Cycle racing is a unique sport; there are few rules for a start. A rider must hold a straight line in a finishing sprint, but apart from that there are few other rules that apply to the race while it is in progress.
The sport is instead governed by an unwritten code of conduct that I remember well from my riding road races as an amateur in the UK; no one did anything that would put another rider in danger. Riders at the front of the peloton or group would shout out a warning of any approaching hazard.
Have you ever wondered how the Tour de France peloton magically splits and goes around a piece of traffic furniture in the middle of the road? It is because the riders ahead call out a warning to those following.
I remember one time I was in a road race when my chain came off. Two riders on either side grabbed my jersey and towed me along while I reached down and put my chain back on. I will admit the race was not in a critical stage, but these two riders, although strangers to me knew that if I had been forced to stop for something as trivial as and unshipped chain, the race would have been over for me and my day ruined.
This unwritten law of fair play was demonstrated in last Sunday’s Tour de France stage. Cadel Evans punctured because some idiot had thrown upholstery tacks on the road. Team Sky, lead by Bradley Wiggins, slowed and essentially neutralized the race while Evans caught up. Soon after the other contender Vincenzo Nibali also flatted.
Let’s face it, if Evans and Nibali had both lost several minutes the Tour de France would have been over for them and over for the rest of us following the event. The sense of fair play shown by Wiggins and the others, not only neutralized the race but neutralized the affect caused by whoever threw tacks on the road in the first place.
The fact that this happened without any prompting from officials of the race is pretty amazing in any professional sport, which is why I say cycle racing is unique.
The fans of bicycle racing are also unique; especially in events like the Tour de France. Could anyone imagine an NFL player running for a touchdown between a gauntlet of cheering fans? Some running alongside, dressed in costume and waiving flags.
In today’s atmosphere of extreme security at all major sporting events; it is amazing that the Tour de France continues to run, and tacks on the road is the most dangerous problem they have. Also last Friday Bradley Wiggins had his arm slightly singed by a fan running alongside carrying a lighted flare.
Fans have always been a problem in the TDF and even affected the outcome of the race; in 1950 French rider Jean Robic and Italian Gino Bartalli both fell when they hit a photographer. Robic remounted and continued, but Bartalli was punched and kicked by French fans.
Italian team member Fiorenzo Magni waited for Bartelli and the two chased and caught the leading group. This effort put Magni in the yellow jersey, two and a half minutes ahead of Swiss Ferdi Kubler. The following day the entire Italian team (Including the yellow jersey.) withdrew from the race in protest of the treatment of Bartalli by the fans. There was also genuine concern for the safety of the Italian team.
Ferdi Kubler went on to win the Tour that year, and this would not be the last time that a fan possibly affected the outcome of the race. In 1975 Belgian Eddy Merckx was chasing Frenchman Bernard Thevenet up the Puy de Dome climb, when a spectator punched Merckx hard in the kidneys. (See video below.) Thevenet took the Yellow the following day, and held it to the end.
The TDF fans are not going away; they are part of the spectacle that is the Tour de France. The race should be about the riders; they are the ones who train and dedicate their lives to bike racing.
Unfortunately there are always a few Dick-Heads in any crowd that feel this event is about them, as they dress in outrageous costumes and do stupid things in an effort to gain two seconds of fame as the cameras roll by.