I have stood along the side of the racecourse on many a stage of the Tour de France. I followed the 2014 from Stage 1 to 21. I have been a spectator at the Tour of California, the Tour Down Under and the Giro d’Italia. Watching a professional bike race in person is a thrilling experience. Whether you are traveling across the globe or stepping out your front door, there are certain dos and don’ts to being a good spectator.
I have a new appreciation this year watching religiously on my NBC Sports Gold app. I set my alarm every day at 6:00 a.m. to watch the day’s Tour de France stage. This year I have spent as much time yelling at spectators to behave as I have at the cyclists to race to the finish.
The spectators need to exercise self control. Here are some suggestions. First and foremost, pay attention to your surroundings at all times. After the caravan of sponsors go by you have about an hour before the first cyclists will pass. If you pay attention and stay sober enough you will hear the helicopters, notice an increase of motorcycle police and official race cars. This will get more and more intense and then you will see either the breakaway group of 2-20 (on average riders) or the whole frickin’ peleton of 180+ riders. Then there are always a few stragglers fighting to get back with the group. Notice how fast they are going compared to you on foot? This is why it is foolhardy to try to interact with them. Besides it is not about you.
- Never touch a cyclist or his/her bike. You think you are helping but you are actually more likely to throw them off balance or off their cadence. (Yes, there are more and more women’s cycling competitions. Same rules apply.)
- Never throw anything at a cyclist: water, pee, chalk, smoke, fireworks. This is rude and dangerous. On RAGBRAI when amateurs are cycling across Iowa, spectators sometimes turn on their hose and offer to spray cyclists, but it is entirely voluntary, they never cover the entire road. Same with high fives, etc. And it is non-competitive. In a race the cyclists are going full gas throwing something at those speeds can hurt!
- Stay off the racecourse. This means that you can not extend your arms out over the barrier to take a selfie, or lean into the road with your mongo camera lens to take a photo. It also applies to your children (don’t hold them over the barrier so they can see), and your dogs (always on a leash please!).
The race organization ASO also has much egg on its face for a series of logistical catastrophes. On Stage 7, the inflatable red 1 kilometer marker collapsed and caused an accident. When the race entered the Pyrenees it was clear that the ASO was not investing enough in safety as many spectators interfered in the race. Then on Mt. Ventoux, the ASO moved the race short of the mountaintop because of severe winds but didn’t move the fan barriers. At 1 kilometer to the new finish the crowd closed in resulting in an accident, a broken bike and Chris Froome, the race leader (yellow jersey) did a 100 yard dash up the road.
Could this have been avoided? Absolutely. The ASO decided to move the finish line the day before, so they had time to move the barriers. The ASO excuses just grated on everyone’s nerves. It might have caused more angst, but the tragedy in Nice shifted the focus.
George Bennett’s run in with a spectator was impressive on Stage 9. For some crazy reason a spectator decided to cross the road as the cyclists came roaring around the corner. Bennett put out his arm and she fell backward out of the road. Asked about it later and the New Zealander said he “Sonny Billed” her. (Sonny Bill is a fantastic rugby player for the All Blacks.) Cyclists should not need rugby experience to compete at top levels.
One of the marvelous things about cycling is how accessible it is to fans. Sure you can pay for VIP access, but most fans enjoy it either on television or from the racecourse for free.
Remember after 21 days of racing the top 3 finishers are often separated by only seconds. So if you think waving a flag in front of their bike and screaming in someone’s face can’t make a difference, look at how close the finish can be:
You can still dress up like a devil, or bring your inflatable kangaroo. You can hang your team or country flags. You can play music or sing and dance. You can experience your heart leaping into your throat as the peleton takes a corner and goes by so fast your eyes water. And you can go home satisfied that the race was decided by hard work, talent, grit and luck.
Let’s be careful out there.