This Saturday marks the start of the 2014 Tour de France.
Sixteen years ago an esoteric bicycle race in the European countryside would have meant nothing to the vast majority of Australians, but in recent years that has changed.
Over the coming weeks, thousands of Australians will tune into SBS 2 to catch the Tour de France. There they will indulge in race highlights, cooking tips from everyone’s second favourite French chef Gabriel Gaté, and the commencement (and for many night owls, the completion) of the day’s stage.
A strange few will even peddle on stationary exercise bikes along in front of their TVs throughout the evening, engaging in a strange virtual fantasy in which they cycle – with the help of a strong internet connection – with a peloton of peers in lounge rooms across the country.
The next day, in corporate workplaces around the nation, white collar professionals will loiter around the Nespresso machine discussing the relative merits of Team Sky and Movistar’s domestiques. On the weekend these same people will try to shimmy up the greasy pole by squeezing into lycra and knocking out 200km with the CEO and a group of similarly-career hungry executives.
So why all this rare behaviour? Why are more and more Australians becoming engrossed in a marathon cycling race that takes place every night on the other side of the globe?
The answer reveals a lot about Australia’s national identity: not just our culture, but our fears, desires and aspirations.
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Let’s take it back fifteen years. We are approaching the new millennium and while the world prepares for Y2K, Australia is enjoying a sustained economic boom and an increasing relevance on the global stage.
Old Johnny Howard’s got his hand on the tiller, preaching a sermon of economic growth and constrained conservatism. We are making big strides as a country, but we sure aren’t getting ahead of ourselves. We definitely have ambition, but we’re happy to play the role of the humble friend who waits for his turn to speak, and remain in everyone’s good graces.
The Olympics are around the corner, and we want the world to know that we can throw nice parties. Not wild, outrageous Brazil-type parties. But nice, orderly, sensible parties. One where everyone has a pleasant time, and nobody throws the furniture in the pool.
In the sports arena, we are in the middle of a golden age, excelling in our chosen pursuits of rugby, cricket and anything else played within the Commonwealth.
Regurgitator are getting serious airplay on the radio. I don’t think that’s relevant to this story, but let’s just say if there was a soundtrack to this era, Quan Yeomans’ laconic refrains on “! (The Song Formerly Known As)” would serve as a credible contender.
As we groove to “the Gurg’s” Nu-Disco hit, singing “things don’t get no better / better than you and me”, our economy is also grooving on the back of mining royalties and a rising Chinese middle class. The rising economic tide is lifting average household wealth, and with it, the tastes of our populace.
But while we are closing the financial gap, the cultural gap still looms large. It doesn’t matter how much money we have, the reality is we are still on the other side of the world, and the technology hasn’t reached the point where distance doesn’t matter. We yearn for cultural stimulation and recognition from the rest of the world, but it still takes 17 minutes to download an mp3 file.
We crave sophistication, but when you order coffee most cafes still give you a Nescafe Blend 43. We want to stay up until 3am to watch the English Premier League, but pay TV hasn’t really caught on, so we have to read about it in the Monday papers.
Broadly speaking, we are ready to engage the world, but we don’t quite have the tools to do it. We are still isolated, and beneath that doona of isolation lies a heated blanket of insecurity.
We know we’re going places, but we aren’t on the same level as Europe yet. Europe is still foreign. Still scary. Still has enormous cultural heft. The Balkan Wars have done nothing to stymie this.
There is strong residual fear of Europe among Australians, and this fear is reflected in our failure to embrace European culture. We not only lack the technology to get balls deep into the Tour de France, but we also lack the courage.
From our safe distance in the southern hemisphere, le Tour is very foreign. The terrain of the French Alps, seen as pixelated monoliths through our cathode ray tube TVs, are dark, menacing and forbidding. The riders are mechanical, robotic-like. They wear impenetrable sunglasses, tight uniforms and their personalities are inaccessible. The commentators use French phrases we are unfamiliar with.
It is all too much.
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A lot can change in fifteen years.
