The curse of the rainbow jersey strikes again...
Saturday afternoon on the Zoncolan saw just about the most influential move a rainbow jersey has made all season, and Rui Costa was nowhere to be seen. A numpty fan in the world champion’s jersey had Bardiani rider Francesco Bongiorno saying arrivederci to his chances of a prestigious stage win, all because of an over-zealous push. The unfortunate Italian clipped the back wheel of Michael Rogers, had to unclip and slowed to a near standstill.
We dubbed it Plonkolan. Swamped by Nairo Quintana’s Giro coronation and Rogers’s second retributive stage win, it’ll likely go down as a quirky footnote in Giro history, one for Youtube gawping and the Question of Sport ‘what happened next?’ section.
It's more than that: stupid, regrettable and, when put into context, it merits a sad question: does cycling need more crowd control in the future?
Currently, professional cycling is the great modern accessible sport. You can talk to riders in the start village, catch their jettisoned water bottles, hear their laboured breathing and witness the suffering from inches away on climbs. Mountain roads turn into 15-kilometre long celebrations. Without healthy roadside turnouts, the sport would be nothing.
But that carries caveats. The truth is that fans are already too close for comfort to the riders: it’s been that way for decades. A professional bike race is effectively self-policing. Unlike a contained stadium or playing field, you could never hire enough stewards, security or metal barriers for a 200-kilometre event. So every race organiser in the world probably makes a silent prayer that a fan won’t dash out at the wrong time, because it is out of his or her control.
If anything, it’s a surprise that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. Could Plonkolan have been prevented? No. If someone’s going to do something stupid, accidentally or not, with a policeman nearby or not, they will do it.
Fans are edging over the line, literally and figuratively. This incident comes a few months after some cretin lay out in the middle of the road to take a photograph at Gent-Wevelgem. Then there was the intrusive post-race selfie of a collapsed Marcel Kittel at the Giro (admittedly more a 21st century societal symptom than a sporting problem).
At practically every single Grand Tour, there's shots of the race leader pushing away some buffoon getting far too close; in the past, we've had Tour riders wounded by air gun shots from the crowd, Eddy Merckx punched on the Puy-de-Dôme, the Armstrong musette crash at the 2003 Tour, and a fan – apparently called Eric – shoving Giuseppe Guerini off his bike on Alpe d’Huez (all included in Youtube Throwback below) four years earlier. Those are just the high-profile, reported incidents of fans becoming obstacles or part of the narrative.
Eric didn't mean to collide with Guerini, just like this plonker didn’t set out to wreck Bongiorno's big day; he’s probably still mortified. But over-exuberance is no excuse and Francesco Bongiorno, a workaday rider on a second-tier team, will likely never have as good a chance again.
Still, even Bongiorno recognised the importance of fans afterwards: “I wouldn’t say there are too many fans out there. The fans give us energy, but they need to reflect on this incident, give us more space and respect."
We don’t think cycling should restrict access: it is a great, unique liberty. But our worry is that incidents like this give ammunition for future crowd control. When the sport’s blazers look to move cycling further into the 21st century and take health-and-safety sanitisation up a notch, they may well decide to erect more barriers between fans and riders.
Plonkolan makes a mockery of a so-called professional sport and cycling’s second biggest stage race. Potentially, all it takes is a higher-profile flashpoint to make this a burning issue. What if it had been Quintana whose progress was slowed, or if the Gent-Wevelgem photo guy caused a big pile-up?
So fans, by all means, sprint along in spandex onesies and go mental in mankinis, but don’t wreck a rider’s day. The idiotic minority should be very careful of ruining this sport’s beautiful freedom for the many.
STAT’S THE WAY, UH HUH UH HUH
75 years, 9 months – The cumulative age of the Giro d’Italia podium: Nairo Quintana (24 years old), Rigoberto Uran (27) and Fabio Aru (23).
49 – Number of years since there’s been a younger Grand Tour podium. It came at the 1965 Tour de France, courtesy of Felice Gimondi (22), Raymond Poulidor (29) and Gianni Motta (22).
A photographing fan causes Giuseppe Guerini to fall, a kilometre from the finish on Alpe d'Huez in 1999. Fast forward to 4.50 for the collision. At least it had a happy ending:
Armstrong snags on a kid's musette in 2003. Warning, clip filmed before USADA Report and revisionism.
Merckx gets one in the kidneys from a fan on the Puy-de-Dôme.
Some kids try to pilfer Robbie McEwen's bidon as he rides away - with foul-mouthed consequences.
A bloke on a mobility scooter in Clacton comes perilously close to disaster at the recent Women's Tour.
May 28: Attack of the Colombians
May 21: Aru!
May 14: Winning Women
May 7: Would You Like EPO With Those Fries?
April 30: Nibali Wibbali
April 23: Amstel Golden Oldies
April 16: Silly Season
April 9: Braking Away
April 2: No April Fools