“You better be careful because when they come we’re going to jump over the barrier and you to get to them,” jokes a Dutch spectator on hairpin seven of Alpe d’Huez.
It’s the bend famously known as Dutch Corner, where citizens of the nation who have adopted this mountain hold a raucous party each time the Tour de France ascends it (as pictured above during the 2015 Tour). The congregation is made up of orange and flesh, scented in beer.
Chants and songs have a familiar melody but are incomprehensible to the Anglo ear. But this year it’s different. This year the human tunnel has gone, held back by ropes and security. Is this the day that the race organisers killed Dutch Corner?
The rope barriers are first noted on the drive up the Alpe, albeit several hours before the race hits the infamous slopes. There is a definite lack of people roadside. Taking the funicular down towards party corner, a photographer walks with us conveying their distaste for the crowd-taming ropes; will the photos ever be the same again?
Once off the funicular we locate the iconic church as the reference point to orientate ourselves towards switchback number seven. Already music blares, superheroes are dancing in the middle of the road, skin is turning pink in the blazing sun. It’s still only 3pm. The race won’t be arriving for another two hours. There’s still time to ratchet the party level up further.
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You hear the corner before you see it, Steven Kruijswijk is leading the race, the Dutch are chanting for their fellow countryman. Following his progress through tweets and intermittent TV coverage, they have the faith he can be victorious atop the mighty Alpe.
Arriving at the corner the road is clear, and for the moment the ropes and the security are fulfilling their duties. The atmosphere sways between calmness and hearty chants.
Forgetting about the kerb behind him, a guy topples remarkably gracefully over onto the grass. He’s clearly not been buying his poison from the makeshift gazebo bar across the other side of the road, which a Dutch fan says, with a look of disgust on his face, is selling alcohol-free beer. Surely more of a sacrilege to orange corner than the unwelcome rope barriers.
With each nearing kilometre of the race, the party frequency starts to crank upwards. The rope becomes a temptress, enticing fans to step over. The security and gendarmes patiently and repeatedly usher them back over. Press accreditation allows us to be security side of the rope.
“We’re not football hooligans,” one Dutch fan says. “It’s not as if we’re going to hurt the riders. This is just because of Froome and for his security.”
This seems to be their understanding of the situation, but when we ask a member of Tour organisers ASO for comment later on, they deny it’s just for Froome and say it’s for the protection of the main protagonists.
Had similar protection been in place further up the road, the crash of Vincenzo Nibali would most likely have been avoided. A lethal mix of flare smoke and a dangling camera strap appear to be the distasteful way he is forced to bow out of this great race.
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As soon as the Froome, Dumoulin, Thomas, Bardet group sail past to a mix of boos and cheers, the security noticeably relaxes, the rope barrier becomes redundant, the fans come forward but are still reminded to give the riders room to pass by.
Laurens ten Dam, Sep Vanmarcke (pictured above) and other Dutch riders pass by, arms in the air, DJ style, coaxing the crowd to make more noise. That scene wouldn’t have happened with a tunnel of people around them, they would have been holding onto their bars for dear life.
Where barriers have been put in place further towards the finish line, there is now space for riders to attack each other as they did yesterday. Speaking to one of the official race regulators a few days prior, he explains how the human tunnel inhibits attacks and the riders being able to race each other on the climbs as well as posing other safety issues.
So did the rope tame the crowd? Did it kill the cacophony of the corner? Of course, in some ways, it did. The level of craziness was undeniably down a notch or two.
But did we get to see a race? Yes we did. The accident with Nibali was a classic case in point of why ASO want to take precautions. And in the grand scheme of things, a bit of flimsy rope is a lot more palatable than metal barriers all the way up. The ropes might be a sacrifice we have to swallow.
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