Much was made last summer of the hostile reception given to Chris Froome as he rode around France with reports of urine being thrown at him and Richie Porte saying he was punched as he climbed to La Pierre St Martin. Readers even emailed in to ask if the Tour de France is safe to visit (of course it is). In fact hostility from the crowd, or at least a few morons along the way, has long been part of the sport. Gino Bartali got lynched and Jacques Anquetil even named a boat after the jeering crowds.
A few incidents might still shock but the wonder is why an event that passes 12 million people with barely a barrier, tape or fence between athletes and spectators doesn’t see more trouble.
Kill Him! Kill Him!
The Col de la République in central France is the first ever climb above 1,000m used by the Tour de France in 1903 and there’s a monument to Paul de Vivie, aka Vélocio, a pioneer of cycle touring and champion of the derailleur. In 1904 the Tour returned to the climb and drew a crowd of 200 fervent supporters waiting to cheer on Antonin Fauré, a local rider from St Etienne, the industrial city at the foot of the climb. They must have been delighted to see Fauré lead the race but things went sour as his competitors came into sight. First the Italian rider Gerbi was pushed off his bike, beaten and got a broken finger. Then the crowd surrounded defending champion Maurice Garin and chants of “kill him” went out. Here’s French writer Pierre Chany:
A bunch of fanatics wielded sticks and shouted insults, setting on the other riders: Maurice and César Garin got a succession of blows, the older brother [Maurice] was hit in the face with a stone. Soon there was general mayhem: “Up with Faure! Down with Garin! Kill them!” they were shouting. Finally cars arrived and the riders could get going thanks to pistol shots. The aggressors disappeared into the night
Was it true? Chany wasn’t born until 1922 so the story is second-hand. Given many accounts of the Tour were exaggerated it’s hard to know, it could equally have been played down too. It suggests the Tour’s roadside crowds had a rowdy contingent right from the start.
The 1934 edition saw huge crowds cheer René Vietto as the “moral winner” of the race after handing wheels and bikes to team mates, the idea being that the public thought Vietto was the best rider in the race. It reached the point where the actual winner Antonin Magne was booed and whistled and had to have Vietto at his side to calm the crowds. But in “The Sweat of Gods” Benjo Maso sets out how much of Vietto’s tale was fabricated and exaggerated by the media including the famous tale of a cropped photograph made to suggest Vietto was alone in his agony.
In 1950 Gino Bartali and Jean Robic were away on the Col d’Aspin but crashed because of the crowd. Reports vary but share common traits of a bust-up with fans angry at the Italian domination of the race as by the time the race reached the Pyrenees the Italians had taken half the stages and Fiorenzo Magni wore the yellow jersey. But the Italian team quit the race in a protest led by Gino Bartali with Magni leaving too.
The French can equally turn on their compatriots too. In 1961 Jacques Anquetil announced he wanted to lead the Tour de France from start to finish. He did – just if you exclude André Darrigade winning a split stage – and people viewed him as arrogant and whistled, hissed and booed him around France. In the victory laps around the Parc des Princes in Paris the “loser” Charly Gaul was cheered by the crowds. Anquetil later named his boat Sifflets, French for whistles.
Blending the past and present one mini-theme of last summer’s Tour was the return to Pra Loup, the place where Thévenet beat Eddy Merckx in 1975 to end the Belgian’s reign over the race. The 1975 Tour had its rowdy moments notably when Merckx got a punch to the ribs which left him sore for much of the race. He eventually lost the yellow jersey to Thévenet. A Frenchman beating Merckx and taking yellow, this must have been a dream come true for Thévenet? Actually it had its darker moments too as he told Jean-Paul Ollivier of radio station France Info. He said he was spat on while in yellow and the people doing this were French rather than angry Belgians wanting to avenge Merckx. Thévenet’s theory was that a few people simply didn’t like the leader of the race, that the yellow jersey was going to attract these acts.
Having a go at the riders is a perpetual problem, almost a tradition. As for getting doused in urine it’s happened before. In a twist of fate Chris Froome and his entourage attributed some of his treatment by the crowds to loaded words said by TV and radio pundit Laurent Jalabert. It turns out Jalabert’s younger brother Nicolas had urine thrown at him in the 2008 Tour de France, fell ill and quit the the next day. Mark Cavendish said he got a soaking in 2013 but in a subsequent interview with Daniel Friebe for The Cycling Podcast hinted it could equally have been warm beer. If all this sounds bad enough in 2009 Julian Dean and Oscar Freire were hit by pellets from an airgun with reports of teenagers lurking behind a tree and in 2012 some moron dropped carpet tacks on the climb which could have caused danger on the ensuing decent.
None of this is unique to the Tour either, Google the “Simoni Hooligans”, remember the Gent-Wevelgem photo man or see the recent complaints by Lars Van Der Haar at the Cyclo-Cross Worlds. Not that tradition excuses idiocy, to borrow from Marx, history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce” so if it’s bad enough once then twice is idiotic. But in an event that attracts 12 million people there will always be a few looking to sour things. If anything the surprise is that there are not more incidents given the sheer numbers and the proportion of them that have enjoyed wine or beer as they wait by the roadside.
We shouldn’t focus on them although today’s media can amplify their actions very quickly. All it takes is an animated Gif of one person spitting on a rider and the clip is posted on websites like Buzzfeed where bored office workers from New York to Sydney get the impression that the Tour de France is held under a shower of saliva. This is new but the media has long played a role with reports branding the Italians “wheelsuckers” in 1950 which set the crowds against them.
The exception to all this is “Dutch Corner” on Alpe d’Huez which does seem to attract excess. Peter Cossins’ book on the mountain explains the raucous events but also the massive clean-up and hygiene concerns that follow after.
Lastly we need to distinguish between the crowds and a tiny minority. The Tour and other races are made bigger by the giant crowds, a bike race without people lining the roads never feels the same and the lack of barriers makes the event special, there’s almost nothing like it in other sports. One of the striking things about a day out at the Tour de France is just how many people are out for a picnic and a caravanne freebie. Ask them who is in the yellow jersey and many are stumped. But they know how to spot suffering and when the riders eventually arrive the first and last get a cheer.
Is the Tour de France dangerous and full of hooligans? Of course not, in fact it’s a grand day out that every cycling fan should experience. It’s worth calling out the dangerous acts that threaten the riders but at the same time the danger is dwelling on a handful of idiots when we should be celebrating the millions who do it right and like it or not booing and hissing seems to be part of some people’s roadside repertoire. People who walk up a mountain to cheer on the riders are largely there to cheer on the riders and have a good day out and help make the race special.
This was a piece originally planned for last summer but passions ran so high it seemed better to wait a bit before trying to suggest idiots have long tried to interfere with the race for fear of people thinking that because it’s happened before it can be excused. It can’t, but it’s not new as a few select anecdotes from the past century suggest. But the draft got forgotten until The Cycling Podcast discussed hooliganism and tribalism with Richard Moore mentioning the “nasty little element creeping into the roadside support of some races” before suggesting it wasn’t new either and in the 1980s “Bernard Hinault… …complained he had beer thrown at him and telephone directories”.