The Rowdy Crowd

Dutch Corner Alpe d'Huez

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.

Vietto comes a cropper in a cropped shot

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.

Going viral
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.

Dutch corner
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.

Voiture Balai

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”.

57 thoughts on “The Rowdy Crowd”

  1. I think if you are as thick as mince and want to leave off licking windows to go and attack a bike rider in the Tour you have to work pretty hard at it. When football hooliganism was at its height (admittedly the hooligans were attacking each other not players) the hooligan had an easy task; the ruck-venue would be definite –a rival stadium and the city in which it located do not move about much; the means of travel to get there mainstream. To attack a Tour rider you have to know the stage routes and work out where you might get a strike in; and in getting to such choice spots is not so easy. It would suggest any Tour attacks are random and opportunistic. I like the comment on the Bartali case that the ‘knifeman’ was actually a bloke by the roadside interrupted while making a sandwich. The bigger problem though is that the media to whip up hysteria and copycat responses is much less controlled and more potent these days.

  2. As usual an intelligent and above all sane piece from inrng; a welcome antidote to the usual hyperbole and sensationalism of so much online content.

    One thing I thought reading this was just how much my experience of watching cycling has been about the very opposite to hooliganism and violence. We’ve all seen countless examples of riders being helped back onto their bikes after a fall, and then another recent example, Tyler Farrar being lent a spectator’s bike in the TDU. It would be a mistake to dwell too much on the myth of cycling exceptionalism of course, but still, the overall positive and supportive atmosphere at events is a welcome thing and perhaps not so prevalent elsewhere. Sadly it doesn’t make for exciting headlines, I guess.

    In terms of cycling fans specifically, one other thing has always struck me as noteworthy. When it comes to big tour mountain stages, the ability of several thousand hung-over spectators to manoeuvre their rented motor homes off a crowded mountain pass after the race has left, without killing each other or even having too many fights is really quite remarkable. It’s not something you’ll ever see on the TV coverage of course but another example of just how well behaved and considerate most people are, most of the time. Or maybe they’re just thinking about the 800 Euro voluntary excess on their rental insurance. Whatever : )

    • Mondydes – a similar thought struck me on Alpe d’Huez a couple of years ago – a large number of folks on the climb appeared to have come up by bike, and a large number seemed to be quite a few beers to the worse (leading to lots of boisterous behavior…) making me wonder how a lot of them made it down without ending up in a ditch or two…

  3. I agree, running this last summer would not have been a good idea. Two things come to mind, the first one (leaving plain old xenophobia out for now) being those who are spit on, etc. pretty much are those seen as arrogant, obnoxious or maybe even “piling it on” in their domination of the race. While Anquetil seemed to revel in the fans hatred, Merckx seemed rather neutral about it but others get all agitated and start whining without seeming to understand why the fans hate them and a tiny minority of those act out with more than just whistles and boos. The second is those in the crowd who insist on turning around and mugging for the TV cameras. The race they’ve likely waited all day to supposedly see finally comes by and instantly they’re not paying the slightest attention – instead they’re trying to get into the TV shot! That’s annoying to me but worse is when these morons get in the way of the race, either running alongside or jumping out into the road as the camera moto arrives. I blame a lot of this stupidity on that stinky guy who dressed up as a devil back-in-the-day and wish the camera operators and the producer in the truck would quickly switch away from these dolts rather than give them the few seconds of infamy they crave.

      • During the 2013 TdF time trial, Cavendish said that a spectator had doused him with urine. His coaches agreed that they could smell it, LeFevere was furious, etc. It was blamed on the media and how they had portrayed Tom Veelers crash after a tussle with Cav the day before.

        Fast forward to 2015 TdF. froome, in yellow, claimed that a spectator threw a small cup of urine in his face somewhere between 50-60k into the race. No one corroborated his story; Brailsford didn’t smell it, no teammate saw it happen, it wasn’t caught on video… all while he Was In Yellow! froome and his team complained about the hatred aimed at the team and blamed it on Jalabert, who had said that he was uncomfortable with the ease with which Sky and froome were winning compared to the podiumed riders of the year before.

        There’s a pretty good chance that it did happen to Cav. And why would he make it up? I doubt anything beyond spittle has ever ended up on froome and he made up the story for sympathy and to distract from the very loud suspicions regarding the possibility that he’s a doper.

  4. These incidents are just a small part of what constitutes the TdF. We have to accept that some verbal exchange, either jocular or otherwise is par for the event. What I personally hate seeing is people trying to get their faces on the TV screens by running alongside riders yelling and generally playing the fool, without paying due attention to what might be in front of them. +1000 Larry.

