Chances are you’ve already seen the video of Loren Rowney crashing at the Molecaten Drentse 8 race on the 12th of March. If you haven’t, you can see it here – it appears to show a spectator (it looks like a man wearing a black and grey jacket, but little more can be seen) reaching out over the barriers and grabbing the Velocio-SRAM rider’s handlebars as she sprints towards the finish, causing her to somersault over the bike before crashing hard into the tarmac.
A few people on Twitter and Facebook suggest it might have been an accident. Maybe he was banging on the barriers, like cycling fans do at races, and his hand slipped? Maybe he was taking a photograph and didn’t get out of the way in time. Maybe, but it doesn’t look like it. It’s hard to see how a hand might slip off the barriers in that way at all, let alone grasp a handlebar and sharply tug the bike to the left before withdrawing. There’s no camera to be seen, either – though it’s not unknown for a fan to forget that images seen through a viewfinder can be closer than they appear, as has happened several times at the Tour de France, most recently last year during Stage 3. We all hope it was an accident because it’s unthinkable that someone would do such a thing, but once you’ve seen the video it’s difficult to see it as anything other than an attack.
All things considered, Rowney escaped relatively lightly with a broken collar bone. She’s a young woman at the peak of physical fitness and, with help from her team’s physiotherapist, she ought to make a rapid recovery. Psychological recovery might take longer, for her and for any other rider that sees the video. It’s not unknown for random idiots to show up among the crowds: the people who insist on running along beside the riders on narrow mountain roads even when the riders scream at them that the road’s too narrow, or the man who punched Eddy Merckx in the stomach as he ascended the Puy de Dome during the 1975 Tour, but usually people aren’t idiots and nothing bad happens – then someone is, and it does, and it’s quite frankly terrifying. Few, if any, sports place athletes in such close proximity to the fans as cycling does (“I can’t believe we can just go up to them and talk to them! It’s all so friendly!” is something I heard several times at the Women’s Tour); once in a while, we’re reminded just how vulnerable riders are to unexpected, uncontrollable incidents such as this.
Big cycling events attract people wishing to make a point, legitimately or otherwise. Think of the protest at Paris-Roubaix as depicted in A Sunday In Hell, or the time Hinault punched the protestor at Paris-Nice. Sometimes, it can be more serious: the Tour de France is watched by millions (3.5 billion, half the population of the world, according to some slightly questionable statistics), which makes it a very tempting target for terrorists – as happened in 2007, when ETA planted bombs along the route. For that reason, there’s a very obvious police presence among the crowds, as well as who knows how many plain-clothes officers and the Tour’s own security.
Few, if any, women’s races have a budget that stretches as far as a private security force, and since many don’t attract enormous crowds they’re not judged to be sufficiently at risk from mischief-makers and/or more sinister individuals and groups to have a heavy police presence – how many officers did you see on patrol at the last domestic British women’s race you went to see?
As women’s cycling grows and becomes more popular it’ll attract more spectators so that although the risk of riders being attacked by the public remains minuscule, it will be more likely in the future. In this case, there’s probably little that could have been done to prevent it happening in the first place – the man in the video was just another face in the crowd, doing nothing to draw attention to himself until he reached out and caused a crash that could very easily have ended a rider’s career or worse; but we as fans can help minimise the risk of similar incidents occurring. If you see someone leaning too far out to take a photo, tell them they need to get behind the barriers – do so as firmly and as loudly as is necessary and explain why, emphasising your concern for their safety as well the riders afterwards. If you see an unleashed dog (and seriously – why do people take dogs to bike races?) explain the risk to the owner, or find a race marshal/police officer. A child poking its leg through the barriers? Speak to its parent, and if they don’t seem concerned point out what might happen if their child’s leg is in the way of a cyclist traveling at 60kph+. Several races and sportives have suffered attacks in which carpet tacks have been spread over the road, usually, it seems, by someone who just doesn’t like cycling and wants to cause disruption without understanding that sudden tyre deflation at speed can cause a serious crash; but in a few cases the tacks have been painted black so the riders have no chance of seeing them until it’s too late, which suggests real planning and, probably, a real desire to do harm. If you see someone apparently putting something on the road before the race passes by or doing anything else suspicious, phone the police. If you haven’t got a phone, ask the closest fan if they’ll phone them for you.
There are dangerous people out there, whether they be dangerous due to their stupidity or genuine malice, and the riders are too busy concentrating on the race and avoiding crashes to watch out for them. Be alert; be the riders’ eyes and ears in the crowd. You might prevent something awful from happening.