Wed, Jul 21, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Crowds a big hazard throughout Tour

TOUR DE FRANCE As riders wind up mountains, fans often run alongside offering pats of encouragement. But serious accidents occur to racers and spectators


Supporters waving the Texas state flag, center on top, and Basque flags, right and left, cheer US Postal Service team leader Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, riding ahead of Italian Ivan Basso, near the end of the 13th stage of the Tour de France between Lannemezan and Plateau de Beille, France, Saturday. Armstrong won the stage.


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."

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