Open roads make Tour de France both unique and dangerous
Crowd unrest nothing new at Tour but this year it’s particularly poisonous towards Sky
Netherlands’ Steven Kruijswijk rides through spectators in the ascent to l’Alpe d’Huez during the twelfth stage of the 2018 Tour de France . Photo: Philippe Lopez/Getty Images
How many more years can the French stomach Team Sky’s domination of the Tour de France? Are the traditions of the Tour, the accessibility of the riders, the proximity of the fans, the international nature of the peloton, under threat after one of the most ill-tempered editions of the race in living memory?
The Tour de France has survived two world wars, the civil unrest of 1968, serial doping scandals, financial and sponsorship crises, riders being punched, shoved and drugged and yes, even farmers and fishermen protesting.
As Richard Plugge, the vice-president of the professional teams association (AIGCP), says: “What is normal at the Tour de France?”
Like many others, Plugge believes that the roots of the booing, spitting, grabbing and fraught nature of this year’s race lie across the Pyrenees in Spain, where Chris Froome’s salbutamol adverse finding at the Vuelta a España last year first fuelled this summer of discontent. The Team Sky rider was cleared at the beginning of July after the UCI eventually closed its case.
The Dutchman, manager of the Lotto Jumbo NL team of the podium contender Primoz Roglic, says the lack of resolution to Froome’s case was the greatest provocation to a nation already disenchanted with Sky’s domination. “The most important element was that there was a case with Froome, starting in November,” he said.
“We have a referee in our sport – the UCI – and it took them way too long to decide whether Froome got a green light, or a red light. That case dragged out for so long – for eight months or so – and all the while the tensions were building up in France.
“The UCI should be more of a governing body. Team Sky is being booed for something that they never did: they got the green light from the UCI – they didn’t get a red card. But there’s nothing the Tour’s promoters ASO can do about that. ASO did a lot of work to really create a secure environment.”
Yet whatever the race organisers do, the Tour remains vulnerable and always will be if it is run on open roads. The race has long relied on the goodwill of the roadside fans. Unticketed and almost impossible to police, it is world sport’s greatest free event. This year, at times, that goodwill has been sorely lacking. “One of the reasons that this is a great sport is because of the proximity of the fans to the riders,” Plugge said. “There’s no way that we can put barriers all along the complete course of each stage.”
Nor would the Tour’s economic model extend to hundreds of kilometres of barriers. The race generates most of its revenue from TV rights and sponsorship. Any attempt to charge any kind of entrance fee would be met with outrage from a French audience that is already losing interest in a race that since the mid-1980s has been dominated by foreigners.
Security, in a country scarred by recent terrorist attacks, is now a growing concern. Froome’s comical interception by an overzealous policeman as he descended to his team bus after the summit finish at the Col de Portet was indicative of the stress that the gendarmerie, faced with the mad chaos of the mountain stages, is increasingly being placed under.
Plugge accepted that the Tour’s old traditions may have to adapt. “We understand the tense situation among the policemen. But what happened to Froome – it’s not a good thing that a policemen pulled Froome off his bike, but on the other hand there are so many people riding through the cars and the caravan that I understand the gendarme’s mistake.”
Yet Plugge argued that any fan who caused an athlete to crash should be subjected to police action. “I can’t understand that guy that grabbed Thomas. You should never touch an athlete and I hope the police will find him. If he’d made Thomas crash, then it’s an assault.”
Perhaps the best scenario for the Tour’s security managers would be a French winner – an outcome that, with Romain Bardet yet again falling short, Thibaut Pinot sidelined by illness and no other contenders on the horizon remains a dream.
Plugge is sure, however, where the blame for the tensions lies. “The UCI should have played more of a United Nations ‘Kofi Annan role’ instead of putting oil on the fire with the Froome case, especially in France. That did not help.
“The UCI is our referee; either Froome is in the race, or he’s out of the race. That message could have been communicated way earlier.” – Guardian service