When I heard that plans were being considered for the 2020 Tour de France behind closed-doors due to the lock-down forced upon France in the name of defeating the Coronavirus pandemic I couldn’t help thinking of the fable of the tree falling in the empty woods. Does it still make a sound? In the same way would we hear the cyclists celebrate?
That this is even being considered just highlights the absurdity of the times we are living in. Of course, football games have been played behind closed doors plenty of times, mostly as punishment for fans believing that racist chanting is still an acceptable form of expression. The experience of watching these empty stadiums on TV is a hollow one. The viewer is left to feel that there is somehow less skin in the game because there is no one there to witness the blood, sweat and tears of the athletes.
But if you are just watching it on TV then what does it really matter? It matters. Good sport is immersive, it is not passive. Whether I am watching football or cycling I am watching through the eyes of the fans in the stand or at the side of the road. I am reacting with them. I am in their shoes experiencing the atmosphere and smells and minutiae that the cameras cannot see.
Jock Stein, arguably the greatest football manager of all time, said that “football is nothing without fans”. The Tour de France is nothing without the fans.
It is estimated that 12 million people line the road to watch the peloton sweep past. 12 million people want to glimpse this strange circus of skinny legs and lycra. For a majority of those people the cycling is incidental to the scale of the event and yet each one is clearly invested in the moment, proud to be watching athletes give everything they have in the most grueling event in the world of sport.
A bike race interrupts this fans paddling pool session. The absurdity of bike racing summed up in a picture.
Of course some of those people are just there for the freebies from the caravan. Who doesn’t need a gas station branded baseball cap or ten?
The tunnel of noise and chaos that envelopes the riders as they pedal in squares up another mountain are what makes the Tour de France the spectacle it is. The fans, flares, flags and riders all jostle for prime position on the road, a balancing act that just occasionally spills over and affects the race (Chris Froome running comes to mind). The riders sometimes complain that the fans are too close but don’t think for one second that they would give up the wall of sound for deafening silence. In the silence the only thing they would hear would be their own battle against an internal monologue telling them to stop pedaling. The sound of their legs screaming pure lactic would force most off their bikes.
I was once climbing up the Sa Calobra in Mallorca and in the middle of all the pain and will an old man, stopped at the side of the road to admire the views, gave me a clap and some words of encouragement in Spanish. It was without doubt the highlight of my cycling non-career. Right in that moment I found an extra gear and pushed on. I can only imagine the effect of having thousands of cycling fans at the side of the road pushing you, sometimes literally unfortunately, to the top.
That one fan alone is worth approximately 8 Watts in my entirely scientific experiment.
When I was younger, before cycling as a sport made any impression on me, I still tuned into the Tour de France on channel four. For me the Tour de France was France. I loved seeing the people dressed up at the side of the road, the motor homes perched precariously on the side of mountains, the picnic tables flowing with good French wine and people lost in conversation before the peloton whirred past.
Think about the last stage of the Tour de France as it enters the sun-kissed Champs Elysees. On paper it is a few laps around some, admittedly iconic, monuments but with the crowds ten deep along the famous boulevard it transcends a bike race. Watching along, in the comfort of the living room, you can sense the anticipation rise and rise with each lap and you are pulled into the action by the passion of the fans.
The mountain amphitheater of the Tour de France.
I can understand why ASO might be tempted to race the Tour behind closed-doors but the event would not be an aspiration rebuttal to Covid-19 and the life we live now. It would instead be a sad reminder that life is not normal and even the simple act of stepping out your house to watch a bike race is not allowed.
I want the Tour de France to come back with a roar not a whimper. I want it to remind us of the human spirit overcoming any mountain and overcoming this pandemic. I want to see a different kind of suffering. I want to look at mountain stage profiles and not think about the exponential rise of Covid-19.
I could be wrong and it might be a great experiment with the format but for me it will feel sterile. People keep telling me that e-sports are a real thing and that it won’t be long until we are watching athletes on static bikes racing as one’s and zero’s in a simulation. This is the antithesis of the Tour de France and this is why this great race needs to be preserved. The Tour de France is unpredictable and the fans are part of that unpredictability. The fans are the true colour of the race and not the yellow jersey.
Aside from the moral objections there are simple technical reasons to think that running the race behind closed-doors would be impossible. There are not enough police and army officers in the world to barricade the race and stop fans stepping out to watch. Impossible. Why are they even considering it?
The pro’s have had their say and they agree with me. They want to race but they want the chance to raise their hands at the top of the mountain in front of the cheering crowds.
Clearly the Tour de France will not be happening as planned due to the extension of the lock down in France. Let's hope that we will watch this spectacle later on in the year. It is going to be interesting to see the condition of the riders as they go into it from months of training mostly indoors. In truth it could make for an exciting and unpredictable race with riders blowing-up all over the mountains.