Tour de Chaos: the Rising Wave of Fan Crashes in Cycling

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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The Tour de France: three weeks of grueling climbs, breathtaking descents, and sprint finishes that leave spectators around the globe glued to their screens.

But behind the fascination and thrill of this legendary cycling race, there lies an increasing problem: fan behavior.

Since the inception of the Tour de France in 1903, it has always been a spectacle that thrives on the interaction between the riders and millions of fans who line the route.

The intimate connection between fans and riders, who are just an arm’s length away, is a key component that makes the Tour de France a unique event.

However, this closeness has led to numerous incidents over the years. Some of these have resulted in controversy, while others have had significant impacts on the race itself.

Are Fan Incidents Anything New at the Tour de France?

In short: No.

Early Tours were rife with incidents of fans attacking their heroes’ rivals, sabotaging their equipment, and throwing tacks in the road to cause punctures.

While the scale of such behavior decreased through the early 20th century, the past 50 years has still seen a significant number of fan incidents at the Tour de France. Here are a handful of the most notable:

Punch On Eddy Merckx

In 1975, a fan decided to take aggression to the extreme by landing a punch on Eddy Merckx‘s liver during a climb on the Puy de Dôme.

Merckx was left with serious abdominal bruising, which seriously affected his performance the next day – a stage that would derail his hopes of a record sixth Tour de France victory.

The assailant was grabbed by vigilante fans, with Merckx riding back down the hill flanked by policemen after finishing the stage to identify the attacker.

This brazen act highlighted the potential danger of unchecked spectator behavior. It was a pivotal moment in the cycling world, sparking discussions on spectator involvement and rider safety.

The Policeman

Fast forward to 1994, and we see another alarming incident while riders were speeding towards the finish line in the town of Armentières.

A policeman, who was stationed inside the barriers for crowd control, stepped in front of the peloton to take a photograph. Belgian cyclist Wilfried Nelissen, who was leading the sprint at full speed, had no time to react.

He crashed into the policeman, causing a domino effect as other cyclists, too close and too fast to avoid the sudden obstacle, piled into the fallen rider.

The result was catastrophic, with numerous riders bloodied and seriously injured in the ensuing crash. Nelissen was left with a broken collarbone and severe facial injuries that required surgery.

The Photograph

In 1999, a teenager, keen to capture a memorable snapshot of the race, stepped into the path of Giuseppe Guerini during his assured solo win at the Alpe d’Huez ski station.

Guerini managed to continue and win the stage, but the incident highlighted the potential danger of unchecked fan enthusiasm.

The Cutting Hand

The 2006 Tour saw another notorious incident when a fan’s giant cardboard hand.

The hands, promotional items distributed by the race sponsor PMU. Little did anyone realize the havoc this seemingly harmless object would cause.

As Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd, riding for the Crédit Agricole team, sprinted to the finish line, the fan leaned over the barrier with the cardboard hand extended.

In a split-second, the cardboard hand hit Hushovd, causing a deep cut on his right arm.

“Allez Opi-omi!” Crash

Perhaps the most infamous fan incident of all – at least in recent memory – occurred during the first stage of the 2021 Tour de France when a spectator held out a large cardboard sign that read “Allez Opi-Omi!” (German for “Go Grandpa-Grandma!”). 

The sign hit German rider Tony Martin, who was unable to avoid it, and the subsequent crash caused a domino effect in the tightly packed peloton.

The incident drew condemnation around the world and briefly sparked an international manhunt after the fan fled, before eventually handing herself in to police. She was ultimately ordered to pay a symbolic €1 fine to the French professional cyclists’ association.

The Changing Landscape of Spectator Behavior in Modern Cycling

The Tour de France climbs up Alpe d'Huez with fans lining the road.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

In recent years, the Tour de France has seen a surge in popularity, attracting an ever-larger and more diverse crowd of spectators from around the globe.

This has undoubtedly added to the festive atmosphere and excitement that surrounds the race. However, it has also brought challenges.

Growing Attendance

One of the key factors behind the rising number of fan-related incidents is the growing attendance of people who are unfamiliar with the traditions and etiquette of the Tour.

Some attendees view the race as a spectacle or a party rather than a serious sporting event, leading to behavior that can put riders at risk.

The Selfie Trend

The advent of smartphones and the popularity of social media have also contributed to the problem. The selfie trend, for example, has become a major issue.

Many fans, in their desire to capture a memorable photo of themselves with the speeding peloton in the background, often step into the road, unaware or seemingly oblivious to the danger they pose to themselves and the riders.

These snapshots, while potentially Instagram-worthy, have led to near-misses and, in some instances, serious accidents.

Lack Of Respect

A general lack of respect for the athletes and the race has also been observed. Some fans view the Tour de France as a circus-like event where anything goes.

They invade the riders’ personal space, often running alongside them in silly costumes, obstructing the cyclists’ path, and creating unnecessary distractions. This not only diminishes the seriousness of the event but also jeopardizes the safety of the riders.

5 Major Fan Incidents During Tour de France 2023

Undoubtedly, there is a feeling among professionals and fans that these factors are contributing to an increase in serious incidents with poor fan behaviour causing crashes.

