One of the traditional features of competitive cycling at the elite level is the contribution made by the crowd to the atmosphere and the sense of dramatic occasion. I say contribution because sometimes it is welcome, sometimes not. Yesterday in the most farcical scenes imaginable, on a day of Mt. Ventoux drama, it was the latter category.
Since we live in 2016 it is now customary for many people to be demanding immediate action. Some of them may even know something about elite cycle racing. Notwithstanding that, it is worth looking briefly at the circumstances surrounding yesterday’s stage and the logistical challenges facing the organisers. First, the finish was never meant to be at Chalet Reynard. It was meant to be at the summit of Mt.Ventoux. Thanks to the forecast strong winds, Christian Prudhomme made the perfectly sensible decision to finish the race some 6km short of the summit where the winds would not have been as strong. Unfortunately, that meant having to rethink and reorganise the entire finishing section strategy (including spectator barriers) at very short notice, overnight, on a steep mountain.
Second, finishing at Chalet Reynard ensured that all the spectators who would have been spread out along 16km of road way were now concertinaed into 10km of already congested roadway. Now add into the mix that you are on Mt. Ventoux which, along with Alpe d’Huez is maybe the iconic stage of the Tour De France. This is where passions run high. Tours can be won or lost and the excitement of the spectators reaches fever pitch. That’s a fairly dramatic cocktail and not something anyone would expect to see too often. However, yesterday, it did.
The only rational decision
In the end, the Commissaries made the only rational decision and awarded Froome and Porte the same time as Mollema. Any other decision would have been extremely hard to justify. Interestingly, I was listening to BBC 5 Live whilst driving and heard the rather dramatic commentary of Rob Hayles and Rob Hatch as it happened. It is fair to say that “Froome is off his bike and is now running up Mt. Ventoux” was not a phrase I ever expected to hear on the radio.
John Inverdale must have been delighted though because up to that point he had spent the day at Royal Troon watching The Open. There it seemed, the only exciting issue appeared to be which of the presenters had eaten the most number of ice creams. That was useful information because I’ve always wondered with Golf how anyone manages to contain their excitement. Anyway, Inverdale now had a story with an actual pulse. He asked the two Rob’s an intriguing question. Was it not the case that in competitive sport, incidents like this were part of the excitement. Furthermore, in cycling, crowds were part of the event and when these things happened you realised you won some, you lost some (I am paraphrasing). But overall it was part of what made it exciting and you just got on with it.
Is cycling different?
That got me thinking whether there was anything about cycling that was actually different. Having thought about it for a full 50 minutes, I think there is. In those 50 minutes, I could only think of the World Rally Championship where the public can get that close. By close, I mean encroach on the field of play and potentially interfere. Since Rallying is bonkers on so many levels, I suspect we shouldn’t be using it to justify anything when it comes to Health & Safety. Seriously though, back to cycling, and what other sporting event involves hunks of metal operating at high speeds with a 70kg weight on board to give the whole thing serious kinetic energy inches from members of the public?
It does rather suggest that we may have reached a tipping point. Perhaps cycling needs to recognise that in the desire to get ever better TV coverage and sponsorship (which are perfectly legitimate goals by the way) it has other responsibilities. They include a duty to the riders and the public to ensure a field of play where risks are managed appropriately. We want the outcome of an iconic race to be decided by the skill and physical process of the combatants. Not, as could have happened on this occasion, by some bloke on a motorbike braking hard to avoid pilling into a load of excitable, and in some cases stupid, fans.
Please, no knee jerk reaction
What we don’t want to do is unwittingly change the character of the sport of cycling through knee jerk reaction. On the Grand Tours and their big stages, the crowds are an essential part of the atmosphere and excitement. So this does need careful deliberation before making a decision. But leadership is required, not kicking the issue into the long grass. In the last 12 months, there have been tragic incidents involving camera vehicles and riders. Quite reasonably, a number of the world’s leading riders and former riders including legends such as Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt and Chris Hoy have already been on social media saying something really does need to be done. They are right but lets hope also that we don’t see the organisers of the Tour feeling they have to be seen to do something and not necessarily the right thing.
A bit tough on Thomas
Spare a thought for Thomas de Gendt. He won a Stage of the Tour de France yesterday and not just any old stage either. It was on the Beast itself, or two thirds of it anyway. Shame that no-one will ever remember this particular Mt. Ventoux stage for de Gendt’s win. Instead we will remember it for the image of a rather tall, thin man, in a yellow jersey running up a hill in cycling shoes shouting for a spare bike. In a week where thanks to the crazy antics of politicians you thought you’d seen it all, turns out we hadn’t.