Professional cycling is a rare oddity among sports in that the fans have an opportunity to get incredibly close to their heroes while they are actually competing.
Sometimes, those fans get uncomfortably close, as can be witnessed each year on the big climbs of the Tour de France and other grand tours.
As the climb approaches the peak, the road often looks completely impassable as a seething mass of humanity fights and struggles for a glimpse of the athletes as they approach, only to part to let them through before closing the road again behind them.
For the most part, the spectators are respectful and give the riders the room they need—sometimes only just enough room—and the riders pass unimpeded.
Then there are the clowns who feel the need to run alongside the riders, invariably draped in the flag of their home country and yelling what they perhaps think is encouragement, but often seeming to just annoy the riders.
A squirt from the rider’s water bottle or an annoyed hand gesture usually convinces these over-enthusiastic fans to back off.
The surprising thing is, however, that this proximity rarely has any negative consequences. Rarely.
There are innumerable examples of spectators and cyclists occupying the same space at the same time.
In 2003, Lance Armstrong’s brake lever hooked a spectator’s souvenir bag while he was climbing the soul-destroying Col du Tourmalet, bringing the yellow jersey-wearer down and also taking out Iban Mayo at the same time.
In 2011 there was a massive crash brought about by some inattentive twit standing on the road looking the wrong way as the peloton thundered down on him. The collision brought down or delayed over half the field.
Australia’s Robbie McEwen has had more than his fair share of run-ins with spectators.
In the 2007 Paris-Tours one-day race, McEwen was hit in the head by a spectator’s arm as they sped towards the finish line, knocking his helmet askew and pushing him into Oscar Freire in what appeared to be a head butt.
McEwen also received some nasty bruises and a cut when a spectator hung his camera out in front of the Australian rider as he sprinted to a stage finish in the 2009 Tour Down Under.
The damage to McEwen, however, paled in comparison to the carnage brought about by a curious Gendarme stepping out in front of the sprinters to take a snapshot in the 1994 Tour. See it here (Language warning in the YouTube comments for this and other linked videos).
The all-time classic stupid moment, however, came in 1999 when Guiseppe Guerini was felled on L’Alpe d’Huez by an idiot standing in the middle of the road taking photographs. When Guerini veered to avoid him, the budding paparazzi compounded his stupidity by stepping into his path again.
Luckily, Guerini could get back on his bike and went on to win the stage.
This year, we had yellow jersey-wearer, Bradley Wiggins, burnt by a spectator who though that it would be a great idea to run alongside the Tour leader while holding a flare—what could possibly go wrong with that?
As if that's not enough to contend with, animals of the four-legged variety have a way of livening up the Tour. Flocks of sheep, cows and the occasional stray dog have all wandered in to have a look at the race go by.
Marcus Burghardt found out first hand that hitting even the slowest, gentlest old dog can ruin your whole day (both dog and rider were unhurt).
Sometimes, however, the fan interaction turns nasty, as with the carpet tacks thrown onto the road during Stage 14 of the 2012 Tour and which may have been responsible for Robert Kiserlovski’s crash and ultimate retirment from this year's Tour.
Tacks have been a favourite way of disrupting the race since as early as 1906, and the practice came close to seeing the Tour cancelled.
The finest example of just how close fans can get—and just how bad an idea that can sometimes be—happened after the 2004 Tour de France team time-trial. As McEwen was riding to the presentation area, an enterprising young souvenir hunter tried to purloin McEwen’s water bottle—while he was riding past!
McEwen stopped and took the bottle back from the future felon and gave it to a more deserving and respectful young chap, before giving the unsuccessful thief a colourful example of his fluency in French, coupled with a few clarifying words in English. You can watch the incident here.
How’s that for up close and personal?