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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003

Chute Lance Armstrong!*

Crowd hazards in the Tour

Bike racing fans love the chance to get close to their heroes and share their effort, glory and pain as they toil up the Tour's legendary climbs. But on Luz-Ardiden in Stage 15, Lance Armstrong and a fan got a little too close. Gabriella Ekström wonders if it's time for more crowd barriers on the climbs.

Fans fill the roadside on Luz Ardiden
Photo: © Olympia
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Driving up Luz Ardiden many hours before the riders are due, you can't help but notice the aggression exhibited by some groups of fans. Most fans are genuine lovers of cycling, and have come to enjoy the day and the racing, but unfortunately there are also those who will rock your car and even throw in beer cans, if you have been silly enough to leave a window open. Those crowds will be even bigger and wilder by the time the riders approach the climb, and we are used to daily images of fans running alongside the riders, disturbing them until someone will eventually grab them and jerk the back into the masses, cheered by everyone who is watching the race.

Mayo attacks, but Armstrong counters
Photo: © AFP
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Armstrong gets too close to a spectator and becomes entangled
Photo: © AFP
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Ullrich dodges the pile-up, then waits
Photo: © AFP
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On most occasions the riders escape close encounters with their fans with nothing worse that a bottle of alpine water poured down their necks, but we all remember fans actually interfering with the race and its outcome. In 1999 Giuseppe Guerini, then riding for Telekom, collided with a fan who wanted to take a picture of him chasing the stage win at l'Alpe d'Huez. Stunned by the sight, the world held its breath while 'Beppe Turbo' climbed back on his bike.

He was never caught, and went on to win the legendary stage at the Alpe, and made friends with the unfortunate spectator after the race. After the race he said that if he had lost he stage, at least he thought he had a good excuse. That time it was about a stage win, but today at Luz Ardiden, it was the yellow jersey that was at risk.

With little less than ten kilometres left in the stage, Lance Armstrong countered a move by Iban Mayo and charged up the road, close to the spectators on the right side. In an unfortunate accident, a feeding bag caught Lance's right handlebar and sent him straight over the handlebars. Iban Mayo, following closely behind Armstrong, toppled right over him.

The unwritten law in the peloton is that you do not attack the yellow jersey if he has to answer a nature call or suffers a mechanical problem, and you most certainly do not attack him if he crashes. Jan Ullrich could easily have jumped ahead to take the jersey, but he showed that he believes in sportsmanship, and that he also remembered Lance paying the same respect to him when he crashed while descending Col de Peyresourde two years ago. No matter how badly Ullrich wanted the jersey, he would not go after it at any price, and his choice to remain one podium step below the jersey harmed his ambition, but not his reputation.

The two-man pile-up today wasn't caused by any act of terrorism or by a spectator not obeying the rules. Lance admitted himself after the stage that it was his fault, and that he had been riding too close to the people alongside the road. However, today's accident raises the question of whether the outcome of the race should be dependent on the spectators choosing to respect the riders or not. Jean-Marie Leblanc said after the stage that he feared an accident could take place today, because of the mobs that gather on the spectacular climb of Luz Ardiden. Although he admitted he had been worried, Leblanc stressed that it is not possible to put the riders behind barriers all day.

After the stage had finished, Cyclingnews spoke to American cycling enthusiasts Tom Burke, Jerome Schroeder and Mike Maser, who had made it to the top of Luz Ardiden to follow the outcome of the Centenary Tour.

The subject of everyone's conversation at the finish was the crash, and they questioned if barriers all along the final climb could be a future solution, but they had mixed feelings about it, since the close interaction with the riders is, and always has been, a part of the excitement with cycling. Needless to say, they all agreed that Ullrich had done the only right thing by waiting for Lance, and that he can comfortably look himself in the mirror tomorrow too.

Editor's note: 'Chute' is French for fall; "Chute lance Armstrong" was the call over race radio when Armstrong took a tumble after getting tangled with a spectator on stage 15.

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