Protect the Racers

by John Eustice

Gendarmes at the Tour de France

It was in 1997 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia that things really went out of control. The Eagles were playing the 49ers and a flare streaked out of the crowd and across the stadium. That action put Mayor Ed Rendell over the top, and along with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie created the first-ever in-stadium courtroom, trying and sentencing overtly misbehaving fans on the spot. Now, for those not from the area, please realize that Philadelphia is a very special and completely unrepentant place as illustrated by the chant that fans chose to serenade their Super Bowl Champions.

“ We are Philly
F*ing Philly
No one likes us
We don’t care…”

My old ESPN Tour teammate, the late Adrian Karsten, remained traumatized by his experiences there as a NFL player: “You’d always have to keep your helmet on, even sitting on the bench, because the fans would throw AA batteries at you, and for the entire game you’d hear and feel: kerplunk, kerplunk on your head.”

And finally, as my father, who’d been assigned to cities all over the world put it, “Ah yes, Philadelphia is the only city on earth where they boo funerals.”

So that’s Philly, where you know what to expect and what you’re going to get. France, the country of artists, food, wine, poets and advanced civilization has a different reputation, one that is rapidly deteriorating with the violent behavior of their fans against Team Sky during this Tour. And they’d better do something about it beginning today.

Cycling is about trust which is why the bicycle is such a civilizing influence. The rise of cycling in Manhattan, where I live, has radically changed the city for the better with the “Spokesmodels” – beautiful women done up to the max floating by on their Citi Bikes – helping to calm the turbulent urban traffic. No male driver wants to cut one off. When we ride a bicycle, we are trusting cars and trucks to behave in a safe manner. Doesn’t always happen, but I see great progress here in the Apple.

France is already one of the best places on earth to ride a bicycle. You have your right to the road. The bicycle is deeply ingrained into their culture thanks in large part to the Tour de France with every old French family having had an uncle Emile or cousin Laurent who raced. They know, love, and respect the sport. Which is why what we are seeing today is so tragic.

It’s not David Lappartient or Christian Prudhomme who are capable of fixing the issue: both have dirtied their own hands in the creation of the current atmosphere. What is required is for President Macron to step in and assume control, to order the fans to behave. And in case you think this sounds silly, please read on.

French police and Gendarmes in particular are flat out scary being, in fact, a military police force that dates back to the French Revolution, one that is expert at dealing with violence. I was there in 1998 with ESPN during the Festina scandal when they came in and decided to shake things up. No Miranda rights nonsense: this was Napoleonic Code in full force – they put you away and then decide whether you are guilty or not.

During this Tour we’ve seen the starving farmers beaten and gassed and while the starving racing cyclists avoided the beatings, they were gassed as well. Every inch of the Tour is televised and what the TV cameras miss, with our now Stasi-like society where every move is recorded uploaded then judged by the public, someone’s iPhone captures.

Racing cyclists are not NFL players in terms of size – although I do consider European cycling as the NFL of endurance sport – they are little, anorexic, exhausted waifs who can’t defend themselves. I was looking at some figures, Romain Bardet is six feet tall and 138 pounds. Froome bit taller, maybe two kilos more. And they are considered the big ones. What kind of person would physically attack someone that little, especially when they’re climbing a mountain at 200 bpm?

It is unconscionable that the trust that the bicycle engenders, from safety out on the roads to behavior by fans in a sport that allows the most intimate and free access to the athletes of any sport in the world, is allowed to be violated by some twisted sense of vigilante justice egged on by the French press and figures like Bernard Hinault.

Fans who touch, menace, spit on or in any way cause harm or damage to a Tour rider must be dealt with and dealt with severely, on the spot. They’re all recorded somewhere and easy to find, stuck on the mountains as they are. The Gendarmes were really great at terrorizing the bike riders back in 1998. Maybe it’s time they take that same aggression, the aggression we saw against the farmers, and use it to protect the athletes. It is in truth for the honor of France. And if they need some ideas on how to do this, I’m sure that Ed Rendell would take President Macron’s call.

John EusticeJohn Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.