Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producers: Stephen Rice
, Howard Sacre
From the sidelines, it looks like torture, one of the most fiendish, punishing sporting events ever devised. So just imagine how it feels competing in the Tour de France.
It's the toughest bike race in the world, three weeks of hell, through the French countryside.
Up the Alps, down the Alps. Dozens of riders, just millimetres apart, at ridiculous speeds - 70, 80, 90 kilometres an hour.
If you have any doubts how dangerous it is - just look at the casualty list. The big names are already hitting the deck. But, there's one consolation for our champs. As Liz Hayes discovered, their rocky road to glory is paved with gold.
LIZ HAYES: It's the 'Tour de Crash'. Where the difference between victory and defeat is measured in blood and broken bones. It's like this for three weeks the world's best bike riders circling France at speeds hitting 90 kilometres an hour and distances of 200 kilometres or more every day. To give you an idea of just how fast these riders go, let me show this ... wait for it ... There they go! A blur of colour. One hundred and eighty-odd bums and helmets going by in a nanosecond.
PHIL LIGGETT: There is no commonsense. Pain is part of the life of a professional cyclist.
LIZ HAYES: The Tour de France has been going for 94 years. And for the last 35, former cycling champion Phil Liggett has been commentating.
PHIL LIGGETT: If you can suffer 10 minutes longer than the guy alongside you you'll win the race. Ten minutes is a long time to be in the pain barrier.
COMMENTATOR: I do have to feel a little bit sorry for Mick Rogers.
LIZ HAYES: And this year, suffering alongside the best of them, are the Australians.
PHIL LIGGETT: This little handful. This little community of Aussies, who've lived here in Europe, made their homes in either France or Italy or Belgium, have become the greatest bike riders in the world.
STUART O'GRADY: The weather's perfect. It's probably the only place in Europe where it's pretty much sunny almost all the year, which is pretty good for our job.
LIZ HAYES: Thirty-three-year-old Stuart O'Grady is Australian to the core, but very comfortable in the millionaires' playground of Monaco. I imagine if you're living in Monaco you can afford to live in Monaco. That clearly means you're making some good money tell me that's true?
STUART O'GRADY: Well, obviously, you know, there's a lot of sacrifice and hard work then you get rewarded.
LIZ HAYES: No, no, I know you deserve every cent of it. Stuart left Adelaide 12 years ago. Now, with a swag of medals behind him, including Olympic gold, he lives in Monte Carlo with wife Anne-Marie and son Seth. But Stuart's not here for the view. There's no time when you're training for the Tour de France.
STUART O'GRADY: You've got to like suffering. That's our job. And you get pleasure in seeing, you know, inflicting pain on other riders. You know, you're hurting as well, but, you know, you want to make them hurt more.
LIZ HAYES: So you love pain?
STUART O'GRADY: Yeah, unfortunately, yeah.
LIZ HAYES: Cadel Evans is 30 and comes from the Northern Territory. Now based in Switzerland, he, like all the top riders, earns upwards of $2 million a year ... very nice. … and can afford a bit of European luxury.
CADEL EVANS: Sometimes you have to treat yourself for hard work.
LIZ HAYES: This is one of your treats?
CADEL EVANS: Yes, yes.
LIZ HAYES: For Cadel, the love affair with bikes began when he could barely walk.
CADEL EVANS: I suppose I started when I was two years old and my father bought me my first BMX.
LIZ HAYES: Two?
CADEL EVANS: Two, yes. With training wheels.
LIZ HAYES: And it was love at first sight?
CADEL EVANS: Um, I lived in an Aboriginal settlement in the NT and no brothers or sisters and no-one my own age to play with, so my bike was sort of the only thing I had I think.
LIZ HAYES: Where do you rank the Tour de France as opposed to the Olympics?
MICHAEL ROGERS: The Tour de France in cycling is number one. I'd have to win 100 Olympic gold medals to get one Tour de France.
LIZ HAYES: Is that right?
MICHAEL ROGERS: Yes, it's the absolute pinnacle of cycling.
LIZ HAYES: For 10 years, Michael Rogers has dedicated his life to winning this one race. With his wife Alessandra, home is now northern Italy a long way from where he grew up in Griffith, country NSW. But this bloke means business.
MICHAEL ROGERS: It's like any professional sport, you know, we're here to make money. I'm very lucky to have a job that I love to death and enjoy.
LIZ HAYES: And then there is Robbie McEwen, whose added Flemish to his list of languages since moving from Brisbane to Belgium. This is Robbie's 10th Tour de France so wife Angelique knows what to expect.
ANGELIQUE MCEWEN: I always call myself a widow then. Even my friends say, 'So when are you going to be a widow again?'
ROBBIE MCEWEN: She's just very good at looking after me. I mean, when I'm away, she's got two kids to look after and when I'm home, she's got three.
LIZ HAYES: All of these Australians are going to be battling it out in this one of the world's great sporting events but a race that's been badly shaken and shamed by drug scandals.
MICHAEL ROGERS: I have lost three or four races now where the winner has been found for doping, so ...
LIZ HAYES: Doesn't that make you angry?
MICHAEL ROGERS: For sure, I'm to the point now if it happens again I'll start suing people, you know, because I lose money too.
LIZ HAYES: So, I have to ask you have you ever been tempted?
MICHAEL ROGERS: No, I grew up with a completely different outlook on doping.
LIZ HAYES: There's a zero tolerance to drugs?
MICHAEL ROGERS: There is complete zero tolerance from me.
LIZ HAYES: This year the drug crackdown is on. As we arrived at Stuart O'Grady's home, so did the drug testers unannounced demanding urine and blood and breath samples.
STUART O'GRADY: We haven't got a choice anymore, you know? Before it was all about privacy and this and that, but, you know, as a top athlete these days, you know, privacy isn't an option.
