Monday, June 30, 2014

Audience Participation In Professional Cycling

It seems like each year that Grand Tour season rolls around the crowds lining the roads get bigger. But not just bigger – more rowdy, more intoxicated, more passionate, more exuberant. More naked.

Every time there’s a mountain top finish, spectators inevitably end up spilling out across the road, excitedly cheering on the riders, waving flags and generally getting in the way.

A lead motorbike will unsuccessfully attempt to clear a path through the middle of the deafening throng, but much like a bulldozer driving through a swimming pool, the incessant waves of excited fans immediately engulf the space momentarily left behind the vehicle.

These days, the race organisers will often barricade the road over the final few kilometres in the hope of at least giving the riders a clear run to the finish.

This type of crowd involvement is certainly a unique aspect of professional cycling. There are not many other sports where spectators get to actively participate and sometimes physically affect the outcome of the event. They are often seen running alongside the riders, pushing them up steep sections of road, getting in their way and occasionally bringing them suddenly crashing down.

Whenever an incident occurs, there’s inevitably a little storm of outrage about how crazy, drunken fans should not be allowed to affect the race – how the organisers need to find a way of controlling the crowds and keeping the spectators off the road.

But in reality, road cycling would be much more exciting if crowd participation was encouraged rather than discouraged. If the involvement of the fans could be incorporated in to the event as part of the challenge of the race, then the riders could spend time training and preparing for the onslaught. They would develop tactics for dealing with the crowds and the sport would be all the better for it.

Obviously, this idea needs to be carefully thought out, but surely there lies a happy medium somewhere in between the sombre hush of a tennis match and all-out armed conflict. With the audience actively taking part in the race, cycling would become a unique and exciting spectator sport to rival the World Series of Backgammon and the Legends Football League (which was, for some reason, rebranded from Lingerie Football League in 2013).

The Legends Football League is played in several countries including Australia, while professional Backgammon is more popular in Europe.

Perhaps the promotional caravan that drives ahead of the race could hand out gentle rider encouragement tools for the spectators to use once the peloton comes through. Those cute padded pugil sticks – the kind that resemble oversized cotton buds – and which featured in the mid-1990s reality sports entertainment television program Gladiators would be quite fun.

The possibility of using promotional Nerf™ weapons would also provide both great interest and marketing opportunities.

The idea clearly has some merit, and already it seems like RCS Sport, the forward-thinking and progressive organisers of the Giro d’Italia, were trialling some form of enhanced audience-participation at this year’s event.

Highlights included Italian rider Francesco Bongiorno being pushed off his bike in the final kilometres of the Zoncolan by an enthusiastic fan, allowing Michael Rogers a solo victory on the mountaintop finish of Stage 20.

Earlier in the stage, Rogers had himself lashed out at a spectator and there was another fantastic exchange where Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Wout Poels exacted some revenge on one particular fan that he judged to have overstepped his limits.

Even the pink jersey winner Nairo Quintana was not safe, almost being pushed off his bike in this altercation.

And at times, it seemed like the crowd control barriers were being used to funnel fans on to the road and in to the path of the oncoming riders, (rather than keep them away).

It’s innovations like this that helped make the 2014 Giro d’Italia one of the most exciting races of the year.

The history of road cycling is littered with fantastic examples of audience participation including the famous Lance Armstrong ‘shopping bag’ incident on Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France to the mountaintop finish of Luz Ardiden.

A little known fact about this incident is that it was all part of a clever ruse. The spectator was actually an undercover soigneur from Armstrong’s US Postal Services team clutching a blood bag. The commotion that ensued from the carefully planned entanglement and crash was used as a distraction so the soigneur could give Armstrong a quick jab and top-up that morning’s blood transfusion. It was a little turbo-boost that provided him with the power to surge ahead and go on to win the stage and the race.

In 2011, one of Alberto Contador's Spanish doctors came to offer similar assistance, but on this occasion was politely refused.

With all these great examples of audience participation and the innovations that we’ve already seen this year, the framework for professional cycling’s next evolutionary step is in place. Hopefully by the time next year’s Giro rolls around, the organisers will also include some padded weaponry to further animate the race. After all, it’s innovations like these that keep the Giro d’Italia fresh and exciting and, indeed, why many people find the Giro more exciting viewing than the Tour de France.

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