    The line has to be drawn at physical intimidation, of which thankfully there have only been a few isolated incidents.

    It would help a great deal if some well known French media personalities, even ex EPO powered pro cyclists, could give more balanced views on the event, rather than inciting people to react in unreasonable ways.

  5. Lots of abuse suffered by Contador on the Tour, during other bike races, via social media, etc.

    Contador has even had to punch out at abusive fans..

    But that Contador doesn’t make much about it during races or via social media, it’s forgotten.

    Froome makes such a big deal of everything.. he’s always the victim.. sigh

    • Well, AC didn’t have to face the barrage in the daily press conference either as he was never in the yellow in 2011.

      I suppose the interesting thing here is that Froome actually didn’t have it any worse than any previous yellow jerseys. Sure, the language used to devalue the yellow jersey has developed, and the attackers gained a more renowned moral supremacy after progressing from accusing wheel sucking to doping (though I suppose wheel sucking was as “bad/punishable” a form of cheating back in the days to fans back then). But really, modern day riders didn’t have it any worse than Merckx, Anquetil and, as Mr Inner Ring pointed out, oddly Thévenet.

      The only oddity about Froome is perhaps half the Brits hate him as well, probably due to the bickering with Wiggins (and many British fans don’t count him as British, wondering if some Olympic success would change that. Not likely though). But even that doesn’t stand out as Thévenet had been spat at by his own country man even during the Tour he supposedly saved the face of French Cycling.

      • I think there’s an additional ingredient to the recent tours.

        A large segment of the French media relishes in bemoaning the death of pro cycling and casting current (non-French? British?) champions as cheats. In doing so, it willingly peddles pseudoscience and gives coverage to ‘experts’ in its efforts to ‘prove’ that no normal cyclist could maintain n watts for n minutes etc.

        Some of the fuel to this fire is provided by ex-pro dopers (one in particular), given prominent positions on TV coverage of the race, now making careers out of pontificating and casting aspersions on better (and supposedly clean) champions.

        Did Merckx and Anquetil have to deal with such a disgusting atmosphere of total hypocrisy?

  6. Roche Visentini Giro 87 – if you want a whole nation of excitable tifosi against you that was the way to go. The Irishman had a brass neck and big balls, neither of which detracted from his inimitable pedaling style

  7. I love the interaction between spectators and riders. It is what makes cycling so special, although I hate the “running with the bulls” type morons as Larry mentions above.

    One of my favourite moments that still makes me snigger is “Underpants Man” innocently being on the receiving end of a Cippolini bike during a stage of the Giro a few years ago. Surely, only in cycling…

  8. Never understood why no country or locality hosting a major race (that i know of) does not have a criminal law (e.g. misdemeanor) for “interfering with a professional bicycle race”. At the very least, the line should be drawn at any physical contact with a rider.
    To dismiss the growing problem as “it’s only a few loonies” misses the point.

  9. “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…”

    Isn’t it true that there was only one report, and the only witness to this alleged event is froome himself?

  10. Crowd banter is fine, but what if a rider accidentally ingests some sort of banned substance through a deliberately laced drink throw at his face?

    • I’ve considered the possibility more than a few times; a professional athlete would have to be pretty desperate to ingest anything given to them by a stranger.

  11. I agree with the article and every July ready myself for more shouting at the tv about stupid fan behaviour endangering riders. Then I have to shout at the inane commentary by P&P. I take some of August off to rest my vocal cords then I’m into it again for Vuelta and the worlds etc. It’s tough watching cycling.

  12. “Gino Bartali got lynched ”

    No he didn’t, not in my understanding of the word, at least. I’m sure we’d have heard if a multiple Giro winner was hanged from a tree by an extrajudicial mob.

  13. I got to experience the Tour first hand when it came to Yorkshire, enjoyed both days immensely. The second day an event steward was having kittens trying to ‘police’ the crowd and keep people off the road on one of the climbs. He was getting himself very worked up and very stressed; a police woman came along and had a little chat with him, basically telling him to chill out and let people enjoy it. Everyone there was in great spirits.
    The breakaway arrived and were given room, exactly the same when the peloton arrived. Riding past to raucous cheers of encouragement with odd few running alongside the riders not causing any issues.
    The crowd seems to police itself and you can’t prescribe for the odd idiot. I went to watch the Tour de Yorkshire last year and some idiot was encouraging his child to ride his bike in middle of the road shortly before the peloton was about to arrive, who when they did surged past at 30mph plus. Someone thankfully scooped up the child and bike beforehand, then gave the parent a good piece of his mind at his stupidity.
    I mean it does annoy me when people run alongside riders and potentially cause problems or fail to realise how fast these guys actually go by trying to get selfies and the like. However in the main there is no underlying problem with the roadside crowd aside from the odd idiot and is what makes cycling so special compared to other sports that are out to rip off fans attending with ridiculous ticket prices.

