How to watch a bike race: advice for spectators
In the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition) James Stout wrote a feature on how to watch a bike race. He offered advice for spectators who are planning to stand on the roadside and cheer on the riders.
After the events of stage 12 of the 103rd Tour de France, it seems appropriate to reiterate some of the points raised in the article.
For prosperity, here is the online version of Stout’s feature…
Enjoy the action!
– By James Stout
The Tour de France is a sporting carnival that appeals to a wide range of fans from around the world. It provides a unique opportunity for spectators to see amazing athletic performances. We offer some advice for viewers: how to watch and get the most out of it.
“I don’t care what you think unless it is about me.”
– Kurt Cobain
Debrett’s Peerage first appeared in 1769 and the text helped the middle classes, with their growing economic influence, fit into the complicated social world of the British nobility. In case you haven’t read it, in summary: you start with the cutlery on the outside, don’t swear until after the cheese course and never sit down before your host. But if you’re reading this, you might find yourself in a situation akin to a dinner party in the early 19th century in the next few months. You see, bike racing is much like industrial revolution London; we’re welcoming in huge numbers of new people, these people have money, they have influence and, sometimes, they haven’t a bloody clue how to behave themselves.
Cycling is a funny sport. It gives the fans unprecedented access to the protagonists of the drama. These are not just the athletes but the machines, the route and even the road surface itself. With this privileged access comes a responsibility. This isn’t footy or cricket where you can have a few lagers and heckle from the comfort of your plastic chair, safe in the knowledge that you will only flash up on television for a second at most and that however wobbly you become, the game will go on serenely unaware of your existence.
Cycling is a sport that allows fans to interact with the racers, but expects them to keep that interaction within boundaries. These boundaries aren’t defined by tape, or written in any rule book. As someone who rides bikes you should be able to work them out but if you’re new to bike racing, and all jazzed up on patriotic fervour or Castlemaine – I’ll explain a few basic concepts to make it all clear.
The basic principle here is the one behind all forms of etiquette: that of consideration, respect and courtesy. Whether it’s responding in a timely manner to an RSVP or refraining from dressing up as a bright yellow chicken and causing a crash, the underlying principle is the same. When you’re at a professional bike race you’re in someone else’s workplace, watching them do their job.
Sure, cyclists work in the entertainment industry, and if there weren’t fans there wouldn’t be races, but let’s put some context to it: when was the last time someone threw urine on Morrisey just because he refused to play Smiths songs?
Alas, the throwing of all sorts of matter, and the antics of the crowds at last year’s Tour de France, got headlines. It disrupted the show a little largely because fans didn’t adhere to basic forms of etiquette.
The race is there for fans, that’s something that racers understand (or at least they should). They sign autographs, do press conferences, answer the most derivative questions imaginable and they even entertain the desires of grown adults with self-facing cameras on sticks. The race is not, however, about the fans. It’s about the racers. That is where the line is drawn and recently that is where the line has been repeatedly crossed.
Last year, at the Tour de France that line was crossed by a bottle of urine that was thrown on Chris Froome, but this wasn’t the first transgression and it won’t be the last. It’s true that the French feel a sense of ownership of their race, that once a donkey influenced its outcome and that, more than once, a dog has eliminated a rider from contention. Even an insect is known to have had an impact but it was a real one, not some fan dressed up as a bee. Still, these incidents with real animals is somewhat different to a rational human being choosing to take the ability to race equally away from the racers.
The incident was attributed to the suspicion that Froome was doping, perhaps cheating one of France’s great hopes out of victory. However it seems logically inconsistent to oppose the fact that doping creates an unequal playing field by making that playing field less equal. If you want to watch riders giving their best, let them do their best on the same road under the same circumstances. Don’t make one of them ride through a cloud of your bodily fluid.
As a longue dureé cycling fan, you’ll understand that the race is about more than the guys at the front. Believe me, some riders earn a (meagre) living as one of the sorry individuals at the back and its hard there. This is where the line can get blurry, I think it’s okay to offer a little push if a rider is dangling on the back of the grupetto; you’re not changing the outcome of the race, you’re just making someone’s tough day a little easier. That being said, there is a special circle of hell reserved for the man dressed up as a chicken who waits on the steepest slope to flap alongside the struggling grupetto as they do battle with the time cut.
As someone who has enjoyed the sport for a long time you will also be aware of the one-man legend that is Didi Senft. He’s better known as ‘El Diablo’. He’s quirky, he’s adorable, he’s really bloody annoying and most importantly he is not you. The reason it has worked for so long that one man has been a roadside comedy act dressed as a rather innocent looking devil is that there wasn’t a whole satanic host accompanying him. Senft’s poking, shouting and frantic jumping were funny because they were a uniquely tolerated discretion, they were expected and they were always within certain bounds.
