Sitting in the media interview truck metres from the finish of stage 12 of the Tour, the TV pictures of Richie Porte stopped by the side of the road surprised many. But what came next was completely unprecedented. The images of Chris Froome running up the road without a bike in sight were startling and caused utter disbelief.
Some of those present stayed in the truck, unable to tear themselves away from the farce that was unfolding. Others sprinted out, conscious that a huge story was breaking. A TV interviewer barked at his cameraman to follow and, at the finish line, confusion reigned and rumours abounded.
“I’ve heard that someone grabbed Froome’s bike from him,” said one journalist. It was a Chinese whisper stated by several others too.
In truth, it took quite some time for clarification to come. The TV images missed the unfolding of the incident, only showing the aftermath and both Porte and Froome being delayed.
In addition to that, many of those clustered beyond the line didn’t see the coverage at all due to a lack of the usual TV screens by the roadside.
It later transpired that the motorbikes in front of the two riders and Bauke Mollema had stopped abruptly, causing them to collide with it. According to Froome, the motorbike behind them then ran over his bike, destroying it.
— veloimages (@veloimages) July 14, 2016
Before and after…two images from the same place
The incident was surprising but, in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. The whole climb was utterly chaotic, due perhaps to the change in the finish. The stage had originally been due to conclude at the top of the Ventoux. However, one day before, race organisers ASO said that it would be far too windy for that.
As a result the finish was moved to Chalet Reynard, six kilometres closer to the bottom. This in turn condensed the mass of spectators into a much smaller area.
Factor in the French public holiday of Bastille Day – further ramping up the numbers – plus a number of spectators who had drunk too much, and there was a recipe for chaos.
CyclingTips drove up the finishing climb perhaps two hours before the riders. Fans thronged the roads and made passage difficult. Many sat or lay on the ground, limbs sticking out into the roadway, forcing us to slowly thread our way through.
Others wandered on the road itself and only reluctantly moved out of the way when the horn was repeatedly sounded. Some jeered when that horn was used.
The most worrying moment was when a group of noisy – and possibly inebriated – fans clustered around a slowly-moving media car that was struggling with the crowds and the gradient. Grabbing the roof, they started rocking it from side to side [see video below]. The CyclingTips car was immediately behind that incident and one of those involved put a traffic cone on the roadway to try to prevent our vehicle from being able to pass.
Others in the crowd then stepped forward to try to shake the car. They too jeered at beeping. Given the imperative not to clip any fans with our vehicles, the moment was highly stressful. It was likely repeated again and again as others passed; the lack of French police nearby meant it went unchallenged.
Inside the final kilometre barriers lined the route and ensured the fans were well back, thus creating a safe channel for riders to race through. Before then, though, it was a free for all, with the crowds pushing forward when the riders were passing.
That appears to have been a contributory factor in the Froome/Porte/Mollema incident, with the motorbike immediately in front of them coming to a sudden halt and causing the crash to occur.
— Le Tour de France (@LeTour) July 14, 2016
One experienced race photographer told CyclingTips that the motorbike cameramen in front of the TV camera had a significant amount of blame. He said that they were not regular cycling photographers, were far too close and played a part in snarling up the traffic. He said that one pool photographer would be sufficient in such circumstances.
He also felt that fans and race organiser ASO also shared some fault.
It’s hard to argue with that. Many of those by the roadside had been there for hours and some were clearly drunk. TV footage shows them far too close to the riders. As for ASO, the change of finish less than 24 hours earlier meant that there were less barriers along the road than there otherwise would have been.
When we drove towards the top of the Ventoux after the stage, long lines of barriers were laid out along the ground, placed there in order not to be tipped over by the winds.
While the gusts were strong at the summit, it’s hard to accept that at least some of the barriers slightly lower down couldn’t have been transported below Chalet Reynard and used there. Without them, only the section very close to the line was fenced off.
Tour race director Christian Prudhomme defended ASO’s actions. “The decision to impose the arrival at Chalet Reynard was the only right one on an afternoon where top gusts measured up to 130 kilometers per hour,” he said, according to Sporza. “It was impossible for us to also consider getting all the barriers down.
“The other barriers around Chalet Reynard have fallen down because of the wind and suddenly had that great mass of spectators there.”
This latter point is curious: the slopes below Chalet Reynard were much more sheltered from the wind than those higher up.
The riders are convinced that more needs to be done to guarantee their safety.
“I agree that you [the spectators] come to the race, you have a good time but you don’t need to be running beside the riders,” said Porte. “You don’t need to hitting riders, pushing riders. Things have got to change and I can’t believe there weren’t barriers there.”
The Tour organisers have been running an ad campaign to tell spectators to keep further back but, considering what has been seen during this year’s Tour, that hasn’t been enough. Froome punched a spectator on stage eight, lashing out when he felt he was in danger of being brought down. He also had urine thrown at him in 2015, as did Mark Cavendish in 2013.
Numerous other riders have called for change, saying that they too have concerns about being impinged or falling.
But there are more serious considerations. The overnight attack on members of the public in the French city of Nice has brought home vulnerabilities in crowded places. Details are still emerging but a truck was driven at high speed into those walking on the Promenade des Anglais, killing close to 100.
With spectators so close to riders, it’s understandable that they feel uneasy. The French police have been very visible on this year’s Tour but the climb of Mont Ventoux was, at times, out of control.
Factor in the tragedy of Nice and it’s clear that something has to change.
ASO insists that it did what it could but cycling can’t be an accident waiting to happen.