Maddeningly hypnotic: The Tour de France is an absurd, beautiful circus

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It is quite normal to see people in bike shorts run up the most storied slopes in France during le Tour, but not at all normal to see a man with the number 1 pinned to his yellow jersey parting the crowd without a bicycle.

But there was Chris Froome, clattering up the forested haunches of Mont Ventoux in his Sidis, demonstrating an unexpected fluidity in his running stride that he doesn’t always evince in the saddle. Luckily, a neutral support vehicle caught up to Froome to end the indignity and hand him a bike — but alas, it was comically small and had the wrong pedals and maybe even a drivetrain issue. So the circus was not over.

I’m sure the French have a word for what happened up there on the Giant of Provence, but I prefer the Swiss-German term for what transpired today: Clüsterfock. The stage had been shortened — in the virtuous name of rider safety — because gale-force winds were strafing the lunar summit of Ventoux.

Well, that really worked out. It seems the organizers lacked the time or resources or forethought to move the normal gauntlet of barriers down below the new finish. In any case, the final few kilometers were thick with fans, some of them drunk, some of them annoyingly staggering in the road next to the racers — in other words, a painfully normal scene at the Tour de France, certainly tamer than many an alpine stage in Basque Country.

What has gotten slightly worse, perhaps, is the incessant jockeying of motorcycles in such an already chaotic scene. If you go back and watch video of the final five kilometers of stage 12, it’s not hard to miss the scrum of motos trying to cover all the action. In the moments when Bauke Mollema was bridging up to Froome and Richie Porte, there was a visible platoon of motor vehicles weaving around riders and fans in thongs and each other. It was an accident that was waiting to happen. Too many motos, too many fans, not enough road.

And then, with a bang, it happened. A moto stopped. Porte slammed into the motorcycle, his face contorting inches from a video camera that was rolling. Froome smacked into Porte; Mollema piled on to Froome; and for good measure, a different moto veered into the pileup, snapping the chainstay on Froome’s Dogma F8. Already, the glory of Thomas De Gendt’s gutsy breakaway win up the mountain was trending toward footnote status.

As Froome parted the incredulous crowd on foot, Twitter exploded — with amazement, jokes, questions about Tour rules, and a few GIFs that will live forever. I sat at home, watching the feed, watching the dominant stage racer of this generation run up the Ventoux without a bike, watching something that I have never seen before and will never see again. What an absurd, beautiful circus.

Something like this is just unprecedented — except that it’s happened dozens of times before.

The Tour, of course, was hatched by a newspaper in 1903 as a crazy marketing stunt, and the event’s DNA has always had strands of extraordinary athleticism and inexplicable bedlam spiraled together. Racers have walked up the Aubisque; been disrupted by cows, sheep and llamas on the Tourmalet; and crashed out by tacks on the Mur de Péguère.

Philippe Gilbert and Marcus Burghardt have been brought down, hard, by off-leash dogs. At key moments of stages, top racers have been laid out by children with musettes, inattentive gendarmes, French coeds with cameras, and finish-line fans with inflatable thundersticks.

Lance Armstrong, in yellow, showed a flash of cyclocross skills as he skedaddled across a switchback on the Col du Manse after Josebi Beloki rolled a tubular — 13 years ago, today, in fact. Mark Cavendish has been showered in urine in a Normandy time trial. And Eddy Merckx, wearing the maillot jaune, was punched in the gut by a guy in khakis on the Puy du Dôme — imagine the reaction on social media if that happened today.

All this is to say is that the scene today on Mont Ventoux was part of what makes the Tour — and this sport — so maddeningly hypnotic. No other sport allows millions of fans to crowd this close to its gladiators, and when things go wrong, the results can be mind-boggling.

To be sure, race organizers can take tangible steps to minimize the carnage — taking more aggressive steps to limit and monitor motos on the course and to barricade the final kilometers of climbs. And the culture of the sport needs to mature so all fans understand that running alongside the pros is not acceptable.

But beyond that, I’m glad that pro cycling can resemble a carnival at times, that fans are not quarantined in bleachers and luxury boxes, that at least one sport has not been fully homogenized to the point where nothing weird and unexpected happens. For years I’ve heard markers trot out the self-indulgent trope that cycling is the new golf, and the idiocy of that claim is laid bare by the sound of carbon-fiber snapping, by the sight of bike racers barreling through a hail storm — and, yes, by the sensory buffet of Chris Froome running up Ventoux.

So enjoy the circus. It leaves town in just 10 days, and won’t be back until next year.

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