It’s always a bit curious how cycling manages to attract so many spectators for what, really, is a pretty difficult sport to watch. Track cycling besides, the best we can expect when we go out to watch a race is a fleeting glimpse; a blur of speed, colour and noise. Then they’re gone. And we contemplate the two days it took to fight for our position beside the road, on top of the cliff, and for that motorhome parking lot that European alpine passes become whenever a Tour is on the cards.
So it’s no wonder that the fans try so hard to add a prologue of entertainment of their own, to string out the fun. There’s the company of fans intent on alpine peaks of inebriation; the Tour village fair, and the fun of the pre-peloton parades. Our glimpse of bikes passing by becomes just a fixed point in a much bigger day of cycling social display.
Think of the character of roadside celebrations we can watch as the season goes on. They are at least as entertaining as the bike race to which they are attached.
If we could imagine some kind of scale through which to measure the passions of spectator display, the far left would have to belong to the bemused, frigid indifference beside regimented Chinese roads. The Chinese tifosi are a bit like a plague of satiated zombies just after feeding time. Here, cyclists can almost hear the sound of one hand clapping as they jostle for points. These threadbare crowds are a bit like professional mourners at the funeral of an accomplished anti-social recluse.
Then we move on through the quiet, controlled, still bemused, but definitely curious Middle Eastern cycling crowds. Here, the officials all seem to be wearing swords! In France they just rely on Bernard Hinault’s fists for crowd control…
The Malaysian Tour of Langkawi offers more of the same but with rain forests instead of sand. It’s always fascinating to watch the roadside crowd segment itself into the order of men on one corner and women-only on the next. I always wonder how the dressed-for-modesty spectators might perceive the rather less modestly attired cyclists they have come to watch.
And of course, at the rampaging other extreme, the Italian tifosi rule supreme. How far can you get from those unimpressed Chinese cycling fans? How far is Mars? About that far. Watching those alpine Giro ascents we get another dimension added to the race. The peloton must peak the hill. And thread itself through the raucous, screaming hysteria of the tunnel of cycling fans. Thanks to the crowd, these roads become as narrow as an economist’s perspective on the social benefits of sport.
Italian cycling fans are the true pros of the spectator side of our sport. Their colleagues in France are slightly less rabid depending on how many drunken dutchmen have taken up possies beside the road. The Belgians are scary for the intensity of their dedication; The Spanish seem to confuse the peloton with a running of the bulls… The English are very polite when the yobbos are all off watching their football instead.
There are deep labyrinths of social nuance and history to inform why and how the European crowds perform. This stuff is in their DNA. Have you ever watched the miraculous parting of the wall of fans as the peloton threads its way up a mountain pass? It’s as though these crowds have a collective intelligence of their own. If you could wrap such a scene through the language of mathematical Chaos, you might win a Nobel Prize.
But there is an emerging New World of cycling fans. Most of them are in the US of A. In California, to be exact. Until recently, they simply grafted the appearance without the substance of the European cycling scene. Nutters with horns and funny sumo suits. The emphasis seemed to be on being seen on TV rather than seeing the riders at least some came to watch. These American fans were, once, a bit like one of those American remakes of already successful European movies; like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the US rendering of The Office. All super whitened teeth with the intricacies of nuance all squashed out.
But now I am not so sure. Something is afoot. This bear is waking up. These American fans are starting to actually understand. I mean, here we are, ready for Stage 3 and we’ve not seen one single naked American ass… Those fans with wet suits and surfboards running inland up a Cat 2 hill were making some kind of statement I’m still keen to understand… But these four with their Motivational Poster sign are showing some serious class. Now that is a sign of the times and one for the book. It’s now the wallpaper on my iPad home screen. Well done. And what a stunning landscape for a ride! I am starting to really relish this race. Actually, I am enjoying it more than the Giro that’s on at the same time…