Before Sunday’s stage 14 of the Tour de France reached the final climb, the Mur de Péguère, a fellow journalist lamented that there weren’t any good stories to pursue. A few minutes later, as we all saw, dozens of riders had to stop when they punctured tires on a carpet of tacks thrown on the road by spectators about 200 meters from the summit of the steep, narrow climb. And, suddenly, the journalist had plenty to write about.
Defending champion Cadel Evans, the most notable victim, had to wait a minute and 45 seconds before a teammate could get him a new rear wheel, and he had to stop twice more for wheel changes. More serious was the crash just after the summit that resulted in Team Astana’s Croatian rider Robert Kiserlovski being airlifted to the hospital with a broken right collarbone. He fell with Omega Pharma’s Levi Leipheimer, who gashed his right elbow, and later said that Kiserlovski “was attempting to stop to give his wheel” to Astana team leader Jani Brajkovic when the two riders collided. “Just an accident,” said Leipheimer, who later commented on Twitter: “Putting tacks on the road is criminal.”
Such incidents are nothing new to the Tour. In fact, hoodlums so disrupted the second edition of the Tour in 1904 that race director Henri Desgrange seriously considered never holding the event again—despite the Tour’s 1903 inaugural being a huge success. That success engendered massive emotions in the supporters of the new stars of the sport. They wanted their man to win at all costs and were willing to do anything to help, even if that meant throwing tacks on the road, or worse, to delay their hero’s rivals.
That second Tour, 108 years ago, was held in six marathon stages between the major cities of France: Paris to Lyon, to Marseille, to Toulouse, to Bordeaux, to Nantes, and back to Paris. Stages were as long as 474 kilometers and took the stage winner more than 15 hours to complete. So stages started in the early hours of the morning, well before dawn.
On the very first day of that second Tour, defending champion Maurice Garin and his 1903 runner-up Lucien Pothier again dominated the field. The pair arrived in Lyon some 20 minutes ahead of the third finisher despite being threatened during their breakaway by four masked men in a car. It’s believed those masked men were supporters of Antoine Fauré, a rider from the nearby city of St. Etienne, because there was another incident on the second stage, when the peloton was climbing out of St. Etienne in the night on the Col de la République.
This time, after Fauré rode past his fans to be first to the top, a mob of 200 spectators blocked the road in an attempt to stop all the chasers. Race officials dealt with the situation quickly, firing guns into the air and scaring the hooligans, who ran off into a forest. In the confusion, Garin injured a hand and an Italian rider was knocked to the ground.
Another set of supporters, for Ferdinand Payan, a rider from Nîmes, were incensed when their favorite was disqualified for taking a lift in car after he’d taken 11th place on the first stage. As a result, when the race came through their town on the third stage, Payan’s supporters threw rocks at the riders. Then, two stages later, a spate of punctures was caused by the first known incident of tacks being strewn on the road at the Tour. Back then, there was a strict rule against riders receiving technical help, so after running out of spares, race leader Garin had to ride the final 40 kilometers of the stage on two flat tires!
In total, 29 riders were disqualified from that Tour, including 12 who finished the race, and were later found guilty of violating various rules and cheating. The first four finishers were all thrown out, with first-place finisher Garin getting a two-year suspension, and runner-up Pothier a lifetime ban that was later reduced to three years. The eventual victory went to the fifth-place rider, Henri Cornet, only 20, who remains the Tour’s youngest winner.
Today, cheating usually equates to doping, and spectator-generated incidents such as Sunday’s on the crowd-packed Col de Péguère are comparatively rare. Striking steelworkers caused a team time trial to be canceled in 1982 after they blocked the road. And in 2009 two riders were hit by pellets from a BB gun fired by “playful” teenagers. And just the other day, flares thrown by fans hit a few riders, including race leader Brad Wiggins.
But besides the unfortunate crash that put Kiserlovski out of the race, some good did materialize from this Sunday’s “tacks on the road” incident. First, there was the “honorable thing to do” gesture by Wiggins, who put up his hand at the Péguère summit to indicate there would be no more racing. Then there was the teams’ community spirit of helping each other with spare wheels after some squads, including RadioShack-Nissan, had five or more punctures to deal with.
The unflappable Wiggins, who before the “carpet tacks” incident, spun his way up the Péguère’s double-digit grades to control an initial surge by Evans, put things into perspective by describing the rogue spectators’ action as “uncouth.” The Sky team leader then said, “We’re just riders at the end of the day. We’re here to be shot at, you know, literally.” That was a provocative statement, but Wiggins saved himself with his verdict on the hoodlums’ dangerous behavior: “There’s nothing we can do about it really.”