A cheerful carnival played out in the sprawling hilltop city of Rodez as it welcomed the 2015 Tour de France. There were large crowds waiting to cheer the riders as they signed on and then set out on the road to Mende through the glorious Aveyron countryside. No one was booed – not even the slight figure of Chris Froome, an x-ray wrapped in yellow, who rolls up to the podium to start another day as race leader.
Controversy has snapped at Froome’s heels like an overexcited terrier ever since he effortlessly took control of the race on the first mountain-top finish to La-Pierre-Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees, leaving the rest of the “fantastic four” trailing lamely in his wake. Alberto Contador, coming off the back of a hugely testing Giro, Vincenzo Nibali, who has shown nothing of the form that took him to Tour de France victory last year, and Nairo Quintana, who has been virtually anonymous on European roads this season, could do nothing against the elevated cadence of Froome and the strength of his two faithful lieutenants Richie Porte, whose form in the early part of the season helped him top the UCI rankings, and Geraint Thomas, whose top-five placing in the Tour de Suisse confirmed his excellent form coming into the race. Contador had said in a pre-race interview that no one could match Froome’s accelerations. He was proved right.
To borrow a phrase from the business speak of which Team Sky principal Sir Dave Brailsford is so fond: “This is what excellence looks like.” It may not be pretty or flamboyant – it chooses not to associate itself with the panache that older fans hold so dear – but it is brutally efficient and effective. Attacking hard on the first mountain-top finish was how Sky secured both of their previous Tour de France victories – in 2012 at the Planche des Belles Filles, where Froome scored his first ever Tour de France stage win as he guided his team-mate Bradley Wiggins to the overall, and again in 2013 when Froome’s dominant performance at Ax 3 Domaines secured the yellow jersey that he would hold until the end of the race.
But it is also how a certain American secured his string of seven Tour de France victories. There is an old canard that suggests that, if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it must therefore also be a duck. But one truth is that the US Postal book of tactics proved an insoluble conundrum for his opposition in those seven races and it continues to prove one now.
On the road from Rodez to Mende things turned ugly. As Froome made his way through the 14th stage of the Tour a fan approached him, called him a “doper” and threw a cup of urine in his face. “That’s not acceptable,” said an understandably irked Froome later. “We are professional. For someone to come and to do that, that’s not on. It really is a minority of people out there – some have been very irresponsible. Those individuals know who they are. And it’s individuals, all the others have been fantastic and supportive. What those fans are doing is not acceptable. I want to thank the thousands of supporters we had out there. I want to thank them all. Unfortunately, it’s a few individuals who are ruining the race.”
Why the anger from the roadside? Is it simply the crushing heat? Is it pure frustration that the Tour – emerging from the shadow of the Armstrong years – seems once again to be falling prey to one utterly dominant team? Riders have been booed and threatened and attacked before, of course, and the mob mentality that we associate far more readily with the darker days of football in the 1980s sits uneasily with modern-day cycling and its culture of openness and access. But the nature of fan support is changing – there is a willed transference of allegiance from individual rider to team and passions are running high. Now into this already febrile stew stir in media attitudes, questions at post-race press conferences, innuendo and videos based on leaked data and you have a molotov cocktail ready to blow.
But no amount of mitigating factors can ever make violence, however impotently expressed – a cup of urine (or possibly Fanta or warm beer), a well aimed gob of spittle – right. There’s nothing new in bike racing; Laurent Fignon and Stephen Roche both reported having wine and other, less salubrious, liquids sprayed over them at the Giro in the 1980s. Nowadays there is talk of using GoPro footage to identify the culprits. If fans find themselves increasingly corralled behind metal barriers and a wall of police, will they only have themselves to blame?
There’s a sea change going on in cycling, a kind of footballification of support, as a non-traditional team sport is shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all model. Some level of team identification has always existed in cycling – the overexcitable orange-clad fans of the Basque Euskaltel squad spring readily to mind – but if the scenes on the roadside have been crude and ugly, those on social media have been even more intense.
Take the furore over Thomas’s crash on the race’s longest stage to Gap. The abuse directed towards Giant’s Warren Barguil, who many blamed for the incident, was visceral in its intensity with a large dollop of the kind of team-based tribalism that sits uneasily with cycling as we would like to think it’s practised – with a healthy respect for all riders and their exploits and an inherent sense of fair play.
Even when the Tour was competed by national teams, throughout much of the 1940s and 1950s, the allegiances were primarily for individual riders – Jacques Anquetil or Raymond Poulidor, Fausto Coppi or Gino Bartali – rather than entire squads. Maybe it’s simply cultural – that the British love of a good underdog has led to the adoption of Team Sky as the de facto national team, conquering the alien European world of cycling. Or perhaps the blue and black armada attract the kind of generic fans who will support any sporting success so long as it has their flag on it.
Sky – with their black uniforms, ring of security and almost robotic superiority – have changed the cycling landscape in any number of ways. They’re the Marmite of cycling, the team that are hard to like. The comparisons with US Postal are once again irresistible, even down to Armstrong’s famous quote that “the Tour is not a popularity contest”.
Even the arguments against the sceptics – that this is pseudoscience, that journalists are irresponsible – have the ring of familiarity from the bad old days. That long, dark shadow has left Sky in the unenviable position of “trying to prove a negative”. Our rational brains tell us that innocence must be presumed before guilt and that no team should have to “prove” anything except by their conduct on the road. That we should simply enjoy, for our own reasons, the spectacle playing out before us over three weeks in France. But our trust as fans has been shattered and sometimes we hear a quack where perhaps no duck exists.
Yet, like the American team, Sky are phenomenally popular with fans worldwide – they are the Manchester United of cycling, an easily identifiable brand with proven winners and a string of personalities with nicknames and personalities: mod “Wiggo” with his sharp suits and sideburns, “Froomey” with his exotic African heritage and trademark white sunglasses. There is envy of course – of their huge budget and flash motorhomes – and sceptics say they are willing to bend the rules to their own advantage, as happened with the TUE granted for Chris Froome at the Tour of Romandie.
Supporters cry sour grapes and jealousy as they feel their team is achieving huge success the right way, through better training, diet and materials – the infamous “marginal gains”. Others feel that Sky’s success must bring with it a greater level of scrutiny. The arguments back and forth on social media between the two tribes – the “Skybots” and the “Unbelievers” – are often fascinating in their complexity, with compelling and informative arguments from both sides. To be a fan of the modern sport requires a University of Life degree in a range of performance-related sciences. Yet, ultimately, both camps choose to believe what they choose to believe.
But back in Rodez there is only adulation. No one spits or boos. No placards are waved and no punches are thrown. There is a little knot of French women at the finish line who stand and applaud the riders. They applaud out of respect – for the cyclists, for the yellow jersey and for the crazy, stupid, wonderful endeavour they are engaged in. It is old-school fan behaviour bred from the generations who have stood before them on dusty roads across the Hexagon and deep into La France Profonde. And they continue to stand and applaud every single rider who crosses the finish line until the broom wagon rolls in to signal the fin de la course.