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Tour not just about the boys and their bikes

DRIVING around the Pyrenees and other locales in France for a week following boys on bikes provides a different story and more every day.

Against the background of the stunning scenery that captivates television audiences around the world, a stack of well-hatched plans are played – some successful, others ending up as a pile of bikes and bodies on the road.

Team directors are often coy but they are also keen to get credit for delivering a master stroke, so it’s not unusual for strategy to be provided in advance – under threat of never getting a tip again, if detail was revealed in advance to opposition teams.

As Australia’s own team, Orica GREENEDGE, discovered in 2015, the options are sometimes limited.

Down three of their nine men before the end of the first week, aspirations had to be curtailed – most poignantly perhaps for last Sunday’s team trial.

In what has become the team’s trademark of success, the lack of troops and a desire to recover Michael Matthews’ broken body left them at the bottom of the table for the stage.

But to date, the story has been quite different for Britain’s Sky team, within which Richie Porte is the most valuable of weapons.

The bond between the Launceston man and team leader Chris Froome was evident when the two trained in Northern Tasmania last November, but the commitment to the cause has been even more stunning a factor this Tour.

We have revelled on every mountain stage at the head-on shot of Porte powering up climb after climb with Welsh Commonwealth Games champion Geraint Thomas and Froome in tow.

It has been as unremitting as it has been successful.

Fortunately for Porte, he had enough in reserve after his day’s work on stage 10 into La Pierre-Saint-Martin to bounce back over the last few kilometres for a more tangible reward – a podium finish behind Froome.

But while what happens on the bike is by far the most important aspect of the Tour, its commercial and popular success is aided and abetted to a very large degree by what plays out around it.

On Friday, the posse in our media car was all but kidnapped by the merchants of the tiny town of Graulhet.

The butcher, the baker and the paella-maker and their kinfolk showered instant hospitality upon us as we pulled off the road ahead of the race to grab a quick baguette.

Half an hour later, we were still there, having been gorged with barbecue pork sandwiches, chips, cake and even a touch of the local vin blanc other than for the driver, Australian cycling commissaire Laurie Norris.

Needless to say, we watched the Tour go by with the locals before an escape on to the race’s alternate route to re-enter 50 kilometres on for an appointment with the devil at his traditional location plonked beside the road somewhere between 10 and 20km from home.

El Diablo is one of the characters who makes the Tour for those looking for a diversion from the race action itself.

But discourse with the bicycle restoration enthusiast is a challenge for he speaks hardly a word of either English or French.

But he gets absolutely why he’s there, even to the extent that he has fallen out to some degree with the organisers because he’s managed to get his own sponsorship.

His “interview” with The Age’s Sam Lane is hilarious.

As for the outcome come the Champs Elysees, if between now and then Alejandro Valverde can be half the teammate to Nairo Quintana that Porte and Thomas have been to Froome then it might not be all over yet.

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