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Keith Strudler: Clear The Roadway Please

Imagine, for a second, if during an NFL game, fans were allowed to stand right next to the quarterback and cheer him on when he’s taking the snap. And then they could run alongside a wide receiver when he’s trying to catch a pass, as long as they make sure not to touch him. And they can even pat some of the athletes on the back, or spray them with water to help them cool down. It sounds crazy, right. It would never happen.

That, my friends, is the Tour de France, the world’s most prestigious cycling event that runs thousands of miles over French roads for three weeks, completely blurring the line between playing surface and spectator seating. The Tour de France has no pitch or court or arena or even barricades, for that matter. It simply uses otherwise public roads, kind of like playing stickball only at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. In many ways, this truly is one of the most majestic parts of the event and the sport – the fact that fans aren’t just able to get really close to their favorite start, but they’re nearly integrated into the sport itself. That said, in some cases, perhaps too close.

That was the case during last Saturday’s first stage of the Tour, when with some 30 miles remaining, a fan held a large cardboard sign right into the flow of traffic, hitting cyclist Tony Martin and, in true domino effect, causing a massive pileup of flesh and carbon. One cyclist had to leave the Tour because of sustained injuries, and a whole lot more would be bruised and broken even as they continued.

I am certain the fan did not intent to either injure a bunch of cyclists nor complete derail the stage, of which she accomplished both. That said, she also clearly was looking straight ahead at the moving television cameras while she stood nearly in the roadway. So while you can’t blame her for intentionality, you can certainly critique her blind vanity. This is what the Today show is for – so you can act like an idiot and be on TV for two seconds.

Even as she quickly fled the scene, the culprit would not be hard to find, and now is in custody and subject to what could potentially be a large fine. The Tour itself also announced it would sue, although not knowing the specifics of the French judicial system other that what I’ve seen in Pink Panther films, I imagine that’s little more than theatrics. Regardless, there is clear intention to punish this person who, in the course of doing what thousands of frenzied cycling fans do each summer, crossed an invisible but significant line.

The easy thing to do here, and it warrants action, is to condemn the perpetrator of the crime. I’ve long believed that sports fans take far too many liberties in their encroachment of the athlete’s workspace, from storming the field to throwing bottles on the court to simply lude and inhumane chants from the stands. While I recognize the imperfection of this analogy, just imagine someone doing this to you at your place of work. There’s not an HR department in the country big enough to handle those kinds of complaints.

That said, this kind of crash is in no way unexpected. To be honest, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. The rules about road closures for the Tour are more ambiguous than how to count votes in the New York City mayoral primaries. Fans are allowed to walk, bike, and jog along the route pretty much up to when the pack arrives, and all of this is controlled town by town. Which means one local government can screw the whole thing up. Add to that the general culture of the event, where fan engagement is seemingly encouraged, and you’ve got a flat-out recipe for disaster. So much that the whole Peloton – and that’s a pack of bikes, not a stationary machine where trainers yell positive reinforcement over dance music – they protested at the beginning of Tuesday’s stage. To be fair, they were also protesting the complete insanity of one of the stage’s finishes, which led to another ridiculous wreck. But at the very least, the riders have taken note.

What’s the answer? It’s not easy to put the genie back in the bottle after all these years. At the very least, some standard protocols would be nice. Maybe even a few barricades. And yes, real punishments for the offenders. But beyond holding this entire event in a velodrome, fan engagement will never go away. Hopefully crashes like the one on Saturday, someday will.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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