The Tour de Farce – a journalist’s view

Next year, Britain will be playing host to the Tour de France. But events at the smaller scale Tour of Britain last weekend have raised real concerns about whether the organisers will be up to the task, and how we, as journalists, cover the events. By William Fotheringham

This year’s Tour of Britain offered many things to the journalist, foremost among them an interesting dilemma: how do you angle reporting on a major accident, and major safety concerns in an event that is still finding its way? How harshly do you criticise in print?

And how far is what you write tempered by the knowledge that as one of very few journalists at the event, what you write will be closely read by the organisers, whose interests lie in promoting their race, and who, in the worst case, may accuse you of damaging their event?

The British Tour has been going for three years now, and made the headlines this year when a pair of motorcycle marshals collided in the finish straight on The Mall, where the race was due to reach a climax outside Clarence House. One motorbike slid into a crowd of race staff, injuring seven people including a BBC cameraman. Five were taken to hospital; two were kept in overnight.

That merely highlighted the dangers inherent in holding a major event on open roads, as did an accident involving another motorbike and a woman passer-by in Russell Square and another reported incident in Baker Street. The dangers may be accepted by all those who work on bike races, and considering the number of cars and motorbikes involved with any major cycle race, accidents involving race vehicles are relatively rare. But they cannot be trivialised.

What Sunday’s sudden and salutary reminder of the risks did was to put the riders’ and managers’ persistent complaints over safety on the Tour of Britain into a more urgent perspective. The day before, the racing had been rendered meaningless when the riders staged a go-slow, with a number of the biggest stars and their teams putting pressure on the small fry not to race fast, to express their worries over safety.

This was the second time in the race’s three years that the riders had felt it necessary to express their concerns by threatening a strike. Their feeling was that having protested after the race’s opening stage two years ago, their needs were still not being met; they were still having to deal with vehicles parked in dangerous locations, oncoming traffic, queues of traffic on their side of the road, all the while attempting to race at up to 50mph in all weathers.

As the world champion, Tom Boonen, said, all the conditions were there for a serious accident involving the riders. That made a mockery of the PR speak from one of the race organisers, the former professional Tony Doyle, on Radio Five Live the following day. Doyle is right that this is an event which many people come to watch, and it should be a fine way of selling a spectacular sport to the public, but surely he should have had the humility to admit that placing four finishes in major city centres – Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield and London – was ill-considered given the organisers’ awareness of the risks involved and the logistical demands of finishing in the biggest cities.

The worries, and the importance of the story, were accentuated by the fact that next year the Tour de France visits London. The Tour of Britain stage where the riders’ strike occurred, through Kent from Rochester to Canterbury, was intended as a rehearsal for next year’s Tour de France stage. The Tour of Britain organisers will be technical consultants to the contractors who will stage the British legs of the world’s biggest bike race, hence the concerns over their capacity to provide safe racing.

The problem for a British journalist, specialising in cycling, is this: the Tour of Britain provides, in theory, a substantial boost for what remains a minority sport in this country. There are no other major cycle events on British roads. There is no other showcase for the sport in this country, apart from the very occasional visits of the Tour de France. Why slag off your own showcase?

The answer lies here: if this is a flagship event it should be run as such. If the organisers do not manage to provide safe racing how can the result be taken entirely seriously?

The Dane Martin Pedersen is a fine young rider, but his victory was devalued. So too was the King of the Mountains, his team mate Karsten Kroon, who sealed his win on the stage where the riders went on strike. So too the stage win of the Italian Francesco Chicchi on the Saturday – as indeed the stage win of the Belgian Frederick Willems had been the day before, when a missing barrier enabled him to take a shortcut at a roundabout.

‘Spectacular, but it was not a bike race’
There is another point. As I wrote in the Guardian the day after, the flagship stage through central London to the finishing circuits on The Mall was suspect. Driving the route immediately ahead of the field (perhaps a minute and a half before the riders were due to pass) it was impossible to imagine how even the most agile professional cyclists could race on these roads due to the huge amount of road furniture, the many vehicles parked in awkward locations, the lack of crowd barriers and the occasional junction where it was hard to tell which way the race went.

This had to be written about, because I had previously written that this would be an unprecedented bike race through the capital. It was unprecedented, it was spectacular, but it was barely a bike race in my view and in that of one of the most experienced participants. Speaking to this cyclist, who will remain anonymous, he said it was probably preferable to have the stage to display cycling to the public, but that did not make it a race.

