At the Tour de France launch in Paris this October, there was a striking lack of security that seemed at odds with a city still scarred by the horrific Charlie Hebdo shootings in January.
No bag checks, no visible police presence, some 4,000 guests and dignitaries packed into the Palais des Congrès in the 17th arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe.
I took a seat at the back of the hall, deliberately close to an emergency exit, and tried to put the thought out of my head that this gathering was a prime target for terrorists.
Tragically, the events in Paris just weeks later confirmed that my gut feeling was not entirely fuelled by paranoia. The French capital once again became a sickening killing field.
Had the three suicide bombers who tried to enter the Stade de France gained access, the death toll would have been far higher.
The fact that the killers also struck at random bars and cafes across the city, alongside the horrific slaughter at the Bataclan theatre, served to spread unease among the entire population of Paris. Anyone, and everyone, is now a potential target.
Professional cyclists are now understandably voicing their concerns regarding safety. The urine and punches aimed at Team Sky riders at this year’s Tour were nothing new: Merckx took a blow to the kidneys back in 1975 on the Puy-de-Dôme which effectively lost him the race.
But these incidents were small beer compared to the potential target a global event like the Tour de France presents to terrorists seeking maximum publicity from their twisted endeavours.
We feared the worst back in July, early in the morning before the final Tour stage in Paris, when police opened fire on a car as it smashed through barriers on the Place de la Concorde, only to discover soon after that the driver was a teenager attempting to avoid a road block.
But it was enough to set the alarm bells ringing and make for a tense day, made worse by the seemingly less-reported incident of a lone protestor standing on the course with just two kilometres of the race remaining, the peloton swerving alarmingly either side of the banner-clad figure and thankfully avoiding a huge crash.
On a day of major security presence in the heart of the French capital, these two incidents highlighted the difficulty of successfully defending against planned attacks on bike races.
And attacks on bike races have been planned, as we found in May, when the Eschborn-Frankfurt race was cancelled following two arrests in what German security officials described as potentially a “Boston Marathon-style terror attack”. Police found a pipe bomb, assault rifle and ammunition for a bazooka inside the suspects’ home, The Telegraph reported.
The riders are right to feel unease. We are used to the peloton’s members highlighting safety concerns regarding their working conditions, and sometimes matters of life or death, but never on such an unimaginably horrific scale
As Julian Alaphilippe, the young French rider with Etixx-Quick Step told us recently, “I think that nobody is protected, nobody is sheltered from that in a race. Anyone can be confronted by this kind of situation. It could be at a bicycle race, at the airport, in town, who knows.”
That is the awful lesson we take from the evening of November 13 in Paris and the terrorist attacks that have gone before and will, no doubt, happen again in the future. They can be anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
“You’ve got to continue to live, to not stop living because of people like this,” Alaphilippe says. “Through cycling, it’s also a manner of saying that we’ll continue to do what we love.”
Cycling’s governing bodies and the various police forces will need to overhaul security measures ahead of the 2016 season. In the meantime, we’ll continue to do what we love.
Sad to say, though, the sport has now changed irreparably.