    • I heard a lot of riders complaining that they kept banging into the fans in Britain during that TDF (it was largely ignored by the British media who were too busy telling us how fantastic everything was).
      I remember seeing the peloton going up hills in Yorkshire and the crowd being all over the road, leaving far too narrow a gap. It seemed like they’d watched the race climb big mountains and thought that this was ‘the done thing’. But it doesn’t work so well if the cyclists are still in a large group.

      • There were numerous complaints from riders regarding how close the crowds were in Yorkshire, ias stated above, it was summarily ignored by the British press. Twitter however was awash with riders asking for respect and for people to reign it in.

        • British people? Acting badly at the roadside? I’m shocked! My heavens, someone must alert TV’s Heckel and Jeckel who act like it’s only those crazy, hot-blooded ITALIANS…the dreaded “tifosi” (who, when they say it, sound like some sort of mafia) who get in the way and generally act up. Who knew?

        • The British fans don’t seem to be any worse than the fans up any of the French mountains during the TdF. Riders can’t complain, if it wasn’t for these crowds, they wouldn’t have sponsors willing to cover their teams!! Plus, do riders complain when the roads are covered in fans during Paris-Roubaix or Flanders??

          Let the riders complain, the smart ones realise that they’re lucky to have these fans!

          I’m guessing the riders who are complaining just aren’t used to racing in big crowds, ergo they are racers who aren’t at the highest level. Complaining about not being able to attack or move up, go try the bergs of the Belgian classics with all the cobbles and tons of screaming Belgies, or go try a race with zero roadside fans and consequently a race that is one-step away from folding…

          The major crowds at Yorkshire are what we all dream of racing through, and it’s the sound of a good race with a future! Glad to hear it was a huge success…

          Now, just need to make sure no clown parents let their kids ride bikes in the road!

          • A lot of the problems I saw were people with camera phones intruding in to the roads.
            It’s not enough to see the race with your own eyes, must take a blurred picture to go on your social media *sigh*

          • The problem as I’ve seen it is that British fans tend to be less aware of the general limits with regard to how fast the riders are going, how close they should get, sticking out cameras / arms / flags etc.

            But then cycling is only three and a half years old in Britains, so give it time.

          • “I’m guessing the riders who are complaining just aren’t used to racing in big crowds, ergo they are racers who aren’t at the highest level.”

            Kittel and Cancellara were two of those whose complaints were reported in the British press. Unless people believe those who claim the British press ignored it.

          • DMC (I was accidentally the Anonymous poster), the difference in the mountains is that the riders are much more strung out – not in a big pack. If the crowds do this in front of a large peloton, it’s a much bigger problem because the crowds actually stop the riders from racing (as well as clattering into them).
            (Similar behaviour could be seen at the London Olympics.)
            I’ve also seen the odd unbarriered sprint for KOM points where a guy couldn’t get past another because the crowd didn’t leave room for them.

            I think most of the people riding the TDF are used to racing in big crowds. One of the people I read complaining was Cancellara, if my memory serves me correctly.

            The crowd at Flanders or Roubaix act in a very different manner: they’re not on the road blocking a large peloton, as the fans were in Yorkshire. Generally, they’re at the side of the road and not in the way.

          • Nick, there was a huge amount said about how fantastic the crowds were and very little said to educate them to stand back off the road. There might have been some stuff on cycling websites, but it was hardly mentioned on Eurosport, despite being apparent for km after km.

          • Looks like I’m wrong for the second time ever – it wasn’t just the younger riders who complained. Also, I get the point about the effect of the crowds at the parts of the race where the group is still together.

            With that being said, this sounds like an issue that the organiser should try to improve on each year they do the race.

            Racers would be wise to work with the organisers to solve the issue, rather than put it on twitter. Fabian should know better.

            Eurofluro – haha, yeah major cycle races in Britain is a relatively new thing in a 2,000 year-old country! They’ll sort it out.

          • @J Evans: “There might have been some stuff on cycling websites,”

            I managed to find references on the BBC, Telegraph, Guardian and Times. I agree that there was more coverage of the size of the crowds/the event itself being a good thing, but the idea that the problems of the crowds were ignored by the British media is a myth.

