By Rupert Guinness
PHIL ANDERSON suffered more than his fare share of punishment en-route to paving the greatest professional road career of any Australian cyclist.
In his 14 years, he broke too many bones and was at the receiving end of too many injuries or illnesses to mention: in one season alone he sustained a fractured knee-cap, dislocated shoulder, badly bruised ribs and index finger, torn chest muscles and bronchitis. After becoming Australia’s first-ever Tour de France yellow jersey wearer in 1981, Anderson pushed his body and mind to its limits. One of a handful of Australians then racing in Europe in the 1980s, he also dismantled many of the cultural and social barriers that until then had hindered Australian cyclists. It is due to his efforts that today’s Australian cyclists enjoy so many opportunities. Anderson’s career was so significant – including 85 professional wins and five top-10 overall placings from his 13 starts in the Tour – that one could easily just focus on his victories, or at least the relentless pursuit of them. But it a measure of the humble, fun-loving person Anderson is that when he looks back he remembers the lighter moments, the moments when he could laugh and which remind him of his love for the camaraderie within.
One such moment occurred in a marathon 273km stage in the baking heat of the Massif Central in 1985 when the peloton decided, of all things, to ‘crash’ en masse. The stunt was concocted for the sole reason of killing the boredom of another long and slow day on the saddle. As Anderson recalls, “We were going along, getting slower and slower and then suddenly we all stopped, lay on the ground with the bike sup in the air – we were still strapped in the bloody bikes! Suddenly, all the mechanics were out of the cars and ambulances were rushing around and there were 180 guys all lying on their backs.”Anderson’s blue eyes light up as he speaks. You can see the larrikin who first took up cycling at age 16 for a bit of fun – which is what cycling is to Anderson today while living at Ocean grove on the south-west coast of Victoria in Australia. However, in between boyhood and today, Anderson forged the most glorious professional career of any Australian cyclist.
At his prime in 1985, he was one of the most aggressive riders in the bunch. What he lacked in class he more than made up for in fighting spirit and an insatiable appetite to win. Along the way there were disappointments – injuries, illness, disputes and form slumps – but he always survived to come through a winner until retiring in 1994. It is fitting that when Anderson’s career was nearing its end, the professional career of another rider on his Motorola team, Texan Lance Armstrong, was taking off the same his did in 1980.
Their union as teammates from 1992 to 1994 benefited both: Anderson saw a lot of himself in Armstrong, especially in the 1993 Tour when Armstrong upset French hopes by winning the first Tour stage of his own career Armstrong struck on stage eight from Chalons du Marne to Verdun, outsprinting a breakaway group that included Mexican Raul Alcala and the ever-popular Frenchman Ronan Pensec. “It reminded me of when I was his age, you know, the drive and (sense of) not being intimidated. He was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll attack whether you like it or not,’” Anderson recalls. On the 117km six stage of the 1981 Tour from Saint Gaudens to the ski station of Pla d’Adet in the Pyrenees, Anderson stood up to French Tour favourite Bernard Hinault. The Frenchman, who went on to win five Tours before retiring in 1986, would become Anderson’s rival – not so much as a danger to overall honours, but sheer bullish pride. It was a moment that etched Anderson’s name as one to watch in years to come, as well as an example of the now-notorious devil-may-care attitude of Australians in Europe. Anderson was unsure how to race this first mountain stage of the Tour. He said how he felt before it began, but didn’t know how good he felt. Furthermore he was on call to help his French team leader on the powerful Peugeot team, Jean Rene Bernaudeau. Anderson, not a pure climber, decided to follow someone with a steady rhythm like Hinault, rather than the more frenetic pace of the pure climbers like Belgian Lucien Van Impe. The Belgian won the stage, but surprising everyone was Anderson who became the first Australian to claim the yellow jersey after a titanic tussle with Hinault.
Anderson and Hinault finished 27 seconds after Van Impe, and while the Australian stood proudly in yellow, Hinault had nothing but contempt for Anderson ‘daring’ to challenge him. It was even worse when Anderson just sat on his wheel – still hoping for news of Bernaudeau who had been long dropped – until Peugeot directeur-sportif Maurice De Muer told him he could work ‘a bit’ at the front. “It was just as well, as Hinault was going off his block,” said Anderson, who had four other riders with him in the front group: Van Impe, Belgian Claude Criquelion, and the Spanish pair of Marino Lejarreta and Alberto Fernandez. Without knowing it, Anderson was to earn even greater wrath from Hinault by naively offering him a swill from his bidon (drink bottle). The Frenchman, taking the gesture as an insult, promptly swiped it from Anderson’s hand. “I didn’t even know who Hinault was. I couldn’t even pronounce his name. But I was there with him and when I gave him my bidon. I was only trying to be sportsmanlike. I figured something was really up when he hit it away. I suppose I should have been intimidated by it all, but I wasn’t. Heck, I was Australian and couldn’t even spell Hinault, let alone know who he was,” says Anderson.
Anderson’s gall to of standing up top Hinault was an inspiration to a world accustomed t accepting ‘the badger’s’ authority as the fiery Breton was known. Peugeot, having seen Bernaudeau lose 4 minutes 30 seconds, seriously damaging any chance of winning the Tour, could not decide whether to defend the untested and relatively unknown Anderson or try and get their top star back Bernaudeau back into contention. Opinions were mixed. Realising the sensitivity of his position, De Muer remained guarded. As Anderson tried to come to terms with his achievement, all of sporting France was in a fever over his feat that day. One significant vote in Anderson’s favour came from former Tour director Jacques Goddet who wrote: “Peugeot should now play Anderson’s card,” in his daily diary piece for the French newspaper L’Equipe.
Anderson was unprepared for the attention he received wearing his yellow jersey. One day he was just another face in the Tour, the next he was the name on everyone’s lips. He faced a barrage of media interviews about him and Australian cycling; some television reporters eve produced maps of Australia for him to point out where Melbourne as. It was a daunting change in his life: “I didn’t sleep too well because of the jersey. It was a dream, a dream come true. I never thought I would be riding in Europe let alone the Tour de France.