Commentary: Why Chris Froome was right to punch that spectator

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On Friday afternoon at the Tour de France, a spectator inadvertently caused the inflatable 1km-to-go gantry to deflate and collapse at the end of Stage 7, which in turn caused British rider Adam Yates to crash, requiring several stitches to his chin.

The incident initially deprived Yates of being awarded the white jersey of Best Young Rider, though the race jury ultimately set the finishing time at 3km to go, moving Yates into second overall.

On Saturday morning, Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme personally visited the Orica-BikeExchange team bus to apologize to Yates over the incident, promising increased security at the inflatable arch so this kind of incident never happens again.

Eight hours later, another British rider — Chris Froome of Team Sky — was fined 200 Swiss francs (USD$203) for “incorrect behaviour” over another incident involving a spectator interfering with the race.

Froome’s offense? Swatting back a spectator who was running alongside Movistar’s Nairo Quintana at the top of the Col de Peyresourde on Stage 8 while wearing a costume and waving a flag — a flag Froome said came close to getting stuck in his front wheel.

To be clear, the spectator made no direct action to push or touch Froome, but that’s not the point; pro cycling has seen countless incidents of accidental contact with riders that have caused harm. Just ask Giuseppe Guerini. Or Loren Rowney. Or Daniele Colli. Or Pierre-Luc Périchon. Or Lance Armstrong. Or everyone at the 2015 Giro d’Italia. The list goes on and on.

The point is that in the moment, Froome perceived the spectator as a legitimate impediment in his ability to perform. And in that moment, he was left with exactly one course of action — clear the impediment.

And while it’s important to note that the fine was levied by the UCI race jury — not by the Tour de France race organization that apologized to Yates — what’s more important is the issue of spectators interfering with racing, and what little recourse riders have at their disposal to mitigate the situation.

(Let’s also keep in mind that Peter Sagan was fined last year for kicking the medical car after a race moto knocked him off his bike at the Vuelta a España, shredding his skin, just weeks before the world championship that he would go on to win. So yes, UCI race jury fines are often petty and misdirected.)

Chris Froome didn’t wake up on Saturday morning intent on punching a random spectator. By all accounts, Froome is exceptionally polite, and well-mannered. He’s not a rider who has made enemies in the peloton. As an example, one only need look back to a day earlier, to images of Froome shaking hands with rival Alejandro Valverde as they crossed the finish line in Lac de Payolle. Chris Froome is not a brawler.

But Froome is a professional athlete, paid seven figures in any currency you like, to win bicycle races. Froome woke up Saturday morning intent to race his bicycle in the high mountains of the Pyrenees — one of the most important stages in the most important race of the year. Froome, and the entire Team Sky organization, have no doubt had July 9 circled on their calendar since October, when the Tour route was announced.

Froome put Team Sky on the front of the race, and inside the final 50km Sky drilled down the peloton on the penultimate climb of the Col de Val Louron-Azet.

When the spectator stepped in front of him, it was inside the final kilometer of the Peyresourde climb, immediately following attacks from Romain Bardet and Nairo Quintana. Just a moment later, Froome would launch his race-winning attack that brought the yellow jersey with it.

Reaction on Twitter was mixed. Some questioned Froome’s action, saying it was an overreaction. Some went as far to label it assault, and suggest that he be charged. And while no one wants to see stars of the sport assaulting fans, these reactions are, at best, a gross simplification of what happened, and at worst, a complete misreading of the situation.

In today’s modern era, it’s easy to second-guess athletes while watching a replay from the couch. But Froome wasn’t on a couch. He was racing in 90°F (33°C) heat, five hours into a critical stage that he’d spent months preparing for.

Some suggested Froome should have pushed the spectator, rather than punched him. Yet when racing a bicycle up a mountain, through a heavy crowd, it’s a thin line between a push and a punch. It’s the heat of the battle — on a battlefield that should always remain between competitors, not between athlete and crowd. Heart rates are high, and the stakes are even higher. There is no time for subtleties — a rider has a split second to mitigate any and all perceived obstacles from his or her path.

At his post-race press conference, Froome — a rider who claims he was spat upon and had urine splashed in his face last July — issued a plea to spectators to simply steer clear of the racers.

“Nothing against the Colombian fans, I think they’re fantastic and bring a great atmosphere to the race. But this guy in particular was running right next to my handlebars that had a flag that was flying behind him. It was just getting dangerous, so I pushed him away. I lashed out and pushed him away. It’s fantastic, having so many fans out on the route, but please, please, I urge the fans: Don’t try and run with the riders. It gets really dangerous for the guys behind.”

The fact is, if Froome had done nothing, and the spectator had taken him down, there would have been no consequences for the spectator. None.

The fact is, there have been countless incidents between spectators and racers. Bones have been broken, skin has been torn, races have been lost, and season plans have been altered — serious consequences for the athletes, and zero consequences for the spectators.

The fact is, and this shouldn’t need to be reiterated, spectators must stay out of the way of athletes. The very definition of the word spectator is a person who “watches” at a show, game, or other event. One watches with their eyes, not their hands, and not their feet.

The racers are the show, the game, the event — not the fans. This was an avoidable incident, but it’s not Froome who should be held accountable. Rather than laying blame on Froome, the responsibility falls on the spectator to respect the field of play.

In professional cycling, the open road is the arena; that’s one of the many beautiful facets of the sport. But that doesn’t give spectators carte blanche to interfere with the race. Christian Prudhomme cannot visit the Team Sky bus and promise increased security along every mountain pass of the Tour so this kind of incident never happens again. It’s impossible. The Tour now has barriers inside the final kilometer, leaving roughly 200km wide open per stage.

So what are the riders left with? They are left to protect themselves, to watch out for one another, and to continually make split-second assessments of threats to their forward progress. Chris Froome did that on Saturday, and for that, he owes UCI 200 Swiss francs? Nonsense. If anyone owes anything to anyone, that spectator owes Froome an apology.

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