As I watched le Tour de France race through Marseille today, I felt a couple of rants coming on. But first a bit of background.
In person, I have seen stages of le Tour de France on four occasions, and it is my favourite sporting event. It’s also the hardest thing to win in sport. I have driven a car up Alpe d’Huez, one of le Tour’s ugly mountain stages. My little Renault Super Cinq could barely make it up the 21 steep hairpin turns in first gear. It’s harder on a bike. There is a scale for rating the difficulty of mountain climbs in le Tour, but Alpe d’Huez has the special designation of hors catégorie, which translates exactly to “it’s so frickin’ tough that it is beyond our classification scale.”
Every year, the cyclists strain to reach the summit of Alpe d’Huez, to complete a 172 kilometre challenge. The crowd’s always boisterous, if not slightly insane. Fans dress up as superheroes, vicars, kangaroos, vikings, and weird naked guys. Everyone cheers madly, waving the flags of their home countries. So far so good, but here starts the rant.
During le Tour de France, the most famous bike race in the world, boasting millionaire riders of immeasurable physical conditioning, there are no rules for the crowds. The fans surge onto the racecourse during the competition…and why wouldn’t they? After all, there are no barriers keeping them away, and, well, they are mostly French. Fans constantly touch the riders, run beside them, cross in front of them at the last second, narrowing avoiding collisions. In what other professional sports championship are the fans allowed onto the field of play during the game? A couple of years ago, I watched Frenchman Christophe Ribbon inch up d’Huez in the lead. The crowd blocked his route, leaning over in front of him, opening a sliver of road at the last second. Riblon looked like Moses parting a Red Sea of crazed cycling fans. The road was obscured by the people and the flags held in front of each rider…the cyclists just had to trust the depth perception of a mass of drunken idiots to pull back in time to avoid collisions. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask that le Tour riders can actually see the road they are racing on, a split second before they ride it. Running guys were slapping Riblon and the other riders on the butts and shoulders while they climbed the Alps. It was like trying to give an NFL wide receiver a high five, just as he’s trying to make a catch, in the end zone. Near the end of the race, a jogging, beefy guy tried to put his arm around Riblon’s shoulder, (remember, this is DURING the competition), and the cyclist started to veer off course. Riblon had to lash out and punch his fan in the chest just to get clear. Most telling was that the television announcer didn’t even comment on the incident, which is common. How can this be allowed during a professional sporting event?
There is a short section of the climb up Alpe d’Huez which actually has normal metal barriers, the type you would see at any North American race. An affront to the crowd, the barriers can not hold back everyone leaning over, shaking their fists, trying to touch the riders still. Huge flags hang over the racecourse so the riders have to duck to get through them. Fans with foam swimming noodles whack riders on the helmet. I remember one lonely guy, who probably lives in his mum’s basement, dangling over the fence a hugely fat, naked, blow-up sex doll, its cherry red lips held in a permanent “oh.” The riders casually ducked under her too.
The route up the mountain is narrow, made narrower by the long, long line of camper vans parked on the road. Not at the side of the road, or in a campground near the road, but ON the road while the race is in progress. Those without camper vans pitch their tents on the road, which may make for a hard sleeping surface, but keeps one close to the action. I think it would be cool if the next time I went to New York I just pitched my tent in centrefield of Yankee Stadium. During the World Series. Good seats.
It isn’t all uphill for the riders on d’Huez, and in one descent most hit 70 kilometres per hour. While they risk their lives racing downhill, team cars weave in and out between the riders, with inches to spare. Bystanders walk across the road, narrowly avoiding collisions with racers and team cars. The cyclists breathe the fumes of the many motorcycles with cameramen on the backs, sometimes sitting backwards while they film the racers. So much for the health and safety of the riders.
I appreciate that le Tour de France is partially great because the fans can get close to their heroes. Anyone can go, and it’s free. The lack of rules adds to the race’s charm…it’s a month long party where anything goes. But as I watch horrific crashes of cyclists in le Tour each year, I remember the closing day of a recent Tour de France. The cyclists were on the final bolt up the Champs-Élysées, a cluster of sprinting madness. Each rider was inches away from his neighbour, pumping furiously to win the final stage. A woman leaned over the course, and her purse handle looped around the handlebars of one of the riders. He immediately went down in a high speed, end-over-end tumble of road rash and broken bones, taking a dozen others with him. There formed on the road a huge clump of tangled metal and bloodied millionaires. I asked myself what it was in the French psyche that justified the danger to its heroes when a reasonable barricade could eliminate most hazards, without loss of enjoyment for the fans. Maybe I’m just too English to ever understand it.