“There’s no way to control a crowd like that if they don’t want to be controlled,” said former Boston Marathon race director Will Cloney after huge throngs on Heartbreak Hill forced runners into a single file as they climbed the iconic rise. The narrowed channel made for great excitement, great theater, but also dangerous racing conditions as it was all but impossible to pass anyone in the bedlam.
Accordingly, the Boston Athletic Association soon installed rope lines and finally snow fencing and barriers all along Heartbreak Hill and other crowded sections of the course to keep the crowds at bay in the name of race safety.
Today’s stage 12 of the Tour de France on Mont Ventoux witnessed the kind of race chaos that Cloney was afraid might happen due to an overly enthusiastic crowd.
Due to expected 50 to 60 mile per hour winds at the top of Mont Ventoux race officials cut the course short by some 6 km late last night. But that decision had the effect of funneling all those crowds that would’ve been spread out over the last 6K down the mountain to the new finishing point where protective barriers were not set up.
All along the final kilometers the sides of the narrow road couldn’t handle the throngs filled with a Halloween-type characters just trying to get on TV themselves. With one kilometer remaining a TV motorbike trying to get through had no place to go. Australian Richie Porte of Team BMC slammed into the back of the camera bike along with yellow jersey race leader Chris Froome of Team Sky. Froome’s bike was damaged in the crash, and because the crowds were so thick his team car couldn’t get through with a back up ride. From a 1:21 lead, Froome fell to sixth place n the overall standings by the time things got sorted out.
It was a real eff-up causing all kinds of controversy as race officials had to figure out what to do. Now, is that racing-is-racing, and you take the good with the bad ala the women’s 800 meter final in the Olympic Trials? Evidently not, as a race jury reinstalled Chris Froome to his leading position in the aftermath. And all the leading riders felt satisfied with that call, not wanting an outside incident to determine the outcome of the grand tour.
We who remember the days when the Boston Marathon was wide open and the crowds were right up on your shoulder screaming in your ear, patting you on the backside, love that excitement and energy. At the same time, it was all but impossible to pass anybody on the hill because there was only one lane formed by the pressing crowd.
But at what point does safety and the actual race outcome take precedence and force race officials to hang the crowd back behind barriers?
In the Rio de Janeiro Marathon in the mid-1980s the crowds are so thick along Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches in the final kilometers that American pace car driver Tim Elkins, who I nicknamed “The Crippler”, used to literally herd the crowd back with his pick up truck as they funneled in to get a better view of the approaching leaders.
Massive crowds are part of what make a great sporting event especially on public roads. At the same time there’s a fine line between rabid enthusiasm and safety concerns for the athletes (and the crowd) not to mention the possibility of the races been compromised by uncontrolled crowds.
Every year we talk about the huge crowds at TDF at the mountaintop finishes like Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez. And we remember those days when the Boston Marathon used to be like that and the New York City Marathon up First Avenue was a one-lane madhouse. And we all look back with nostalgia until something bad happens.
We can’t believe it hasn’t happened before at the tour. They just had to deal with their first such incident. Wonder how they’ll handle it in the coming tours?