A history of violence

Words by Nic Stevenson

When you know it’s coming, you can see it from a long way off. Is it a push? A punch? I’ve watched it a dozen times and I still couldn’t say for sure. Nairo Quintana is dropped, and as the moto passes him to catch up with the yellow jersey group, a beefy-looking bloke in middle-age and lime green shorts emerges from the side of the road and reaches towards the third rider… of course it’s Froome he’s going for. 

In the cauldron of Stage 12’s ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez, it wasn’t even remarked upon by the commentators. They were too focussed on the racing to mention the actions of one hot-headed moron, perhaps rightly. But it wouldn’t be like that with any other sport. Imagine if Cristiano Ronaldo was punched on his way into the players’ tunnel at the Bernabéu, if a fan grabbed Tiger Woods on the green at St Andrews, or if someone was stupid enough to try and tackle Usain Bolt before he ran. We’d hear about it for months.

No other sport benefits from such a close relationship with its followers. We share the suffering of the professional riders, literally and metaphorically, lining the roads to watch after we’ve ridden them. But with that proximity comes danger, and never more so than in the febrile atmosphere of the Tour. 

Team Sky have of course already faced violence from the roadside at the Tour - and not just stray pepper spray (Stage 16) or confused coppers (Stage 17). Even assaults on the Alpe aren’t new, sadly. Before he left the team for BMC Racing, Richie Porte was Froome’s most loyal lieutenant, and suffered for it in 2015 when he caught what he described as “a full on punch”. 

Team Sky’s first Grand Tour winner, Bradley Wiggins, came to be known as Le Gentleman by the French press in 2012 after he slowed the peloton to allow Cadel Evans to rejoin, following a crash caused by saboteurs throwing tacks on the road. It may not have been a physical assault, but bottles of urine being thrown at them has previously, in Froome’s memorable description, left a bad taste in both his mouth and Mark Cavendish’s.

Popular riders and dominant teams have always faced enmity - enmity that has turned to violence from time to time. The greatest of them all, Eddy Merckx, still feels that his chance to win a record sixth Tour de France was hampered when he was punched on the way to the summit of the Puy De Dôme in 1975. Having won 34 stages of the Tour previously, he never won another after that day.

And when we talk about controversy in cycling, it’s not long before the name of a certain Texan comes up. Before the 2004 Alpe d’Huez time-trial, Lance Armstrong faced death threats that were taken seriously enough for the police to deploy officers to follow the American in a car. Only the vehicle differed from those (ineffectively) guarding Froome this year. 

The very first Tour in 1903 may have passed off without assaults from the fans (although the riders were far from innocent, even in those days), but things escalated quickly, and the second year was marred by violence from start to finish. During stage one, Maurice Garin, the defending champion, and his breakaway companion Lucien Pothier were attacked by a group of masked men. It sounds terrifying, but cyclists were made of tough stuff a century ago, and even after the attack, the pair went on to finish first and second. 

Stage two was disrupted by hundreds of Antoine Faure fans mobbing the other riders to support him. Garin was injured, and the Italian Giovanni Gerbi was knocked out and left with broken fingers. Officials and gendarmes broke up the crowd by firing into the air, and amazingly, the stage, and the race, continued. 

During stage three, fans of Ferdinand Payan (disqualified during stage one for receiving outside assistance) pelted the remaining riders with rocks. Again, the race continued, and eventually, after six stages, the riders reached Paris, with Garin again crowned champion. Incredibly the story didn’t end there, and 12 of the finishers, including Garin, were subsequently disqualified for cheating.

Modern racing may have reduced some of the dangers that riders face, but it has introduced many others. From ever increasing numbers of vehicles in and around riders, to selfie-crazed fans running among them, riders face enough danger without the added risk of assault by fans whipped into a frenzy. Crashes that can't be explained away as racing incidents seem to occur every year. They may not all be as spectacular as seeing Froome running up Mont Ventoux after being hit by a moto, but their frequency and impact is increasing.

‘Twas ever thus does not mean should ever be, and if the arc of history bends towards progress, the arc of the Tour de France bloody well ought to bend towards riders not being punched by prats. Sadly though, for every million sensible fans, all it takes to put riders at risk is one idiot, one drunkard, one psychopath. 

Perhaps those of us who talk eagerly about cycling should remember that in our excitement and love for the sport, to some our hyperbole can sound a lot like incitement, to some. And perhaps today’s roadside fans should take note of the example of their forebears who, in 1975, detained the man who punched Merckx, held him until the police arrived, and handed him over to be dealt with by the law. 

Some of the things we ask professional cyclists to do may be uncivilised in their extraordinary difficulty, but those of us who marvel at their suffering on the road must do so in civilised fashion. Restraint and respect are fitting tributes to men we idolise, as well as enthusiasm and encouragement.