Opinion: This Is What We Should Do With the Reckless Spectators at the Tour

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

It’s important to remember, in case we have forgotten the many bad crashes in this year’s rain-drenched Giro d’Italia and the death of Gino Mäder in the Tour de Suisse, that road racing is a dangerous sport. Improved training methods and continuously updated cycling and training technology enable riders to race at literally breakneck speeds while precariously balanced on 25-mm-wide tyres. The sport is inherently hazardous – so it is madness to subject the riders to other, unnecessary risks such as reckless, disrespectful and intoxicated spectators, as we have seen all too often on the Tour de France.

Let’s start with the spectator who on stage 15 leaned out to take a selfie and hooked the handlebars of Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss. Kuss, teammate Nathan van Hooydonck, Egan Bernal and Biniam Girmay were among the more than a dozen riders who crashed to the ground. Fortunately, no one was badly injured – this time. This mishap was reminiscent of the incident in the 2021 Tour when a woman holding a large sign with a message for her German grandparents walked into the road and clipped Tony Martin as he rode past. In the crash that followed, two riders were forced to abandon, including Marc Soler who broke both arms. The woman responsible turned herself in and was handed a symbolic fine of 1 euro.

More troubling to me is the behaviour of the spectators that line the often narrow roads of the Tour’s iconic ascents, such as Thursday’s monstrous Col de la Loze. We have become used to – and even entertained by – the sight of spectators running into the road with flags or running alongside the cyclists or crowding the riders with their waving arms or signs they are holding, and even putting their hands on the racers, as some no doubt well-intentioned men did to a clearly exhausted Tadej Pogačar who was in the process of losing the Tour on that brutal climb. I am fairly certain that he did not appreciate the push, no matter how well-intentioned it was. On the same slope, the Spaniard Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) felt it necessary to punch a spectator to dissuade him from running next to him. Further up the road, a stalled France Télévisions motorcycle and a race car hemmed in by spectators forced Tour leader Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) to stop and dismount in order to continue the ascent.

Tour de France race
No matter how well-intentioned, sometimes the behaviour of the fans is not appreciated. © Profimedia

The France Télévisions commentator riding on the motorcycle, French former Tour stage winner Thomas Voeckler, and his driver were suspended from the Tour for one stage and fined. This was the second time at this Tour that a motorbike driver and his passenger have been suspended because of interference with the race. On stage 14, a photographer’s motorcycle was blocked by spectators in front of Pogačar just as he was about to attack Vingegaard on the Col de Joux Plane, which caused him to halt his move and eventually cede bonus seconds to the Dane on the summit.

It is only right to punish the motorcyclists who endanger or interfere with the riders through inattention or recklessness. But what about the spectators? Shouldn’t those responsible for crashes and injuries also be punished? Shouldn’t they be prevented from playing matador with their flags in the middle of the road as a breakaway is heading towards them? Shouldn’t they be dissuaded from touching the riders, even when it is well-intentioned?

Apparently, the spectator who caused the “selfie crash” has been identified by French police. Jumbo-Visma team boss Richard Plugge told the Dutch news outlet NOS that the team intends to file charges. “I think we owe that to the riders who were on the ground – not only ours but also those of other teams,” he said. “It’s really nice that the public is standing by the side and cheering us on. We’re very happy with that but just keep your distance. I think it’s very important that we send a strong signal for once.”

Jumbo-Visma sports director Arthur van Dongen said that the team had suffered “enormously large” material damage in the crash and added, “We will certainly try to recover the expenses from that person. The boys are quite battered. Lots of bruises, abrasions.”

I understand the reluctance of race organizers to dissuade spectators from enjoying to the max their Tour de France experience. Those crowd scenes certainly add colour and excitement to the racing drama as viewed on TV. And, sure, stuff has happened before on the Tour. Just recall the 2016 race, when yellow jersey winner Chris Froome began running up Mont Ventoux looking for another bike after he and two other riders ploughed into a motorcycle that had been blocked by mostly drunk spectators. That was good fun. But this is a ticking time bomb. The riders are faster, the crowds lining the roads are larger and the spectators are becoming more reckless, more disrespectful of the race and the riders and probably more drunk. Why wait for someone to get badly hurt before taking action?

So maybe it’s time for the UCI and/or Tour de France organizers to draw up some rules of the road for spectators, starting with “Respect the riders and the race!” And they should also start thinking about how to penalise those who endanger the athletes because they are too high, too selfish or just too stupid to give a damn.