Changes to the global economy, for one, have had a formidable impact on Australian’s tastes.
Whereas Europe was once distant and matriarchal, the Global Financial Crisis has now made it more accessible.
In 1999 we were the young upstart. The Bud Fox to Europe’s Gordon Gekko on Wall Street. We are naive, green behind the ears, brimming with eagerness, but not without serious self-identity issues. In contrast, Europe was the old dame. Physically and emotionally distant, yet authoritative.
The Global Financial Crisis shattered many things, including any residual notion of Australia’s inferiority to the rest of the world, including Europe. It proved Australia – who skated relatively unscathed through the crisis compared to most European countries, which were, and still are, beset by debt, high unemployment and economic stagnation – could match it with the big boys.
The GFC took the carpet out from underneath any European pretensions. Australia’s newfound relative economic strength meant our people could visit European countries and spend less money than we would at home. Like a Westie visiting Thailand and realizing they can eat dinner for A$2.50, we began to devalue a product that failed to place an appropriate value on itself.
Thus, as Europe became cheaper on the hip pocket, it cheapened itself. It became more approachable. Suddenly it was achievable for an Australian to engage in cultural events like the Tour de France. It was realistic to actually visit France and watch the event live.
At the same time, Australia as a country has become more aspirational. As the elite upper classes search for differentiation from the unwashed masses, they have looked towards more niche pursuits. Our palates have become more refined. We have moved from English Breakfast to Ethiopian Blend Cold-Drip; from crumpets to quinoa; from rugby league to European cycling.
Just like how our coffee tastes have evolved, from a cappuccino at the turn of the millennium to modern day double ristretto, as a country we are constantly seeking further refinement and differentiation. Europe, as a global cultural beacon, continues to provide a reference point to which Australia orients itself. What’s changed is that we are no longer scared of embracing Europe.
We also now have the capabilities to embrace Europe. Indeed, technological advances have also played a major role in Australia’s embrace of the Tour de France.
The Internet reduced the tyranny of distance by giving Australians access to information and media as it happens, but more importantly, High Definition television has made the French Alps less intimidating. It also makes Cadel Evans’ legs look less robotic. Now you can see the sinew and muscle in his calves as he makes his way up the Alps d’Huez.
You can see that when members of Saxo-Bank stop by the side of the road, they are actually just taking a piss, and that makes the TDF more human.
While Australian culture is increasingly changing and gravitating towards the next niche, we remain true to our core values. And nothing is more Australian that Backing A Winner. It’s part of our DNA. We love a anyone who wins anything. Whether it’s getting behind the Wallabies when they’re decent, or plunging on Makybe Diva when she’s a sure bet in the Melbourne Cup, we go weak at the knees for anyone or anything successful.
When our very own Cadel Evans won the Tour de France, it put the event on the Australian sporting map. As an aspirational nation, we love success, and even more so when that success happens overseas, against the odds and in a sport we don’t really care about.
It’s like when the Melbourne Storm do well in the NRL. Victorians get to smugly say to others : “look how good we are at sports. We win things even when we don’t care about them. Imagine how good we would be if we tried?!”
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Like a Spanish cyclist on nandralone, the popularity of Le Tour among Australians has sky-rocketed in the past decade and a half, but what does the near future hold? Will it plateau after Cadel Evans hangs up the clip-ons, or continue its meteoric rise like one of the Schleck brothers powering up the Pyrenees?
As previously predicted by TPA’s founder Dave J. Edwards, America is heading for a fall. Like every great trend that waxes, it must also wane. The question that remains to be answered is, will this fall result in a boost for Europe? Or perhaps Australia could pivot towards China, as we enter the Asian Century.
Will an embrace of all things oriental see Australia’s gaze shift towards the international badminton tournament in Hong Kong? Or is that a step too far.
Whatever the case, it’s safe to say that Australia’s tastes will follow similar trajectory as the past fifteen years. Forever seeking out new, obscure niches in the quest for sophistication and global acceptance. Because we’re classy like that.
By Ben Shine