          • I said ‘largely ignored’, not ‘ignored’. And the point still stands that ‘there was a huge amount said about how fantastic the crowds were and very little said to educate them to stand back off the road’.
            I haven’t checked, but I doubt that the media outlets you mention gave much prominence to the problems the crowds’ behaviour was causing.
            The fact remains that a lot of British fans stand on the road and that commentators specifically should spend more time telling them not to do this and less time gushingly telling them how wonderful they are. (The commentators have a much larger reach than the race organisers, the UCI, columns in newspapers, etc.)
            It’s purely down to inexperience: hence, my criticism here is primarily of the problem being ignored, rather than the crowds themselves.
            That’s why I think it’s a good idea that riders complained on Twitter, etc. – better than saying nothing.

  14. The fact that it’s happened in the past wouldn’t make riding through that funnel of crowds any less intimidating. I don’t think people should have to go through that.
    I’d barrier the busier places – and as much of the final kilometres as is possible. I don’t think the fans being able to get so close the riders is a positive: they’re usually far too close.
    And measures should be taken against those who run alongside the riders – many of whom’s only interest seems to be ‘being on TV’ for some unfathomable reason. (I love the guy who trips someone, but it’s only likely to cause far greater problems: fights, the faller hitting a rider, etc.) The Vuelta has a much higher police presence: the grand tours need this – or some other form of security guards – and these people should try to stamp out the running.
    People can boo, hiss, shout as much as they like – anything physical (including fireworks) should be stopped.
    As for Alpe d’Huez, I’d take a hiatus from it for a few years and hope the idiots get bored and don’t return – plenty of other climbs that are equally good.
    (Urine is unlikely to make you ill – it’s aseptic.)

    • Alpe d@huez has sadly become a bit of a magnet for complete idiots in the last couple of years. There were some utter, utter bellends on it’s slopes last summer.

    • The crowds are a good thing, they’re what makes sponsors want to pay for our races!

      I’m not condoning the bad behaviour, but you get some form of hooliganism at all sporting events – massive fights at football, people throw octupi on the ice at Detroit Red Wings hockey games, etc. Society isn’t perfect, but it’s a risk the organisers must take.

      I would suggest that ASO has security roaming the crowds to attempt to prevent the worst behaviour. But, otherwise, it’s an unfortunate risk, in an otherwise amazing aspect of our sport.

  15. One clear distinction between road racing in the old days, i.e., early~mid twentieth century, and today’s racing is the live televised feed. Back then, a spectator might throw a punch or two out of high emotions over the racing, as evidenced by the examples in Inrng’s article, but, nowadays, people mostly are trying to get themselves–or their act–on live TV. Andy Warhol once said that everyone will get his/her 15 minutes of fame. In our present condition, some of us want more fame time, even if the audience is quite limited. Ergo, the antics roadside. This might explain the motives behind the harmless stuff, but for the physically dangerous acts, now that calls for the analysis of a good criminal psychologist. Oh, and a full-time police escort (on bikes) would make it safer for the riders. Let the police use the bike motors–hidden or otherwise!

  16. Seems a really shit, “everything is great, you should grateful its not more people, in the past it was worse” piece. Not sure why you bothered?

    • Because I got a few emails asking things like “is it safe to visit the Tour”, “is cycling starting to attract hooligans” etc and it was surprising that people thought this, often based on the coverage of last summer’s events. I wanted to suggest things aren’t as dramatic as can be presented sometimes, that there have always been a few morons.

  17. I think the reason there was a few issues in Yorkshire for the TDF 2014 is pretty much down to the sheer amount of people on roads that generally didn’t even have a footpath on the side. Take a look again at the numbers again and instead of trying to belittle the British crowds as inexperienced, try praising them for the fact that there was so little trouble, in crowds that dwarfed any other stage, race, or event in modern history. Were the British crowds inexperienced in 2007 when they put up the biggest one day figures in history? I think that when any other area starts to get in the same ball park of audience participation, you know within a million or so, then come back and see if they are as well behaved as the British have been so far.

    Sorry for the rant but have been going to tour stages for some fifteen years and nothing has come close for energy, fun, behavior and sheer enjoyment of the Brit audiences (especially the Yorkshire folk) in 2014.

    On a completely different note from what I gather, the reason half the Brits don’t like Froome has little to do with Wiggins and everything to do with the fact that he is neither British in any way shape or form and he is the most obvious doper in the current peloton. Miracles don’t even begin to describe how he suddenly started winning, despite being a nobody all of his career until then…In less than six weeks to boot. He wasn’t even one of the best riders in South Africa.

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