Rachel de Bear speaks with four women about how they found meaning, connection and a place to unleash their creativity in the most unexpected space.
The 108th Tour de France rolled out of Brest on the last Saturday in June and while the fan trajectory many follow means they now love other cycling races more, la grande boucle still goosebumps the skin and marshals an army of neck hairs to attention.
For the #CouchPeloton—a bunch of mostly Australian cycling fans who hang out virtually on Twitter while watching live racing—this feeling lingers from January to October.
Think Barmy Army but for cycling—in lounge rooms at the dead of night or early morning. But for many, it is much more.
The #CouchPeloton loudly hints at the Utopia social media once promised. A bright corner in a dark dank sewer, a subculture within a niche sport where many women fans unleash their creativity and find deep friendships and belonging.
Unlike the racing side of the Tour de France itself, women take their seat on the #CouchPeloton beside the men equally, their contribution and opinions celebrated. For some, it is also a life saver.
These are my people
Danya Wellington thought Nurofen was the solution when her husband Bill came to her 12 years ago complaining of a sore arm. But the pain increased, baffling doctors later at the hospital until finally, she was sent home to her three kids—all 12 and under—while the medical team investigated.
A phone call the next morning pierced the post-school run normality, heralding the end of their ‘incredibly lovely middle-class life.’
“’Mrs Wellington I’m terribly sorry,’” Danya recalls the doctor saying. “’We did everything we could, but your husband is on life support and you need to come in.’”
“All his organs had shut down. He had a flesh-eating bacteria in his arm and it had travelled all around his body f**king everything up as it went.”
Multiple surgeries later and seven years more than doctors gave him, here they both are now at 50, Danya providing the full-time care Bill has required after the bacteria affected his autonomic system and left him with an acquired brain injury.
Through sacrifice and the generosity of family and friends as well as assistance from the Bouverie Centre in Melbourne, she managed to ‘keep the lights on,’ pay the mortgage and source therapy for her kids despite insubstantial carer’s and disability pensions. ‘Life-saving’ friends also ensured she enjoyed several outings a year with the kids.
Enter cycling and its unique selling point—vicarious virtual escape.
“That is something that is just for me. I get my favourite pyjamas on, I make my snacks…make sure Bill is medicated and in bed and…I can have the TV on…and I can sit and have a few hours watching something I love.”
Danya’s love of cycling began as a kid.
“When I was a little girl, I can remember being at (Preston) market…and Mum would be looking through the French and Italian papers to see the results of the cycling in Europe.”
Her Mum is a ‘mad cycling nut’. She was ‘furious’ she wasn’t allowed by Danya’s grandparents to ride beyond commuting, so instead she was a ‘podium girl’ at Swan Hill velodrome. They still catch up on the phone to discuss and analyse each race of the season since they first started watching the Tour de France highlights together in the late 1980s and stayed up watching when SBS began showing some of the Tour de France stages live.
“When I left home, I still did that. Then I’d ring my mum the next day and talk about it. I nursed my babies while watching. Talked my friends’ ears off about cycling.”
Cycling fans gathered virtually on Twitter before the #CouchPeloton hashtag was created several years ago and that’s where Danya started.
“I’d got onto [it in the 2000s at some point] and I thought ‘I don’t know if I really like it. Then I saw some Tweets about #toursnacks.
“These are my people,” she exclaims. “I don’t like the rest of Twitter but they’re my friends I’ve decided.”
Finding the #CouchPeloton a few years later after its inception was inevitable and special.
“You’d have to clutch [it] from my cold dead hands,” Danya says.
“These lovely people are having these great lives and everyone’s having fun and I get to join in. And I don’t get to join in a lot of things. It makes me feel like I’m living in the real world.
“I can say I’ve had a really rough day and everyone will go ‘are we going to talk about it or are we just going to show you funny Gifs?’
“That ability for everyone to just kind of ask you what you need and then provide it. What an absolute gift. As a full time carer there’s always things that need to be done and there’s always someone who needs you and I talk about the #CouchPeloton being a soft place to land for me because no one is needing or demanding anything of me.
“Oh God, that is just *chef’s kiss*.”
From mug cakes to Barbie dolls—#CouchPeloton has it all
Sydneysider Beth Morris can’t really remember exactly when the hashtag was created* nor who coined the term.
