Tim the Yowie Man: Le Tour de Canberra

Tim the Yowie Man gets on his bike.

An Australian Federal Police (AFP) patrol spots me posing for a photo on the grass outside the French Embassy in Yarralumla and immediately turns around to do a double-take. It’s no surprise really – I’d look less of a risk clad in a frog suit and brandishing a "Bring back the Rainbow Warrior" banner than in the garish garb I’m decked out in today.

Let me explain. For years now, July has been one of my favourite times of year, a time to curl up in front of the television and watch, mesmerised, as the peloton of Le Tour de France winds its way through the picturesque French landscape. (Oh, and how good did Yorkshire look earlier this week?) Unlike many other "tour fanatics" who follow the every move of each member of Orica-GreenEDGE and other teams, for me the race itself is a mere distraction to the journey through the countryside that SBS takes me on each night with its spectacular vision, coupled with insightful descriptions from commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. For me, it’s all about watching villagers feverishly wave their national flag as the peloton passes their patch, laughing at the antics of the "Devil of the Tour" as he runs alongside the riders pretending to prod them with his pitch fork, and of course not to forget Taste of the Tour host Gabriel Gaté who, nightly, concocts wonderfully delightful provincial cuisine.

Despite my obsession with the television coverage, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be there in person. While a trip to the French Alps in July is entrenched high on the bucket list, the next best thing would be a ride around Canberra past all of the locations relating to France – wouldn’t it? Well, that’s the crazy idea I came up with while watching a recent stage with a friend who promptly offered me his vintage Bennett single speed bike. “Look mate, it’s no use trying to pretend you are a serious rider, so may as well get into the spirit of it and look like you’re riding around a quaint French village,” he all too convincingly argued.

So, after a week of carefully planning the route, early this morning, I squeezed into some Lycra shorts (eek!), a cheap jersey (every rider needs one, don’t they?) and an old-school cycling cap (swapped for helmet while riding). On the way to my start point at the French Embassy (where else!), Mrs Yowie (or should that be my support team) even stopped by our local bakery to grab a few fresh baguettes. “It won’t only help you look the part but might come in handy if you get hungry,” she thoughtfully advised.

With the AFP satisfied with my explanation, next a diplomatic-plated car gives me a toot and a wave as it drives past. However, I’ve no time for pleasantries – I’ve got about 36 kilometres to ride. Doesn’t sound far? Well, given my cycling rarely extends beyond the short Lake Burley Griffin bridge-to-bridge circuit with the kids, it’s not going to be easy, especially on a 17-kilogram steel antique bike and dressed like I’m off to host some ill-conceived whacky fancy dress party.

The Canberra Croquet Club, located nearby next to the Hyatt, is my next check point and while it’s a tad early for any members to be wielding a mallet, one early riser does gives me a quick history of the game’s roots which lie in thirteenth century France when peasants apparently used crudely fashioned mallets to whack wooden balls through hoops made of willow branches.

I’m already a bit peckish and as I cross Commonwealth Ave near Albert Hall I munch on a chunk of baguette, and then for a brief moment along the lakeside promenade I catch up to a couple of riders as they pedal past Reconciliation Place. If only Liggett was here. “And look at the Yowie Man, he’s joined the back of the peloton,” he would no doubt excitedly exclaim. Unfortunately, my moment of glory is short-lived as the riders turn out to be a couple of kids who had slowed down to allow their mum and dad to catch up.

While still trying to swallow my pride (and another piece of the baguette) I reach the National Gallery’s sculpture garden where I pay a quick homage to the castings of figures from Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais.  On a roll, I cut through Barton to Telopea Park School, where the red, white and blue buntings on my bike flutter in unison with the giant French flag at the entrance of the bilingual school. The kids on the basketball court shout something at me in French. Suspecting their observations on my riding style may not be entirely complimentary, I respond with the most polite "Merci beaucoup" I can muster, and to a chorus of jeers, keep pedalling my little white legs as fast as I can.

A safe distance from the school, in Fitzroy St, Forrest, I take a much needed breather. There’s a plaque outside #13. It reads: “Stone laid by His Excellency M. Renaud Sivan, Ambassador of France, on 6 March 1957.” The reasons for the plaque are a mystery. In fact, while researching my route, even the fine folk at the French Embassy shrugged their shoulders as to its origins.

It’s a bit of a ride to my next check point at the Red Hill shops where a little old lady spots my baguette-laden bike propped up against the recently installed sculpture of French explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de la Pérouse (the streets Red Hill are named after early maritime explorers and ships visiting Terra Australis), and asks if I’m giving away the bread sticks as part of a supermarket promotion. I try to explain what I’m doing but she leaves perplexed and shaking her head (and without any bread).