He was an original act, a committed fan – another roadside attraction, sure, but he had respect for the riders, admiration even. His antics were curious, there’s no question about that, but he was essentially harmless. And he added some colour and fun to cycling. He has also prompted many impersonators; some are actually quite good, some are terrible… if you must dress up for a bike race, at least adhere to some basic concepts of etiquette and try not to fall into the latter category.
Senft is a German. He’s been known to travel around the world: he was in Colombia for the worlds in 1995, and Sydney for the Olympics in 2000. He has a giant showpiece, a most impractical bicycle, which he tows behind his campervan and he’s very much part of the professional cycling scene… in his own special way.
Then there is an entirely new category of roadside fans, many are known as ‘Americans’. As is often the case with this tribe, everything is bigger in the USA. There is an exception to this rule – ie. roadside attractions in Australia like, for example, a pineapple, banana, sheep… or even the potato of Robertson or the big prawn that was at a service station near Taree. These are enormous… and bizarre. (But they are not part of cycling.)
If the current presidential election is anything to go by, there’s a certain lack of what one might call ‘decorum’. There was plenty of this kind of antic on display at the recent Tour of California. For cycling fans wishing to take the Trump approach to spectating, we understand that the options are virtually endless: got a giant flag? Wave it about. Got a stuffed animal? Take your taxidermy to a mountain top and prod people with it while they’re trying to do their jobs.
Got a beer belly? Excellent, we all want to see it as you wobble alongside the peloton swilling Budweiser and try to get on television. We laugh, it’s funny and to an extent that’s all it is. But please, don’t do anything that puts your amusement ahead of the outcome of the race. The moment you fall over and knock someone out of contention because the antlers on your helmet turned out to be quite heavy, you’ve made the race about you, and not in a good way.
The roads in the US might be bigger but that rarely affords the peloton enough space to share them with the hubris of the “fans” who want to make themselves a bigger part of the spectacle.
They love the hand-ups in the States as well, a recent addition to the cycling fan armoury thanks largely to the rise of cyclocross. If done correctly, these are the perfect level of fan/racer interaction. By all means hold out a donut, let the riders come to you and they still get to write the story of the race. However if you’re that person who leaps in front of the peloton using a dollar bill as an excuse for your attempt to play frogger with cyclists racing at speeds many of you cannot run at, you’re an idiot. And if you’re the bloke who decided to sneak some psychoactive substances into a cookie and hand it up to someone at a UCI ’cross race that was: a) Not fair; and b) Actually pretty hilarious given that the recipient – ie. me, once upon a time – and I wasn’t going to win anyway… but I confess: at least I got some cheers for my unintended dismounts.
* * * * *
Clearly the Debrett’s guide to modern manners hasn’t made it across the Atlantic yet. At the Tour of California in May, most obvious rules for the roadside spectator were waivered. We can’t blame these fans if we don’t educate them. Just like the British upper classes who introduced the newly empowered middle classes to etiquette we, as fans, have a responsibility to gently coax and persuade our fellow fans. This is especially true of the newer fans: we can help them to watch a bike race and not commit the spectating equivalent of eating the fish course with the salad fork or, perhaps, the equivalent of stabbing the host with the bread knife.
It’s easy to get excited about a bike race. A sporting contest tells a story which is more spectacular, unpredictable and enjoyable than any Hollywood epic. Not even the actors know how the drama ends. As a spectator, you’re inches from the action. You can see, hear and smell the antagonists of the action. But the very thing that makes bike racing so wonderful to watch is also what gives the viewer some responsibility.
You can’t feel the wind as James Dean flies by in Rebel Without a Cause, but you can as Chris Froome or Vincenzo Nibali ride up Mont Ventoux. You also can’t knock James Dean off his motorcycle and change the outcome of the film. Ultimately, you want the story to come to the end that would have occurred were you not there.
You want to watch from right next to the line as the best rider wins, not from right next to the ambulance as he nurses a broken clavicle. So clap, cheer, dance, ring a bell and play some music but make sure you’re the extras in this film, not the stars.
When you started cycling, and you didn’t shave your legs – or you turned up in boxer shorts underneath your knicks… or some other such faux pas – then someone told you how to behave so you didn’t make a fool of yourself. Watching a bike race is no different.
As a reader of this magazine, you’re a thinking cycling fan if you will, and so there’s a responsibility to spread the good word. Everyone likes a supportive cheer, a shout of encouragement, or a bit of well-placed cowbell – I’m not saying you shouldn’t support racers. Even the odd comedy hand-up is fine, provided you don’t ram your deep fried, chocolate covered bacon in the face of someone who would rather not have it there. If you’re a fan of the sport, then go and enjoy the sport. You can write your own story at home, but please don’t do so in the flesh and detract from the experience of other fans and riders. Of course, feel free to go big on the tiny bags of Haribo that they throw out from the caravane publicitaire before the race, it goes without saying that all bets are off when gummi bears are to be had. But please, make sure you at least use the correct cutlery for those sugary treats.
– By James Stout