While SBS’s free to air coverage of men’s and women’s racing is vital to sustaining the #CouchPeloton in Australia, ironically it began as a break away from the multicultural broadcaster’s own hashtags.
“A bunch of people were feeling kind of irritated by some of the Tour de France only [fans],” the 34-year-old explains. “I wasn’t one of the ones who was like we desperately need to get away from all these other people because I’ve always tried to be one of the more helpful, welcoming [fans].
“But the first week of the Tour de France is always very hard.”
SBS’s hashtags were attracting the type who tried to drag fans towards toxicity.
“Someone suggested ‘should we just have our own tag so that we don’t have to be near everybody else?’” Beth says. “Everyone [agreed] this is about the community that is cycling. And it [also] meant we just had one we use for the whole season.”
As the opening weekend of the 2021 Tour demonstrated, the breakaway tag still attracts ‘shouty’ people and spammers largely because SBS has co-opted the #CouchPeloton in its promotion—mostly out of respect rather than commercialisation—and as the hashtag trends. But several members swooped in swiftly to advise the offenders of the unofficial rules.
“It’s small enough that we have some fairly strongly enforced community rules about things,” Beth says. “And helping out newbies, so it doesn’t usually spiral out too often.”
Beth’s creative contribution to this little community is organising several cooking theme nights for #TourSnacks, one of the fan generated hashtags, during each of the three week races (or grand tours), like the Tour de France.
“We have a lot of very creative [members]. I looked at the [Tour de France] race book a few years ago and saw a 210km flat road with not a single bump… you don’t actually need to watch until 30kms to go.
“I went, ‘well why don’t we cook something? Why don’t we cook something easy?’ Mug cake! Mug cakes are easy.”
Members of the #CouchPeloton then posted pictures of their efforts to the associated hashtags, and Beth quote tweeted all the entries and gave out awards.
“I went trawling through the #TourSnacks tag and literally anything that involved a cup or a mug or even like a bowl I could pretend was a mug I’d retweet a picture of it and then add comments about how ‘yeah this mug of beer poured into a stein is definitely a mug cake because beer involves grain.’”
The #CouchPeloton loved it and many members immediately asked when she was holding the next one.
“I run two to three a grand tour, depending on what the race profile looks like because I only like running them on flat, boring stages because I don’t get to watch the race when this is going on,” Beth says.
When Beth talks about how she has shaped her theme nights over the years after receiving feedback, she can’t hide the fondness she feels as she talks about her fellow fans ensuring everyone feels as included as possible.
“The theme has to be expansive enough that you don’t need to have an oven… it needs to be something they can pick up the ingredients out of the pantry because we’ve got a whole bunch of country folk who can’t just run down the shops. We’ve got people who fly in fly out of oil rigs so it needs to be something accessible.”
“I had someone who didn’t have a kitchen because it was getting renovated and it was a pancake theme night… she’d got a piece of paper, drew a pancake and cut it out and sent me the picture of the drawing and I claimed that thing as a pancake.”
“I enjoy how much everyone likes it. I get a lot of pleasure out of the awards.”
Like Danya, a parent showed Beth the way to cycling fandom. She and her Dad bonded over the SBS coverage and she continued watching it after moving out on her own in her early 20s, also coinciding with her first foray onto cycling Twitter.
“Yes, Twitter generally is a cesspool of terrible ideas, but the cycling community portion of it is pretty friendly,” Beth says.
“Hanging out with my internet community of around 300 or so other people who are also watching the exact same thing I’m watching and chatting back to me and then of course once you’ve all been chatting with one another on a daily basis for three weeks and you’re all extremely exhausted because you go until 2am in the morning, you chat about all sorts of other things.
“I enjoy the creative transformational side of things like you see all the stuff with the dolls and that stuff is really cool and really creative and Mrs Frog will always put on a dollypic for me for theme nights.”
Yes, dollypics. Kathryn, or Mrs Frog as most people on Twitter only know her, entertains the #CouchPeloton with her Barbie doll dioramas every day of a grand tour. She began capturing memorable moments from each of the 21 stages in this way during the 2019 Tour de France.
It seemed the best way to make use of the dolls she started collecting a few years ago as a way of connecting with her mother who has since moved into a nursing home for her Alzheimer’s.
“It was hard to do things with Mum,” the 47-year-old says. “She’d buy books and the girls and I would look at getting all the different dolls and stuff.
