08 July, 2011

Put the lycra on, it’s time to Tour

Melbourne Herald Sun, Friday July 8, 2011

It’s that time of year when winter blusters us here, yet the sun shines brightly over Burgundy and the Pyrenees. And we shivering south-landers huddle at midnight around our TV sets watching a couple of hundred madmen push their bodies through some of the cruelest torture ever devised.

Yes it’s the Tour de France again. That strange hypnotic sport that can root you in your armchair for hours watching massive thighs pumping men up mountains with the camber of a skyscraper and then flying down the other side on twisting ribbons perched on a precipice.

The years that SBS has been programming this race have paid off with an annual ratings-grabber. Much more - it has definitely inspired us, with two million Australians now riding regularly. And bicycle shops have changed from dark oily side-street workshops into smart, trendy, high-street showrooms.

In the past six years the number of cyclists on our roads has increased by 15.5 per cent, reports IBISWorld research group.

But it’s more than the French inspiration that has done this. In all our cities there has been a rapid growth of cycling paths and traffic lanes. These have transformed our summer weekend mornings as daddy drake, mummy duck and line of ducklings pedal around the beaches and parks.

Things are different this time of year, though. Getting to the office on a dark wintry morning still calls for more courage than I could ever summons, but there are plenty who do it, wrapped in plastic, carrying their suit and shoes in a backpack.

They are encouraged by the constantly rising cost of fuel and cars, not to mention the ability to thread their way effortlessly through the choking traffic jams. They can even claim improvements in health and fitness - if the traffic doesn’t get them first.

This is a problem pointed out by the Queensland Centre for Accident Research. Each year some 35 cyclists are killed and 2500 seriously injured, especially those idiots who set off without lights.

The bike industry now tells a story I seem to have been repeating regularly in this column. Revenue has been down in recent years, particularly after the body blow of the global financial crisis, but is has begun to bounce right up again.

The industry is worth some $2.6 billion and this year is expected to sell 1.2 million cycles. If the figures seem a bit at odds with your perceptions, remember that there is a high end where bikes are sold for thousands of dollars each. All that carbon fibre and rare alloys.

So it’s not unusual to pay thousands for a good bicycle, as opposed to the $500 job you picked up at K-Mart last Christmas.

In fact there are more cycles sold in Australia than motor vehicles. A million cars expected in 2011 as opposed to those 1.2 million bikes.

Plus of course, what sort of a cyclist would you be without a wrapping of garish brightly-printed lycra covering you from duck-bum shaped helmet on top, to impossible-to-walk-on locking shoes at the bottom?

These cycling costumes may be all-over outdoor billboards in their advertising messages, but nobody pays you to carry their ads. In fact you can pay quite steeply for them - nearly 30 per cent of the industry’s revenue comes from clothing and accessories.

Meanwhile you face another couple of weeks of late nights watching heroes with names like Liepheimer, Schleck, and Galimzyanov. By the end of it companies like Omega Pharma-Lotto and Euskaltel - Euskadi will roll off your tongue like perfectly regular business names.

Much as I like to watch, as I huff and puff my Malvern Star to the milkbar and back, I thank heaven I don’t have to make a living this way.


No comments: