Lance Armstrong has touched thousands of people. But just as many have touched him.
The Tour de France is a unique sport which offers spectators physical contact with their idols. As riders wind up mountains, legs weary and gasping for breath, fans often run alongside offering pats of encouragement on their backs.
Each stage would seem to be an accident waiting to happen.
Police line the route to help keep fans back, but preventing mishaps by some of the millions of spectators who attend the race for free along more than 3,000km of road is virtually impossible.
Suddenly, someone jumps out waving a giant flag in front of the bike, then moves it away in a split second, much like a matador lets a bull pass inches from his waist.
Others throw water, some shout praise -- or insults.
If the mountain climbs, bad weather, crashes within the rider pack and road hazards like cobblestones weren't already hard enough, cyclists also have to worry about a spectator knocking them over.
Armstrong knows the feeling all too well.
"You can't ride next to the crowd, I personally learned that," Armstrong said. "There's so many people, the speeds are higher, the people aren't all educated about bike racing. Riders hit spectators all the time. It's dangerous."
In last year's Tour, the Texan's handlebar got snagged on a fan's plastic bag on an ascent to Luz Ardiden. He tumbled sideways and down -- dragging Spaniard Iban Mayo with him -- but got back up on his bike, got angry, raced ahead and won the stage.
It's still a bad memory.
"I see people who have them [bags] from last year and every time I see one, I'm just like: `Oh no, stay away from me,'" the five-time champion said.
"The incident last year was purely my fault. I was just too close," Armstrong said. "I don't know what I was thinking at the time, obviously I wasn't thinking."
This year, in Saturday's 13th stage, Armstrong came perilously close to another fall. Riding ahead of the pack, he and the talented Italian Ivan Basso were sucked into a vortex of near-hysterical fans on an uphill climb.
One fan waved a giant American flag close to the Texan's face. Another slapped Armstrong on the back -- and his bike wobbled. Then came a home stretch packed with screaming Basque fans pumping their fists and surging forward. The gap to pass was frighteningly narrow.
"I looked at him and he looked at me," Armstrong recalled, referring to Basso. "[We thought]: `Man it's unbelievable that we made it through there without getting killed.'"
"I tried to stay as much in the middle as I can," Armstrong added. "But when they're waving flags it's sometimes tough because it can catch the handlebar. When that happens you go down."
Some fans jump in front of the moving vehicle convoy of organizers, team officials, journalists and sponsors that accompany and escort the riders.
The caravan can be fatal.
Melvin Pompele, a 7-year-old boy, was killed by a sponsor's car in 2002. The car, belonging to candy manufacturer Haribo, struck him as he crossed a road in southwest France.
Jean-Francois Prescheux, a member of the Tour organizing committee, said fan interference is a risk that has been part of the race for 101 years -- and things are not about to change.
"We trust the fans to behave correctly and to be responsible," he said. "The Tour is the Tour and the public needs to be close to the riders. If the Tour is all behind barriers, it is no longer the Tour."
On Wednesday, the Tour heads to the mythical L'Alpe d'Huez -- cycling's version of Wembley Stadium -- for a 15.5km time trial, where riders race individually against the clock. A massive fan turnout is expected for the most talked-about stage of this year's Tour.
"There will be euphoria, masses of people, risks ... but it will be OK," Prescheux said. Organizers will erect barricades on the last half of the course, and each rider will have vehicle escorts.
Armstrong is currently in second place overall with six stages remaining in the showcase event. Victory in Paris on July 25 would make him the only winner of six Tours.
Some critics say he worries too much about his safety. A day after the hectic Pyrenees ride, a group of Basque supporters booed and banged on the side of his team bus as it rolled into the walled town of Carcassonne. Team spokesman Jogi Mueller said the fans were angry about his safety concern.
But most fans are appreciative, often waiting hours in the rain just to see riders zip by in seconds. Armstrong said such support is not lost on him.
"There's nothing like it," he said.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is buying the Forum for US$400 million, ending the billionaire’s legal fight with Madison Square Garden Co (MSG) and clearing the way to build a new arena for his NBA team down the street in Inglewood, California. Ballmer on Tuesday announced his cash purchase of the venerated arena. Ballmer, a former Microsoft executive, and Clippers vice chairman Dennis Wong are making the transaction through CAPSS LLC, a newly formed entity that would continue to operate the Forum as a live music venue. “This is an unprecedented time, but we believe in our collective future,” Ballmer said.
EXPENDITURE: Tokyo Games organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto said that ‘additional expenses are going to be quite massive’ to reschedule the Olympics The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is working with sports bodies to arrange a July-to-August window next year for the postponed Tokyo Olympics and hopes to confirm the schedule within a month, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported yesterday. John Coates, head of the IOC’s coordination commission for the Tokyo Olympics, told the newspaper that the Games would have to be held between the tennis Grand Slams of Wimbledon, scheduled to end in mid-July, and the US Open, which starts in late August. “We want to more or less finalize the dates in four weeks’ time,” the newspaper quoted Coates as saying. Coates, who is also
When two Spanish soccer players took to the controls of FIFA 20 after the COVID-19 pandemic saw their La Liga match canceled, a stadium-sized virtual audience watched online. The huge digital crowd last week is part of a spectacular boom for the digital gaming industry, as record numbers flock to online servers for distraction, entertainment and friendship with the “real world” seemingly falling apart. Real Betis Balompie striker Borja Iglesias kicked the winning goal using his own digital likeness in the 6-5 battle against Sevilla, which was broadcast on popular video game streaming platform Twitch. It took place at the same time the
BLAME GAME: The Turkish Boxing Federation president blamed the International Olympic Committee, which denied any link between the event and the infections Organizers of the suspended Europe Olympic boxing qualifiers in London on Thursday hit back at accusations of irresponsibility as the number of competitors and coaches testing positive for COVID-19 grew to six. The Croatian Boxing Federation said that three team members had contracted the disease, a day after Turkey reported positives for two boxers and a coach. The event at the Copper Box, featuring hundreds of male and female fighters seeking places at the now-postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, was halted on Monday last week after three days. The International Olympic Committee’s Boxing Task Force (BTF), which organized the event after last year’s suspension