Tour de France must adapt to survive as crowd size threatens its future

Cycling - Tour de France cycling race - Stage 14 from Montelimar to Villars-les-Dombes

‘The Tour is finished,” wrote its founder Henri Desgrange in 1904 after the second edition of the race was wrecked by cheating and crowds intervening violently to manipulate the race in favour of their local heroes.

Desgrange added that his brainchild had been “killed by its own success and the blind passions it has unleashed”. Although he was referring to riders who had hopped on trains rather than ride their bikes, his words resonate in the week that provided what could be the defining image of the 2016 race: Chris Froome running up Mont Ventoux after an accident caused by the vastness of the crowds had damaged his bike beyond use.

The chaos and debate following the Mont Ventoux finish brought together two elements that have long worried observers of the Tour: its sheer scale and its ability to adapt rapidly in the face of outside events and – something related to its scale but also one of those outside factors – the increasing number of spectators on the road and the questions that raises in terms of maintaining order.

Coupled with those questions is the x-factor that makes the Tour unique in modern sport but which is also its achilles heel: it takes place on the open road, with virtually free access for fans. Fans on the Tour – and other bike races – enjoy levels of interaction with the athletes which are unparalleled in an event of this importance in modern sport. Some become fixtures known to generations of cyclists such as one Belgian fan who “retired” this summer after handing up cans of Coke to the riders in the mountains every July for more than 30 years. Struggling back markers receive pushes as they go up hill; water is handed up. This is one of the sport’s greatest calling cards but it should not be taken for granted.

The borderline between positive and negative interaction is, unhappily, easily crossed. The Tour – and other bike races – have a long and inglorious history of intervention by spectators, whether by carelessness or actual malign intent. Among the incidents that led Desgrange to despair of the 1904 race was a vast fracas on the Col de la République, where crowds invaded the route, stopped the race and beat up the rival of the local fastman. In 1950 Gino Bartali and the Italian national team left the race after crowds intimidated them following a controversial crash involving the Frenchman Jean Robic.

At the Giro d’Italia, at certain times, there was systemised, completely illegal pushing by the fans who would position themselves strategically so a favourite could be slung up a mountain from one tifoso to another. Eddy Merckx complained that he lost the 1975 Tour due to a fan punching him at the Puy de Dôme. Last year Chris Froome required extra police protection after urine was thrown at him from the roadside; Mark Cavendish had the same treatment two years earlier.

Television and social media embrace and accentuate the good and the bad sides of all this. Riders forcing a passage through a wall of fans is an eternal Tour image but the crowds have become increasingly large and unruly. Cameras have long been an issue but there have been continual warnings in recent years from riders about the dangers of fans taking selfies with mobile phones. The “devil”, a dressed up German, began running alongside riders on the stage to Andorra in 1993. Back then he was a curiosity, almost the only man in costume sprinting up the road yelling in the riders’ faces. Now thousands want to emulate him every day.

The Trek-Segafredo rider Peter Stetina was one of many to criticise the fans. Besides the Ventoux incident there were two cases where riders became entangled in flags brandished by fans, including one involving Stetina’s team-mate Markel Irizar. Stetina said it was “unfortunate that the fans are dictating the race more than the legs sometimes.

“Somehow we’ve gotten this scene where everyone wants to get on TV for a party. You have guys dressed up in Borat costumes showing their ass, and it’s more about themselves than supporting the race sometimes. I don’t understand why you have to act like a buffoon. It’s energising when they are there cheering for you but it can be too much. It’s a fine line.”

Thirty years ago there were concerns that the Tour was drifting towards what the French termed gigantisme, where it simply becomes too unwieldy to manage: more fans, more television cameras, more guest cars, more of everything. Over the years each day’s start and finish have become an increasingly complex logistical operation to accommodate the vast caravan. Already there are restrictions; mountain passes are closed in advance to keep them clear of non-race traffic and the limitations on cars within the race “bubble” are now draconian.

The Tour changes in a reactive way: dope controls are one example, so too the creation of a system to keep non-essential vehicles away from the actual race route after a spate of deaths as spectators got run down.

After the Ventoux debacle there will be more barriers on mountains, more restrictions on race motorbikes, possibly even limits imposed on the number of spectators permitted on certain climbs in spite of the control issues this will raise.

What seems to be lacking in the organisers is any concerted attempt to take a step back, think long and hard and get to grips with the issue which has bedevilled the race for years: how to manage and probably limit its constant growth.

Powered by article was written by William Fotheringham, for The Observer on Saturday 16th July 2016 23.12 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010