LIZ HAYES: Things are tougher now because no-one wants a repeat of last year's embarrassing Tour de France. The winner, American Floyd Landis, tested positive to synthetic testosterone a bitter result for Cadel Evans, who came fifth.
CADEL EVANS: People asked me how I did in the Tour. I say, 'Fourth and a half'.
LIZ HAYES: Would anyone have picked that that the winner of last year's race was a drug cheat?
STUART O'GRADY: I would have because I was there with him that day when he was in that breakaway. I was actually 13 minutes ahead of him and he caught us on his own and then he basically rode us all off the wheel.
COMMENTATOR: Well, this is one of the most incredible performances I've seen.
LIZ HAYES: So you did think at the time that was odd?
STUART O'GRADY: I thought that was impossible, what he did. I'm not a bad bike rider and, you know, he made me look like a little kid.
LIZ HAYES: The Tour de France is a race that demands almost the impossible of the human body. These riders will climb a vertical distance equal to three Mount Everest. And they burn up to 10,000 calories a day - that's 17 Big Macs.
STUART O'GRADY: I mean, you basically just ride. You know, you drive to your hotel, you sleep you eat your food, you get your massage, you go back to bed, you wake up and it's Groundhog Day. You do it all again.
LIZ HAYES: And when it's over you think, 'Wasn't that great?'
STUART O'GRADY: Oh, when you get there you go, 'What the hell was I thinking?'
LIZ HAYES: There is literally not a second to spare.
PHIL LIGGETT, COMMENTATOR: I mean, you have to say that it's the only race in the world where you can't go behind a tree for a pee without the cameras going with you. It's more than just a race for the cyclists you can win 20 races in a season and do nothing in the Tour de France and nobody will have heard of you. If you win one stage of the Tour de France you'll have a contract for the rest of your racing career. If you win the Tour de France, you'll earn $1 million at least in the bank straight away.
LIZ HAYES: It's a brutal billion-dollar business. Teams have budgets of up to $30 million, employing doctors, dietitians masseurs, mechanics and chefs. This year, Michael Rogers' team even has a psychiatrist. Will you be having a daily session with the shrink?
MICHAEL ROGERS: Yeah, yeah. There's literally times where you just say, 'I can't handle this anymore'.
LIZ HAYES: It's certainly more than a bike race. The Tour is a national obsession an endless party sweeping France. Towns pay millions to have the race pass through. And everybody makes sure they get their money's worth by getting as close as they can to the action.
STUART O'GRADY: You have a million people on the side of road every day I mean, it's just organised chaos. I mean, every single person that you ride past they want to scream, they want to clap, you know, they want to try and touch you on the mountains and it's not fun, you know, it becomes pretty dangerous and that's why you see a lot of the big pile-up crashes.
MICHAEL ROGERS: It's a hard race to win and it's so easy to lose. You just have one bad day and it's over.
LIZ HAYES: One week into the race and Michael Rogers was having a great day that suddenly turned into a shocker.
COMMENTATOR: Oh, somebody's got off there! Michael Rogers has gone down!
LIZ HAYES: In spite of a dislocated shoulder, he got back on his bike and tried to ride.
COMMENTATOR: Mick Rogers in serious pain here this afternoon.
LIZ HAYES: But clinging to the race doctor's car, it was clear he couldn't go on.
COMMENTATOR: And this a terrible, sad sight for the Tour de France. I'm not surprised that tears are flowing here. It's not a place for the cameras right now. Michael Rogers is about to abandon the Tour de France.
PHIL LIGGETT: The riders are professional cyclists and they don't see retirement as part of their profession. And they don't live to fight another day. This is their day it's the Tour de France, and they won't go unless they have to. Michael Rogers didn't want to retire and that was why he broke down in tears because he was leaving the race which he really thought he could win this year and I have to say he might have won it.
LIZ HAYES: It was the blackest day Australia has ever known at the Tour de France. In a horror crash, Stuart O'Grady ended the race on a stretcher.
STUART O'GRADY: Ouch. I was doing 70-80km/hr and I knew when I came to that stop that it was pretty serious. It hurt.
LIZ HAYES: And how are you now?
STUART O'GRADY: Oh, yeah, I mean, it's a lot easier watching the Tour de France on the TV. But, no, I'm not feeling really good to be honest.
LIZ HAYES: Despite the eight broken ribs, punctured lung and fractured shoulder you get the feeling it's his spirit that's more wounded. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be.
STUART O'GRADY: No. Not quite the fairytale, champagne popping on the Champs d'Elysees stuff, but c'est la vie.
LIZ HAYES: And the rotten luck for the Australians wasn't over. A shattered Robbie McEwen was the next to go. Clearly it's a heartbreaker this race, Robbie? Beaten by injury, he failed to finish within the required time.
COMMENTATOR: And Cadel Evans is the man leading right now. With one punishing week still to go, Cadel Evans is our best hope to get across the finish line in Paris. The talk is you really could win this. You believe that don't you?
CADEL EVANS: Yep, absolutely. To me it's going to be a bit of a Hollywood thriller, it's going to be right down to the wire, right down to the last Saturday evening going to Paris, I think.
LIZ HAYES: It's impossible not to get caught up in the thrill of the Tour de France. It's one of the greatest shows on Earth. So keep your fingers crossed for Cadel Evans ؏ he is currently in second place and a great chance to be our first ever winner.
COMMENTATOR: He's got the second best time!
LIZ HAYES: And think how good that would be. I look forward to seeing you there at the Paris end of this.
CADEL EVANS: I look forward to seeing the Paris end of it too.
LIZ HAYES: This is the race.
PHIL LIGGETT: This is the race. Win one day and you're made for life.