“It sort of went from there and we got a bit carried away. We got heaps and heaps of dolls and there was one purchase on eBay and it had a bicycle and a really nice yellow outfit and I thought ‘that’d look fantastic on a doll.’”
The scenes can take anywhere from between one to several hours to set up in their home in Sydney’s West, and she enlists the help of her husband Kevin. While Kathryn initially intended for her daughters aged nine and seven years to help, she admits to being a bit of a ‘control freak,’ and does not let them get involved but they do get to see the finished product.
It is serious business for the stay-at-home mum.
“Not working, it’s sort of something that I can [have as a] creative outlet for my humour,” she says.
“We giggle, we have a bit of fun with it. Sometimes it’s stressful because I just can’t get it right but it’s more enjoyable than anything.
“And seeing some of the likes you get for it on Twitter as well…people get your humour or appreciate it. During lockdown…some of the comments people made, they said it made their day or they were looking forward to it, so that was kinda nice!”
Kathryn too came to cycling via her Dad and as a long-time fan she would watch the cycling anyway if there was no #CouchPeloton. But she finds it invaluable.
“I can’t believe how funny some people are. I just laugh and laugh. And they’re also very caring. I don’t really get into the asking of how people are. I always feel like I’m intruding but you see conversations between people and I just think that’s so great because some of these people live alone.
“It’s like a friendship they probably would never have if it wasn’t for the #CouchPeloton or Twitter.
“I can’t remember who said it but it really rings true – the #CouchPeloton is like being in the pub where you can hear the conversation.
“It’s not just about cycling it’s about other things that happen in life.
“I’m a stay at home mum and a lot of the time I don’t get to have adult conversations unless it’s down at the schoolyard and it’s nice not just kiddie stuff all the time even though I’m playing with dolls!”
Unexpected friendship and enriched lives
Those friendships are what Susan Moore, 65, never expected to find, especially not through Twitter after she lost the love of her life in 2017.
The Melburnian discovered cycling later than most when her husband Les was stuffing about with the TV when Australian broadcasters had fully switched over to HD. He flicked over to the Tour de France on SBS and as neither had ever travelled overseas they were hooked. Married for more than 38 years, they were ‘two peas in a pod.’
“We never did things separately. We did everything together,” Susan says.
Susan knew watching her first Tour de France without him was going to be tough.
“I think I might’ve said something [on Twitter].” The tears shatter her bubbly, articulate armour as she recalls the flood of support she received via public Tweets and DMs.
“It was very emotional and I was really grateful for the #CouchPeloton in that first year because I really didn’t know how I was going to cope. I think even (SBS presenter) Mike Tomalaris said something. That absolutely blew me away.”
As anniversaries and milestones kept marking more time without Les, Susan leant increasingly on the #CouchPeloton for support.
“People say you get through your first year and you’re fine. That’s nonsense. Every time you do something different, it’s a first you’re doing without them. And those firsts just keep happening.”
Like her toughest year yet, 2018 when she and Les should’ve celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. A friend from the #CouchPeloton sensed her pain and reached out.
“Shelley contacted me [at the end of 2018] and said ‘why don’t you clear your calendar for January and come over and watch the Tour Down Under?’ Well, I was blown away. But I really felt Les tapping me on the shoulder saying ‘say yes.’”
It was on this trip where Susan and Shelley met SBS commentator Matthew Keenan while wearing #CouchPeloton t-shirts.
“He opened his arms wide and said ‘My people.’”
“That kind of connection is also what makes the #CouchPeloton special. We’re not dissed by SBS, we’re given so much respect.
“You don’t expect to be acknowledged by a TV station or mentioned by the commentators when they answer our questions.”
This trip in January 2019 also forged a deep friendship. While she lost her soulmate, Susan gained a new best friend through this little community and experienced a different set of firsts.
“I’m 65, you don’t expect to make a best friend at that age and Shelley has said the same. Someone said they thought we’d been to school together.
“And I officially met her for the first time in January 2019. That’s mind boggling.
“I would never have done all the flying I’ve done if it wasn’t for Shelley and the #CouchPeloton. I’ve flown more times since losing Les than I’d ever flown before.
“One of the best things after losing Les was meeting her and it would never have happened if Les was still here because we never holidayed apart.
“Over the last four years the times that I’ve spent with the #CouchPeloton, especially at night when I’m at my worst, there’s so many times that were absolute lifesavers.
“It’s added and enriched my life in ways I could never ever have expected.”