When is enough, enough? Cycling has a history of making rules only after disaster strikes, rather than pre-empting risks early on when telltale signs begin to emerge. It seems that the issue of unruly crowds at the Tour de France is plummeting dangerously in the direction of disaster. In this year’s race alone, there have been multiple incidents with fans which could have genuinely impacted the end result of which rider pulls on the yellow jersey in Paris.
Two of the most notable incidents so far are those that involved the key protagonists of this year’s general classification race: Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar. On stage 14 as the two riders ascended the Col de Joux Plane, the UAE Team Emirates rider tried to launch a fierce sprint for bonus seconds at the summit but was unable to get past a photographer's motorcycle riding alongside the television motorcycle. “I lost a bullet but it is what it is,” Pogačar said after the stage. “I was blocked by a motorbike, which was also blocked.” The motorcycle was itself stuck by the crowd closing in on the road. For the driver, it was either coming to a halt, or ploughing into spectators.
On stage 17 when Vingegaard was putting time into Pogačar on the Col de la Loze, it was a similar situation, but arguably even worse. The Danish rider was forced to put a foot down when the car and motorbike in front of him were stopped on an awkward uphill corner on the course, one made far narrower by the lines of fans closing in on the road. Vingegaard ended up weaving his way in between the car and fans to continue riding. It’s true that Pogačar was already well dropped by this point, but what if he wasn’t? How long will it be until an incident like this decides the outcome of the race? Even after the stage, it was announced that Pello Bilbao, who eventually finished third, had been fined for “inappropriate behaviour towards a fan”, and videos emerged of the Bahrain-Victorious rider hitting a man who was impeding his line as the Spanish rider tried to continue up the climb.
It’s not like this year has been an anomaly when it comes to fan-related incidents at the Tour, either. Everyone remembers in 2017 when Chris Froome was forced to run up Mont Ventoux after the road became so congested with over-enthusiastic (and some likely intoxicated) fans that the lead motorbike was stopped and Froome, Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema ploughed into the back of it. With his spare bike stuck on a car behind, the British rider famously took on the climb by foot instead. Then, there’s the ‘Allez Opi-Omi’ palaver in 2021, when a spectator caused a huge crash by holding a sign up to the camera, rather than looking at where the peloton was. A similar thing happened in this year’s Tour, when Sepp Kuss had his handlebars knocked by a fan holding out a phone, bringing down Nathan van Hooydonck and around 20 other riders with him. Jumbo-Visma boss Richard Plugge said afterwards angrily that fans should "stay at home" if they cannot respect the race.
The solution to the ever-growing problem of fan-related incidents at the Tour de France is certainly not an easy one. Some argue that it isn’t the fans that are the problem at all and instead it is the number of race motorbikes that need to be monitored. The majority of large TV stations have an in-race motorbike and there are always multiple photographers on the back of bikes too. With technology such as drones or on-board cameras on rider’s bikes as alternative options for live streaming and with the current climate emergency in mind, it raises the question: are so many motorcycles really necessary?
On the other hand, there would be no problem having that many motorbikes in the race if the crowds were properly controlled, so is better crowd control the answer? The first priority of the Tour de France must be that the racing is fair and not impacted by external factors such as fans or race vehicles, but what comes next? What’s more important, access for spectators, or coverage from in-race TV motorbikes and stunning shots from photographers?
When the race ascended the Puy de Dôme climb on stage nine for the first time in 35 years, fans were blocked entirely from lining the roadside. This was because the construction of a narrow-gauge railway up the road to the top meant there would be barely enough space for the riders, let alone spectators, as well as the fact that the regional president was keen for the top of the extinct volcano to be defined as a Unesco reserve, which means keeping the Tour out. It’s fair to say that the atmosphere on the climb was dull and it did not feel like the Tour de France. There was no character or buzz or energy, and that highlighted how important it is to have spectators on the road cheering on the riders. Without them, it feels like a stadium with empty seats.
There is no clear-cut solution to the problem. The Tour needs its fans, but it needs to start to manage them better, or more and more incidents will happen as the race increases in popularity. Do we need fewer motos? More barriers? Does Pello Bilbao just need to be sent up the climb ahead of everyone to clear the way? There’s certainly a lot to consider and the most important thing is that ASO starts to think about it urgently. Safe and fair bike racing should be at the forefront of everything.