Tour de France

Riders enjoy French fan exuberance and ‘a lot of Borats’ on Tour’s mountain roads

The French success at this year's Tour de France has attracted throngs of local fans to the roadside in the Alps. Riders are seeing flags, homemade signs, and yes, even a few Borat costumes.

SAINT MICHEL DE MAURIENNE (VN) – Alexander Kristoff suffers in the mountainous stages of the Tour de France. The peloton’s pure sprinters often do.

But Kristoff finds a certain enjoyment when he races up and over the Tour’s highest roads. Every time he looks up from his handlebars, he sees a zany scene in front of him, as thousands of fans cheer, wave signs, and run alongside the pack.

“There are a lot of Borats and people running with helmets with the horns and everything,” Kristoff told VeloNews before Thursday’s 18th stage. “You see a lot of crazy stuff.”

Kristoff audibly laughed after he recounted the scenes of fans in the mountains. The lime-green and highly revealing outfit of the irreverent movie character is apparently still a popular sight at the race.

“For sure, in the front there are fireworks and attacks and everything,” Kristoff said. “But I don’t see much of that. Whenever I see a lot of crowds, it keeps the motivation for us. They’re cheering for us. Sometimes, I think it is as if I am going for the win, even if though you are 40 minutes behind.

 
French fans have showed up to the Tour de France in seemingly increased numbers this year, due to the success of Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For Kristoff, these next days will be a race against daily time limits to avoid elimination and still be in the Tour for its final and 21st stage into Paris which will be the Norwegian’s last chance to win. To get to Paris, Kristoff must, for three days, ride past throngs of fans in varying states of heightened frenzy.

Every year fans pack the roads in the Alps and Pyrenees to shout and cheer at the cyclists. Since the Tour became an international sensation in the late 1990’s and early 2000s, the crowds have been increasingly comprised of fans from all corners of the globe. These fans wave their national flags and cheer with great gusto as their heroes pedal by.

This year is different. French fans have showed up in droves to support the Tour de France in greater numbers than in previous years, due in part to the feats of Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot. While VeloNews has no official research to document the French enthusiasm at this year’s Tour, anecdotal evidence suggests that the crowds are a bit bigger, a bit louder, and much more French than in recent years.

Fans lined the Galibier to watch Nairo Quintana battle Romain Bardet and Alexey Lutsenko. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Alaphilippe reclaimed the yellow jersey on stage eight. On stage 14, Pinot sprinted away from the favorites to win atop the Col du Tourmalet. Ever since these two dramatic French successes, the French fans have shown up in droves, to potentially celebrate the first local winner since 1985.

As the Tour reaches its climax this weekend, race organizers may have said no extra measures will be taken to cater to the fans alongside the Alpine roads. The newspaper, Aujourd’hui, has aptly labelled these roads ‘le theatre des rêves’ (the Theatre of Dreams).

But the French have every reason to come out in force and keep the French dream very much alive.

All will be decided in Friday’s 126.5km 19th stage from Saint Jean de Maurienne to Tignes and Saturday’s 130km 20th stage from Albertville to Val Thorens. Both stages make a perfect recipe for an action-packed finale. Short and mountainous, both are likely to be lightning fast races. And for the hundreds of thousands who flock to the roads to watch, that should make for a battle royal.

Dutch fans always show up in droves to the Tour de France. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For the front runners for overall victory like Pinot, the Welsh defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos), Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), Colombian Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) and German Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-hansgrohe), the expected welcoming party of fans in all states of fervour and in precariously close proximity is an ever-present danger. Add to that, the cacophony of noise from helicopters, motor bikes, cars and the cheers from spectators and the suffocating and eye stinging fumes of flares which are illegal to bring to the Tour but still lit up by some spectators.

No matter the televised public campaigns urging common sense from the crowd, the dangerous extreme of a crowd’s passion for the Tour is all an extra element of the Tour that the riders, while still trying to listen to orders from their sports directors via radio, have had no choice but to adapt to. It is an element that grew as the concern it is during the height of the Team Sky (now Team Ineos) era when riders like the absent four times Tour winner Chris Froome and his team were abused verbally and physically – even with punches – as the French drought of success continued.

For the Tour leaders of today, riding through crowds in the mountains is still an ever-present concern. But for those in their wake, it can be a different story. For them, the edgy atmosphere becomes more of a festival; and if anything, riders like Kristoff tap into it as a form of motivation.

“It’s not so nice if it’s they stand in the way and maybe get in the way of the race,” Kristoff said. “We can enjoy the spectacle. But sometimes I’m not even looking because I’m so tired of just looking at asphalt.”

Australian Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) was not sure what to expect in the Alps when he set off for stage 18 from Embrun to Valloire on Thursday. This is his first Tour. He has never ridden as far as he has in any of his four previous grand tours – three in the Giro d’Italia and one in the Vuelta a España .

Asked what how he felt about riding through huge crowd in the Alps, he told VeloNews that he expected to get a boost.

“It [will] probably give a little bit of an extra boost. I’m just suffering behind trying to make time cut,” Ewan said. “But if it was if there was no one there  it would be quite boring.

Yes, the Borat mankini costume is still a fan favorite at the Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

“I never made it to the mountains in any of the grand tours. So, the Pyrénees was my first real taste of big mountains. I think [the Alps] are going to be completely different experience.”

Jens Keukeleire, a Belgian teammate of Ewan at Lotto-Soudal and formerly at Mitchelton-Scott, recalls his past experiences with a whimsical humor. Asked about the hazards of racing up a mountain flocked by hundreds of thousands of fans, he told VeloNews: “For me, it’s never a big problem. For the ‘GC’ riders, the crowd gets pretty intense. But us, we can enjoy it a little more. They are not really running in our way. I’ve never had a circumstance that you see on television where they come too close. It is just surviving, but I see a lot of funny things in the Tour.”

Has he ever taken a beer from the crowd ‘a la’ Australian teammate Adam Hansen who is not in this Tour? “No, “he said. “I’ve thought about it a lot, but you never know. Usually the beers are already open. What’s in the beer? There might be something else than just beer in the bottles.”

Which goes to remind that danger can still be lurking on the Tour—especially if it’s a fan dressed in a Borat costume.