Commentary: Rare malice in an open sport

Sunday's road tacking was shocking — which is an amazing thing, given cycling's long history and proximity between riders and fans

Many fans saw stage 14’s tack incident, in which upholstery tacks were apparently spread along a portion of the Mur de Péguère, as a sign that cycling, and maybe humanity, are on the decline. After all, who would purposely sabotage a bicycle race and expose its riders to even more potential injury than they face from the inherent dangers of the sport? It was a despicable act, not to mention a pointless one. But the fact that yesterday’s sabotage is such news, that riders and fans alike are so surprised, is an indicator of how seldom similar incidents – malicious interference in the racing – happen in cycling. In fact, that road cycling still exists and thrives in the security era and current sports climate is no small miracle.

We take off our shoes to fly in airplanes because 11 years ago, some patsy tried to light his shoes on fire and blow up an airplane, and then we get a full-body x-ray because another one hid explosives in his underpants a few years later. Some United States professional football stadiums have their own in-house jails and court systems because fans can’t act appropriately. Some U.K. professional football stadiums have separate entrances for opposing supporters and police with riot gear and dogs in between for the same basic reasons. And each year, some youth league coach, be it soccer or hockey or football, will make the news for some sort of bizarre or abusive behavior reflecting his inability to keep sports in perspective.

And yet, every summer, some 200 professional athletes ride 3,000-plus kilometers of largely unsecured roadway on a route that is published well in advance. To watch them do so, there is no minimum cost of admission, no metal detectors or bag checks. There is certainly no suspension of drink sales after the third quarter. There is, for the most part, no separation at all between spectators and the field of play, and the race security functions more as a warning that the race is approaching than a tool to prevent interference. In road cycling, everything is right there for fans or foes, ready to be tampered with – for kicks, out of drunken idiocy, in the name of some ill-expressed political viewpoint.
That exposure, not only to wind and precipitation and geography but also to the world at large, is part of what makes the sport great. Cycling is one with the broader world for good or ill, and, a bit by choice and a bit by necessity, cycling trusts its fans. It does not assume them to be criminals until they prove themselves otherwise. And occasionally they do, but not often.

Three years ago, Oscar Freire was shot in the leg with a BB gun to no great effect (though they couldn’t have been aiming for him, because who would shoot Oscar?). And yesterday, of course, there were the tacks that caused over 30 flat tires by some reports, including three for defending champion Cadel Evans, and led to crashes and indirectly caused the retirement of Astana’s Robert Kiserlovski. Today, a number of articles and broadcasts will recount the Tour’s long history of unsavory public involvement, not least the famous stomach punch Eddy Merckx received on the Puy de Dome, which many say cost him a sixth Tour win in 1975. Such incidents should not be trivialized for their sporting and human impact, of course, but the fact remains that they are relatively infrequent. Told in sequence, they read like a long and sordid history of malice, sabotage, and ill-will, but considering the Tour’s age and exposure, its rap sheet is, if anything, surprisingly brief.

There are accidents involving fans every year, of course – preventable, stupid accidents, but accidents nonetheless. The bigger ones will make the news, like the amateur photographer who knocked Guiseppe Guerini from his bicycle as he was on the way to winning L’Alpe d’Huez in 1999. (Guerini got up and held on for the win; the fan went to the hotel to apologize. Guerini accepted.) In 2006, Thor Hushovd suffered a heavy cut to his arm when, during a sprint finish, he raced up the barriers and was struck either by a fan’s camera or one of the giant green PMU hands given out by the publicity caravan. And in 2007, a fan’s somewhat lethargic dog handily brought Frenchman Sandy Casar to the pavement. Casar went on to win the stage from the breakaway.

Such incidents, the ones not averted by cycling’s long tradition of roadside self-policing, are usually the product of over-enthusiasm or carelessness. They are rarely hostile, rarely carried out with intent or without regret. And weighed against the cheers, the road paint, the sly pushes, and the Coke hand-ups, cycling fans do pretty well on the balance.
For over 100 years, and Heaven knows how many stages and kilometers and towns, professional cyclists in the Tour have performed at unrivaled closeness to the public, and they’ve done so against a backdrop of all the world’s grudges, causes, radicals, political upheavals, and economic downturns. And yet incidents like yesterday’s – malicious, pre-meditated, and dangerous – remain a rarity. The state of grace that the sport operates in is remarkable, and if the primary dangers continue to be the roads, the traffic furniture, and crossing of wheels in the slow moments, cycling will be thankful.

That isn’t to say that the spreading of tacks on the Péguère and acts like it should not be subject to a serious response. And, if the guilty are caught, they must be held to real consequences for causing bodily injury, endangering riders, and harming the integrity of the competition. Pursuit of offenders and self-policing by fans are the only way to keep the aberrations from becoming commonplace. Because for road cycling and the Tour to continue to be viable and successful, incidents like Sunday’s need to continue to be shocking.