If what is being presented is, in parts at least, essentially a show for the public and television rather than a bona fide competition, that has to be pointed out in the interests of accuracy. Even though that we are all enthusiasts about our respective sports, no matter how passionate we feel about the events we cover, we are not public relations men.

That dilemma aside, covering the Tour of Britain was not always the most straightforward of jobs. The organisers, tellingly perhaps, are on their third press officer in three years. They provided a large truck as a pressroom, conveniently sited within metres of every finish line but, inevitably, there were space constraints once the number of journalists and photographers filing live copy and pictures went past about 10 or a dozen. Limited table space did not help either.

Most frustratingly of all, the press caravan was scheduled to close just one hour after the finish (one suspects to enable the road to be cleared and the crew to take the vehicle to the next stage finish). Journalists and photographers should not have to plead with event staff on a daily basis just to keep their workplace open so they can complete their work.

The press officer, Chris Simon, fought our corner, but it did not help reduce stress levels, particularly on the day when power was turned off while journalists were still working.

Compared to the Tour de France, the British race is a homely, friendly event where it is actually possible to get a story from one of the participants without resorting to the telephone. The early finish times – between 2 and 3 o’clock – meant no deadline pressure, and the day’s winner and yellow jersey, plus selected Britons, were available after each stage for a press conference – once journalists had raised their voices over poor availability after stage one. The organisers also provide dedicated press cars to enable journalists to follow the race from within, offering a grandstand view of the racing which can only be dreamed of by Tour de France regulars, who rarely, if ever, actually see the thing happening live in front of them.

Timely reminder on safety issues
What do the issues raised by the British Tour mean for its bigger brother’s arrival in Central London next year? The Tour will raise different security concerns. There is the basic one of whether the riders will get from A to B in perfect conditions for racing – the Tour has minimum standards, demanding a total road closure, removal of parked vehicles and so on, and there is no reason to assume they will not be met. After all, when the race visited Britain in 1994, many of the riders felt the road closure was better than they found in France.

The only worry is that, ultimately, safety for the cyclists – and the large number of vehicles in the race convoy – will depend on getting a large number of marshals and static police to the right locations and making sure they know exactly what to do. The episodes from the Tour of Britain, which had 1,400 people volunteer to stand by the road and help the cyclists pass, will be a timely reminder that merely getting the marshals is one thing; using them correctly is another.

Another point to watch is that, surely, the police are more stretched now than they were in 1994 due to the terrorist threat.

That concern is tempered by the fact that the Tour de France is so vast that it has to be done right. It has its own staff who come and check up on the local organisers when the race goes abroad. The argument that in England the Tour is not part of the local culture and will be be misunderstood – for example by people looking to drive to the shops or to school but finding a closed road in their way – is only true up to a point. In France the Tour is so familiar that it – and its attendant drug scandals – have bred contempt among a fair sector of the population. Nowadays, the race actually seems more popular outside France, perhaps because it is not so well understood.

The two events are David and Goliath. The Tour de France’s vast size will not make for perfect working conditions for the media, simply because of the continual need to compromise. For example, due to the need to accommodate the vast number of journalists, the press room will be in the London Docklands, nowhere near The Mall where all the action will be taking place during next year’s Saturday prologue time trial. That will make it virtually impossible for one journalist to get exclusive quotes on the finish line from the British participants and file rapidly for an early Sunday deadline. It is also a problem, alas, that crops up every year at the Tour no matter where it is.

On both Tours, scale is what makes life difficult for the journalist. The British Tour’s problems, one feels, are due to a limited number of staff desperately trying to do every job that calls. At the Tour de France, the sheer size of the press pack, particularly television, and the huge volume of traffic and spectators around each day’s start and finish means that finding a rider or team manager in order to pursue a particular story can be next to impossible, particularly among the logistics of having to file to deadline and fit in some time to get to the day’s next destination.

And the Tour de France’s huge size has one other effect: when something goes awry on the world’s biggest bike race – be it a drug scandal, a traffic accident or merely a traffic jam around the finish – it tends to take place in a spectacular fashion. And one hopes that, given the problems on its smaller relative this August, that is high in the minds of the men who will bring the French Tour to Britain in less than 11 months.

William Fotheringham is the cycling correspondent of The Guardian

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