relationship, but have children keeping you together? Can co-parenting with an ex-partner really work?’’
You get the sense that the lives of McCrossin and Higgs were so overwrought, they just had to make a drama out of them.
The series focuses on on the Tivolli family — the name conjures for me the Tivoli (yes, I know the spelling is different!) variety theatre circuit which flourished for more than 70 years in Australia, with theatres in most capitals, and featuring a rich mix of comedians, singers, magicians and acrobats. Not a bad metaphor for the modern family: laughter, backflips, tears and backstage shenanigans. And the Tivollis, presided over by patriarch Ray (Tony Barry) and matriarch Rosa (Sue Jones), have a lot to deal with, especially, as the producers put it, ‘‘ settling in with the one you love; still trying to find the one you love; getting away from the one you used to love’’.
It deals with those conflicts that can happen when family members have different views or beliefs that clash, especially when it comes to parenting. And the way that peaceful resolution in disputes between them requires skills in open, two-way communication, negotiation, compromise and respect for the other person’s point of view. Not skills on display early on in this series, and probably not in all that many marriages, for that matter; there is an understated but painful realism on display in this beguiling show.
As Woody Allen once remarked, relationships are driven by the law of incompatibility: I’m not incompatible, you are.
This is top-class drama, funny at times, the way families can be even at their most dysfunctional, but so emotionally honest it’s likely to bring tears. In last week’s first episode (directed with calm poise by Chris Noonan) daughter Chai Li (Michelle Vergara Moore), adopted from Vietnam as part of Operation Babylift in 1975, was humiliatingly left at the altar by her boyfriend. In this week’s episode, the family’s elder brother Matt (William McInnes) blindsides his obsessive wife Caroline (Claudia Karvan), who helicopterparents their young son oblivious to the emotional chaos she creates.
It’s all quite subtly done, a character-based drama with unobtrusive but expressive direction, lovely camerawork from director of photography Jaems Grant with a kind of voyeuristic subjective feel, and scripting from McCrossin that’s crisp and witty. Her writing, expressed in short, sharp scenes, relies on suggestion and implication. She makes us do some of the work. There’s none of the endless chatter that once characterised Australian TV drama; instead she concentrates on the urgency of discord and that emotional equivalent of turn-the-page story tension, conflict between characters.
The stories of McCrossin and Higgs obviously connect their talented ensemble cast, which also includes Shane Jacobson, Stephen Curry and Justine Clarke. They’re all terrific, so empathetically these people, you forget you’ve even seen them before.
The peloton heads down the Champs-Elysees in the final stage of the Tour de
France last year