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In cycling’s open arena, harsh words — and reactions

Fans can cheer, and jeer, riders easily. But where is the line crossed?

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WOODLAND PARK, Colorado (VN) — A man leans into the road. Doper, he yells. You suck, he yells.

Doper. You suck.

Tom Danielson rides closer during a stage of the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado Springs, flips him the bird.

The moment catches a bit of social media fire, and, at once, perfectly crystalizes the gifts and curses of a sport that is struggling to find a grey area in a culture demanding black and white, and one that’s played out on open roads with fans close enough to be heard, loudly.

Danielson, an American rider for Garmin-Sharp, admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs as part of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into Lance Armstrong.

Since then, riders who contributed to the investigation have been both lauded and lamented.

For one fan, and Colorado professional mountain biker, the fact Danielson is in the peloton at all is an insult. The fact that Danielson reacted is somewhat rare, though at this summer’s Tour de France Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler got off his bike to lambast a heckling fan, who then apologized. Incidents in years past have extended beyond words — Mark Cavendish has had urine thrown at him, and Lance Armstrong was spit upon on the open roads of France.

The issue raises a central question for a sport played out on open roads with thousands of fans, some of them feeling jilted. Is there such a thing as too much? Is it all part of the big show? Predictably, answers may vary.

“Professional athletes get heckled day in and day out…. I wasn’t telling him his momma was fat or anything,” said Kalan Beisel, who harangued Danielson on Thursday in Colorado Springs, to the point of prompting Danielson to extend a middle finger, mid-race. “I just called him a doper and told him he sucks. It was really simple … I don’t think it’s harsh at all. Personally I think he shouldn’t be racing in the peloton.”

Draconian? Maybe. But there isn’t much middle ground these days.

“Some guys will like you. Some guys will dislike you. Obviously Tommy D ran into some guy yesterday who wasn’t a major fan of his,” Garmin-Sharp director and former pro Robbie Hunter said. “I think, you know, he reacted in the wrong way. I think one of the biggest attractions to fans, and why they love the sport so much, is because they can be so close to the athletes. That obviously brings along the problem that the people who don’t like you can get in your face. Unfortunately the athletes themselves need to rise above the one or two bad apples on the side of road screaming at you, shouting at you, whatever. I know it’s difficult because nobody likes being told off, especially when they’re giving their maximum.”

Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies soigneur Jonathan Garcia, also a former pro rider, said that in Colorado, regarding Colorado riders such as Danielson, a number of things could prompt such an interaction.

“People have opinions on certain riders, and maybe that’s where it comes from. Some guys get more of that than other guys. I think you’re going to get that in any sport … it could stem from some of the doping stuff, it could be — who knows,” Garcia said. “I just don’t think it’s going to help his cause to react to someone like that. It’s part of the gig of being an athlete. You’re going to have people like you, people not like you … I know it sucks to hear stuff on the road, but they’re just making an assumption, usually. You just need to let it go.”

For his part, Danielson engaged in a bit of Twitter debate, but also apologized. “I apologize I lost my cool out there today. I appreciate all the incredible fan support out there which makes this race so incredible!” he said.

The sport rolled on the next day, its collective memory shortened by a drizzle and a stage over Hoosier Pass, into the ski town of Breckenridge. It was another day, and something else is always bound to happen in professional cycling. And it may be too much to expect perfection of men in an imperfect sport. At least SmartStop’s Michael Creed thought so.

“Tommy’s human, right? Your heart rate’s 180, 190. You react. What are you going to do, you know,” he wondered.

A day after the event, Danielson was brief on the matter. One tough moment, he said, didn’t outshine the other fans along the road.

“He’s not a fan. He’s a person — I don’t want to talk too much about it, but it’s a guy that’s devoted three years of internet hate toward me,” Danielson said.