With the early morning cloud giving way to a stunning winter’s afternoon, it’s with renewed enthusiasm that I zoom (alright, that’s a bit of an exaggeration) along Commonwealth Avenue Bridge. Sure it’s not quite the Champs Elysees, but if you tilt your head and use your imagination, the Parliament House flagpole looks a little like the Eiffel Tower (okay, I’m drawing a long bow, but at least they are both tall and pointy, aren’t they?).

By now, the built-in padding in my bike shorts feels like it's paper thin, so I ride out of the saddle for the switchbacks through the inner north from the Alliance Française de Canberra, in Turner to the Ainslie Shops, home to a number of giant snails. Now, before you start salivating, these aren’t the sort of gastropods that would have Gaté reaching for the garlic butter. No, these are made of bronze and part of a quirky art installation and it doesn’t take long before a schooner-bearing patron at the pub opposite encourages me to sit on one of them. “You’ll probably go faster than on that bike of yours!” he hollers much to the mirth of his equally inebriated mates. I’m tempted – it’d probably be a softer than the mount on my Bennett. However, I give it a miss for the snails are just an appetizer for my main stop in Ainslie – the Cafe Breizh Creperie and Patisserie where before the two ladies on Table 2 have a chance to protest to management about my skin tight shorts (sorry!), I’ve downed a "pain au chocolate" (chocolate croissant) and a "chausson aux pommes"(apple turnover) and am back on my bike.

From Ainslie it’s just a short ride to French St in Hackett. Although named after an English-born Australian scientist not connected in any way with France, two laps of the semi-circular street conclude the suburban leg of my tour. The final stage of my tour, or should I say the Pièce de résistance awaits me at French Black Truffles of Canberra, located off Majura Road. Given current roadworks it’s probably safer to descend the highest mountain pass in the Pyrenees sans breaks than to cycle along busy Majura Road. Well, that’s my excuse anyway for calling on Mrs Yowie to ferry me in the yowie mobile from Hackett to the entrance of the truffière, where I pedal triumphantly down the driveway and join the afternoon hunt for the elusive fungi.

It’s a relief not to be sitting down and while an eclectic mix of foodie tourists chase Jayson and his energetic black labrador Samson through the 2500 English oaks and hazelnut trees, I trudge slowly behind. Samson hits jackpot several times during the hour-long hunt and we return to the Truffle Shed with a prized cache of the fungi, including a 350 gram chunk of "black gold". While Jayson washes it down we each get to sample a pre-prepared truffle-infused potato and leek soup followed by a truffle crème brulee. Divine! What a way to finish. My tour is over, all 36.8 km of it (ok, so 6 km was in the passenger seat of a car, but, I did ride that last 150 metres down the truffière driveway). The little computer attached to my borrowed Bennett suggests that I’ve burned around 1100 calories (I’ll spare you the average speed), but the extra pastry-induced bulge in my midriff suggests otherwise. Gaté would be most impressed.

Back at home, after a long soak in the bath, I light the fire and nestle into my armchair and switch on SBS to watch the latest stage in the real Le Tour. Mrs Yowie even pours a glass of champagne (ok, it’s actually cheap sparkling wine) to celebrate my achievement, but before the dulcet tones of Liggett and Sherwen announce the start of tonight’s stage, I’ve nodded off, half-empty glass in hand. Oh well, c’est la vie.

Tim’s Tour de Canberra. Try it yourself.

French Embassy: 6 Perth Avenue, Yarralumla

Canberra Croquet Club: 15 Coronation Dr, Yarralumla

The Burghers of Calais: National Gallery of Australia, Parkes Pl, Parkes

Mystery French Plaque: 13 Fitzroy St, Forrest

Telopea Park School: 25 New South Wales Cres, Barton

La Perouse statue: Red Hill Shops (you can’t miss it!)

Alliance Française de Canberra: 66 McCaughey St Turner

Snail Play: Directly opposite Edgar’s Inn at the Ainslie shops.

Breizh Cafe: Ainslie Shops. Wed – Sun. Ph: 6156 0346

French St, Hackett

French Black Truffles of Canberra: 23 Majura Rd, Majura. Truffle hunts every Saturday until 16 August. $60 pp. Ph: (04) 1995 0207 canberratruffles.com.au  

CONTACT TIM: Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick. A selection of past columns is available at: canberratimes.com.au/travel/by/Tim-the-Yowie-Man

WHERE IN THE REGION?

Cryptic clue: A German ‘moneymaker’

Degree of difficulty: Medium

Last week: Congratulations to Tracey Kyburz of Kambah who was first to correctly identify last week’s photo (inset) as the bridge across the Snowy River at Dalgety, originally known as Buckley’s Crossing. Tracey beat a long list of other readers familiar with the Dalgety landmark to the prize including Chris Barry who reports “the gates on the nearby show ground have a plaque mounted marking the service my great great grandmother gave to the district as a midwife!”

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to timtheyowieman@bigpond.com. The first email sent after 10am on July 12 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.

This article Tim the Yowie Man: Le Tour de Canberra was originally published in Canberra Times.

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