In the 2023 Tour alone, there were five serious incidents of this nature:

#1. Steff Cras Crash – Stage 8

Belgian rider Steff Cras, while negotiating a tricky part of the route, collided with a fan, causing him to crash. The impact resulted in serious bruising to his hip and elbow, forcing him to withdraw from the race.

The incident also affected Simon Yates and Mikel Landa, who lost around 47 seconds.

#2. Lilian Calmejane Incident – Stage 9

French cyclist Lilian Calmejane experienced a disturbing encounter when his bike got tangled with jerseys being waved by a fan in tribute to Raymond Poulidor.

#3. Joux Plane Climb – Stage 14

During the arduous climb up the Col de la Joux Plane, the route was so overcrowded with spectators that motorbikes found it challenging to navigate.

As a result, they inadvertently blocked an attack from Tadej Pogačar at a vital moment in the race.

With the riders digging so deep on a climb such as the Joux Plane, launching an attack such as this expends a huge amount of energy. Pogačar himself ruefully described the incident as a “wasted bullet”.

#4. Selfie Crash – Stage 15

One of the most serious incidents occurred during Stage 15, when a fan collided with American cyclist Sepp Kuss while trying to take a selfie. 

The accident caused a pile-up involving about 20 riders, including Kuss’ teammate Nathan van Hooydonck. 

Despite the massive crash, all riders involved managed to complete the 179 km stage.

#5. Col de la Loze – Stage 17

The high road gradients and crowded conditions on the Col de la Loze posed a serious challenge.

Motorbikes and official cars got stuck, causing a significant traffic jam which hampered Jonas Vingegaard’s chances of overhauling Felix Gall for a major stage victory.

Debate and Discussion

A young cycling fan roars the Tour de France past.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

With this rising tide of chaos becoming infuriating and dangerous for riders and fans alike, the question is: How do we handle it?

Some argue for stricter regulations, fines, and legal actions against unruly fans. Others, however, caution against turning the Tour into a fortress, highlighting the challenge of policing such a large event that unfolds across public roads.

Proponents of stricter regulations believe that imposing hefty fines or even legal actions could act as a deterrent against dangerous behavior.

The suggestion here is that when faced with substantial financial penalties or possible legal repercussions, fans might think twice before acting recklessly.

However, others caution against such drastic measures. They argue that turning the Tour de France into a highly regulated event could rob it of its charm and accessibility.

The Tour de France isn’t just a cycling race; it’s a cultural event deeply rooted in the towns and villages it passes through.

It’s about roadside picnics, the children cheering on their heroes, and the local communities coming together to celebrate this grand spectacle. Imposing strict control might jeopardize this atmosphere.

Furthermore, there’s a practical challenge to consider. The Tour de France is not a stadium event; it’s a race that takes place on public roads, stretching over 3,500 kilometers across various types of terrains.

The sheer logistics of enforcing stricter control and policing such an enormous, spread-out event could be a daunting, if not impossible, task.

In this debate, one thing is clear: a balance must be struck. The excitement and enthusiasm that characterize the Tour de France must be preserved, but not at the expense of rider safety.

Tour de France fans line the roads in the mountains.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

The Future of Spectators at the Tour de France

The future of the Tour de France spectatorship could hinge on the ability to effectively balance the safety of riders with the desire to maintain the infectious energy that defines the race. Several ideas have been proposed to help strike this balance.

Educational TV Adverts

These advertisements would aim to inform spectators about appropriate behavior during the race. 

They could highlight the dangers of getting too close to riders, show the potential consequences of careless actions, and underline the importance of respecting the athletes and the race itself.

Paid Spectator Zones

In these areas, fans would pay for the privilege of securing a spot to watch the race, especially in key sections like the final stretches of a climb. Not only would this system help to control the number of spectators in these zones, but it would also generate revenue.

This income could be reinvested into safety measures like ropes, portable bleachers, safety guards, etc. to create a 2-meter-wide buffer zone free of fans in the last 10km of a climb, for example.

Alcohol Regulation

Given that excessive alcohol consumption can sometimes lead to reckless behavior, some argue that imposing limits on alcohol could be a way to enhance safety.

However, this could be challenging to enforce, and it might dampen the festive atmosphere that is part and parcel of the Tour de France experience.

So, there’s no denying it. Fan engagement is vital to the lifeblood of the Tour de France. But when safety becomes compromised, it’s time to take action.

If current trends continue, we risk tarnishing the spectacle of the Tour. So let’s work together – organizers, teams, riders, and fans – to ensure that we can continue to enjoy the thrill of the Tour de France, safely and respectfully.

After all, we all want the same thing: a fantastic race that celebrates the spirit of cycling in all its glory.

What’s your opinion on the rising wave of fan incidents at the Tour de France? Let us know in the comments below!

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Quentin's background in bike racing runs deep. In his youth, he won the prestigious junior Roc d'Azur MTB race before representing Belgium at the U17 European Championships in Graz, Austria. Shifting to road racing, he then competed in some of the biggest races on the junior calendar, including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, before stepping up to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix as an U23. With a breakthrough into the cut-throat environment of professional racing just out of reach, Quentin decided to shift his focus to embrace bike racing as a passion rather than a career. Now writing for BikeTips, Quentin's experience provides invaluable insight into performance cycling - though he's always ready to embrace the fun side of the sport he loves too and share his passion with others.

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