• Team Sky have attracted unwanted attention on the roads of France (Getty Images)
The behaviour of the roadside crowds at the Tour de France has become quite a talking point and with good reason, it can get a little nasty. Cycling Central asked RIDE Media Editor Rob Arnold 'is it worse in 2018 than it has been in the past?'
By
Rob Arnold

23 Jul 2018 - 6:55 AM  UPDATED 23 Jul 2018 - 10:10 AM

There are a few post-stage traditions in the Tour de France: the quick grabs from riders as they cross the line, the podium protocol, the round of interviews with radio and TV networks, then the media conference linked to the press room for one last round of questions for the stage winner and rider in the yellow jersey. The formula has evolved over the years but the gist of it remains the same.

During the Team Sky years, there’s an added element: Mike Walters of the UK’s Mirror newspaper takes the microphone to ask a question when there’s a British rider in the yellow jersey. His queries vary a little one day to the next but the theme remains the same.

For example on yesterday’s 14th stage to Mende, when ‘G’ Thomas was answering questions: “Sorry to ask you this,” said Walters, “but two kilometres from the finish a spectator in a green cap leaned across and threw a cup or a bottle of something, some liquid which hit Froomey in the face, I think. Do you happen to know what the liquid was, because we all know what happened [in Mende] three years ago?”

“I don’t actually recall it but I’m not surprised,” replied G. “We’ve had a bit of that but it’s always been water from what I’ve seen.”

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Walters likes to write about the antics of the fans, it’s his schtick. He explains the look of the culprits and approximately where they were standing at the time of their act. He’s done it for a few years now and when we hear his voice, we know what’s about to follow. Usually it includes the words “urine”, “punch”, or “spit”.

It must get the clicks because, no matter how much – or how little – the riders know about it, he keeps on coming back with the same kind of questions.

He asks because it happens. It’s disgusting but crowd behaviour at many sporting events is worth writing about. Plonk yourself in any grandstand around Australia on a Saturday evening and see if you can get through four quarters without hearing abuse to players and officials. Look back at the images from Russia a little over a week ago and you’ll find various levels of discontent (or contentment, if you were cheering Les Bleus) for the duration of the World Cup.

This kind of stuff is as old as competition. When allegiances are formed, it’s only natural that there is cheering.

That’s how sport should be watched: with enthusiasm for a good moment but this is 2018 – it’s different now.

Gone are the days of applause alone, this is the time when booing if prevalent. When anger emerges if the result doesn’t go the fans’ way. And, on occasion in the past, when bottles are filled with piss later doused on the riders as they flash by at 40km/h.

That’s what Walters is trying to eke out of the likes of Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and, all those years ago, Bradley Wiggins. Who threw what at you? And what do you think about that?

The answers can’t vary too much. For example, Thomas after the stage to Alpe d’Huez – again in response to a query from Walters about someone gobbing at Froomey.

“If people don’t like Sky and want to boo that is fine,” said G. “Do all you like but let us race, don’t affect the race, don’t touch the riders, don’t spit at us – have a bit if decency.

“Voice your opinion all you want but let us do the racing.”

It happens. It’s ugly. And, after asking a few drunken fans about why they opt to attend and scrawl ‘Sky = Dope’ on the road, it's apparent the more it’s reported on, the more it happens.

In my roadside vox pop yesterday one of a group of young French lads told me, “Perhaps they are cheating, perhaps they are not. I don’t know – I don’t care.”

He just wanted to paint something on the road and it turns out they opted for something that attracts attention.

I’ve driven over thousands of things painted on the road but yesterday was the only time in 21 years at the Tour that I stopped to ask why they painted what they did. It got my attention, and I wrote a story about it.

And this is exactly what the culprits wanted. They didn’t earn TV time. They may have spat or thrown beer or piss or abuse, but I paid attention to that section of road and didn’t see any anti-social behaviour when the peloton raced by. (I’m guessing they’d passed out by that point; I saw them at about 11.00am and they tanked by then.)

I woke this morning and was asked by Cycling Central: how does it compare with past years? It’s not possible to consider several million fans in 1998 or 2008 or 2018 but I have seen the evolution of crowd behaviour at the Tour. And I know it can be rotten.

One lasting impression of my first complete Tour was when we drove off the ferry from Ireland in the opening week of the 1998 edition. Yes, that Tour… I was told by my French colleague at the time, “Watch out, it’s going to be nasty… wind up your windows.”

I’m glad I did. Within a few hundred metres of being in France, in an official Tour de France vehicle, there was a gob of spit on my window. And the howls of the crowd couldn’t be ignored: “Tour de France. Dopers!

Welcome to discontent. I’m confident to say there were rogue elements in the past, and a black-eyed badger can attest to that. But doubt about performance has added to the vitriol.

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Fans come to watch a spectacle, sure. But they also want to see an honest competition. When they’ve been subjected to years of EPO abuse – and the subsequent charades that dragged on for decades – they lose faith, they become irritable, they voice their concerns… some even piss in a bottle before the bunch arrives. And they’re ready for action.

The end result? Riders get covered in filth, cycling looks stupid, Walters gets his headline, and people consider paying to watch a game of football next time they want to watch some sport.

The Tour de France may be free to see, but it means anyone can be there doing almost anything they like. There is security – a lot of it, particularly since Bataclan and the Nice terrorist attacks in France – and there are thousands of police to try and quell the stupidity. But it’s not possible to stop it all.

The blame can’t be directed at the media for perpetuating the antics of angry fans. The clean riders wish they didn’t have to endure the taunts because of dirty cheats. But it happens and it is part of our sport in 2018.

Most spectators on the roadside behave in a civil, controlled manner. As well the lads and their graphics of syringes (and other things) yesterday, I also drove by hundreds of thousands who were happy picnicking with the family, waiting for the cavalcade to pass.

Walters doesn’t mention them, it would be futile… there are too many to name or describe and the riders zone out to the applause.

We see stupidity and we want to know more about it. And, I wonder, does that curiosity mean there’ll be even more stupidity at the next Tour?

Does it happen? Yes. Is it worse? Yes. But is it also better? Yes. It’s all about perspective. I’ve seen the good and the bad and I know what I find more enjoyable to report on.

Hopefully my next column will be about racing rather than idiots who want some TV air time.

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