Chris Froome and Team Sky have been booed at the Tour de France. Is the salbutamol case behind this? You’d have to go and ask those doing it what their motivations are but Sky have got plenty of boos in previous years too. Hostility from the sections of the crowd goes right back to the earliest editions of the race. Over the years Gino Bartali almost got lynched in the Pyrenees and Jacques Anquetil even named a boat after the jeering crowds who didn’t like him winning.
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.
The Col de la République is the first climb above 1,000m used by the Tour de France and at the top there’s a monument to Paul de Vivie, aka Vélocio, a pioneer of cycle touring and early champion of the derailleur. It’s also notable for something else. In 1904 the Tour drew a crowd of 200 fervent supporters waiting to cheer on local rider Antonin Faure. They crowd must have been delighted to see Faure 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 (my translation):
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 at best and if Chany was long the authority on the Tour, many accounts of the sport’s early days were exaggerated so it’s hard to know; it could equally have been played down too. Either way this suggests the Tour’s 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 but he was denied the win because of team orders. It reached the point where the actual winner Antonin Magne was booed and whistled and needed 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 photograph that portrayed Vietto alone in his sorrow having surrendered his front wheel. In reality there were people standing around him but they were cropped out of the shot and the public didn’t know better.
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. One account says a knife was flashed at Bartali, another says it was just a man with a knife in one hand and some saucisson in the other. The Italian team quit the race in a protest led by Gino Bartali with Magni leaving too while leading the race.
The French crowd can turn on their compatriots. In 1961 Jacques Anquetil announced he wanted to lead the Tour de France from start to finish. He did (if you exclude sprinter André Darrigade winning a split stage) and many viewed him as arrogant and Maître Jacques was whistled, hissed and booed all over France. In the victory laps around the Parc des Princes in Paris the runner-up, Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul, was cheered by the crowds. Anquetil later bought a boat and christened it Sifflets, French for whistles.
The 1975 Tour had its rowdy moments, notably when Merckx got a punch to the kidneys which left him sore for much of the race and potentially long after too. He eventually lost the yellow jersey to Bernard Thévenet. A Frenchman beating Merckx and taking yellow: this must have been a dream come true for Thévenet? Actually it had its darker moments 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 avenging Merckx. Thévenet’s theory was that some people simply don’t like the leader of the race, that the yellow jersey was going to attract these acts.
Still Merckx getting a punch is very different from Thévenet getting a boo, violence versus free speech. A boo or a costume like we saw in the last Giro when someone was shaking a giant asthma inhaler doesn’t interfere with the race. In a twist of fate during the 2015 Tour de France 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 shot at, although it was pellets from an airgun with reports of teenagers lurking behind a tree. Potentially more dangerous, in 2012 a moron dropped carpet tacks on the Col de Péguère which could have caused great harm on the ensuing descent.
Today’s media can amplify one fool’s 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 Cincinnati to Sydney get the impression that the Tour de France is held under a shower of saliva. Such viral transmission is new in scale but the media has long played a role, go back to the case of Bartali in 1950 mentioned above and French newspapers branded the Italians “wheelsuckers” which set the crowds against them.
Lastly we need to distinguish between the crowds and a tiny minority. The Tour de France and other races are made better 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.
Like it or not, booing and seems to be have been part of some people’s roadside repertoire for decades and even a Frenchman in yellow can be on the receiving end of it. It’s worth calling out any acts that endanger the riders, from imbeciles after a selfie to those with any darker intentions but at the same time the risk is we dwell on a few idiots when we should be celebrating the millions out to enjoy the Tour as a spectacle. People who stand in a field for half of the day or 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, to watch a race on TV August is like having the sound on mute because there’s nobody to cheer on the riders.
Note: this piece is a retread of a post here from the winter of 2016 after a few readers had emailed in to ask if it was safe to visit the Tour de France. It is and should be an experience every cycling fan enjoys at some point.