A little respect: has the Tour de France fallen victim to the selfie generation?
Look at this picture. Alpe d’Huez, 1986, the most remarkable stage of what is perhaps the greatest Tour de France of all time. Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond ride side by side to the summit finish. Hinault wins the stage, LeMond the Tour.
What strikes you as different to 2018?
The combination jersey, the lack of helmets, the fashion choices along the side of the road. Yes, all true.
But look at the fans. They are all stood on the side of the road, respectfully leaving space for the riders, perhaps leaning in slightly to clap them and cheer them on. One or two appear to be taking a photograph.
This was arguably no less momentous a stage than the trip up Alpe d’Huez this time around, 32 years on, and watching the footage of the leading group of GC favourites chase down lone escapee Steven Kruijswijk was also edge of the seat, heart in mouth stuff.
But this time it was not because of the sight of the Tour’s lead contenders on the ropes and battering each other until something budged.
It was the flags, the flailing limbs, the flares. None of these things are a good mix with handlebars and spindly climbers. That Froome onesie should never have seen the light of day.
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Above all, it was exasperating to see the sheer number of people holding out smartphones or running alongside the race, often both at the same time, with little apparent concern for the riders alongside them.
In the end it was Vincenzo Nibali who was brought down where heaving crowds, flare smoke and the onset of metal barriers created a natural pinch point. It was almost inevitable that someone would be.
He broke his back and is out of the race. Ironically, several videos of the incident have since emerged on social media.
Nibali wasn’t the first victim. On the stage nine cobbles, Ag2r La Mondiale’s Alexis Vuillermoz was brought down by an encroaching smartphone. He finished the stage riding with one hand and later withdrew.
Time will tell whether the loss of one of Romain Bardet’s key domestiques could prove to be as influential on the race as that of Nibali. Regardless, a rider’s Tour should not be ended this way.
Like it or loathe it, we live in generation selfie. You can call it narcissism, a quest for digital permanence, or just an understandable desire to stand out in a noisy, crowded world.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Alpe. You could see that by the number of phones out, but also in the costumes, the banners, the getups and the frenetic running alongside the riders.
None of that was about the riders. It was not about supporting them. It was all about the individual doing it, about their likes and their retweets. Or, if you want to be cynical about it, about them writing their own digital obituary.
How absurd. As has been pointed out before now by the likes of Kate Bush, doesn’t observing something through the screen of a device deny you the intensity of the whole experience and basically defeat the whole point of being there in the first place?
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If you want to watch the Tour through a screen, stay at home and watch it on telly.
You could maybe argue that there is less reverence given to today’s star riders than the likes of LeMond and Hinault, something which recently Chris Froome’s salbutamol case did little to redress.
Or, alternatively, you could say that today’s globalised, televised, digitised Tour de France is wrapped up in a universal celebrity culture, of which even the Alpe itself is now part.
Either way, cycling is uniquely vulnerable to it. There is seldom a border or barrier between the race and the public, and this has never been more of a double-edged sword than it is now.
The only other sports to come close to this level of access are running and motorsport. The former is less popular and often very highly securitised in city centre events like the London Marathon. There are very obvious reasons why nobody gets too close to the action in the latter.
Cycling is also somewhat powerless to stop it. You can’t ban mobile phones. Restrict spectator numbers and you lose road cycling’s very essence. Bring in more barriers and you run the risk of tightening a tourniquet around the life blood of the sport, not to mention creating a logistical nightmare.
All cycling can really do is promote a culture of respect, one that needs to override the selfie. Respectez-nous, goes the Tour’s campaign for just that. Respect us. Support the riders and support the race. Don’t do it for yourself.
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