By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Climate activists stopped stage 10 of the Tour de France Tuesday.
Italian rider Alberto Bettiol of the EF Education-EasyPost team was alone at the front of the pack leading a breakaway when he was forced to weave his way through eight protestors from the ‘Dernière Renovation’ climate action group, who sat in the road and set off a flare when he approached.
Race organizers soon realized that the rest of the peloton, not to mention all the accompanying vehicles ferrying support teams, race organizers, media, police, medical, and other security services, would not be able to pass safely. So they stopped the race until the road could be cleared.
The same group had also protested at the French Open earlier this year.
What exactly is the environmenetal impact of the Tourde France. On the one hand, the Tour reaches a worldwide audience, and is a force for celebrating cycling – and may inspire some if not many to get on their bikes, the most environmentally-friendly form of transportation.
On the other hand, the Tour itself generates massive amounts of carbon, from vehicles that support riders and their teams,to vehicles for race officials, gendarmes, the media, and countless others. That’s not to mention the legions who show up to cheer on the riders, many of whom arrive in their own cars, and some of whom follow the race route through its entire three-week duration in huge RVs.
Tour organizers claim that the Tour itself is carbon neutral, with 100% of its emissions offset. And, strictly speaking that claim may be true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Per Cycling News, Tour de France in no position to shrug off climate action protest:
The bicycle may be a most ecologically-sound mode of transport, but the great bike race is a different proposition. While some attempts have been made to offset the event’s carbon footprint in recent years, there is no escaping the sad fact that the Tour de France was not an altogether inappropriate target for peaceful environmental protests of the kind witnessed on stage 10 to Megève.
The logistics of bringing a rolling village of approximately 4,000 people around France has made it so. As of last year, ASO claims that 100% of the carbon emissions produced by the Tour organisation itself are offset, but those calculations do not factor in the emissions produced by the team staff, journalists, sponsors, corporate guests, fans and assorted suiveurs following the race across its three weeks.
In 2021, when QuickStep announced that they had become the WorldTour’s first carbon-neutral team, they published a sobering calculation of the emissions they had needed to offset during the season. The estimated 1288 tons of CO2 produced by the team in a year is equivalent to driving a car 179 times around the world or making 539 return flights between Brussels and New York.
Automaker Skoda is a Tour de France sponsor, while both oil-rich Bahrain and the UAE each sponsor their own eight-member teams.
Some of the riders reacted sensitively to the protests, such as Fred Wright of the Bahrain Victorious team:
[He] was in the group chasing Bettiol and, like the Italian, his first instinct was to squeeze through the gap and continue racing. “Your instant reaction is, ‘OK, I need to get through this as quickly as I can,’ but you forget there’s loads of cars that also have to get past,” Wright said.
“I figured it was some kind of climate protest, and you almost know that straight away. They’re protesting about a good thing, but it’s not great when it’s at the front of the Tour de France.”
But others didn’t view things quite so sympathetically:
Wright’s calm acknowledgement and understanding of the bigger issue contrasted with the lamentably blinkered view presented on France Télévisions’ post-stage analysis programme Vélo Club, where the very cause the protestors were highlighting was – deliberately – not even mentioned.
“There’s no question of talking about it, we’re here to talk about cycling,” said Laurent Jalabert. Then again, the Frenchman is no stranger to reticence when faced with uncomfortable questions. “There are 10,000 causes that could demonstrate on the race,” he continued.
By contrast, tour organizers had their talking points ready. Over to Cycling News:
Tour director Christian Prudhomme made a brief appearance on the programme, where presenter Laurent Luyat limited himself to one vague question about the stoppage, but again, there was no discussion of the rationale behind it.
“It was unexpected and untimely. That happens on the roads of the Tour de France because it can be a big soap box,” said Prudhomme. “That happens sometimes, but we’re rarely blocked for a few minutes like that, and fortunately the race was able to start again. It happened at Rolland Garros, it happened at the Formula 1 at Silverstone, it happened in the German football league, and it happened again today here.”
The first tour was run in 1903, and has been run every year since – with the exception of the two World Wars. The whole spectacle is free, and historically, its intended audience was the proletariat. Spectators line the course, with no barricades separating them from the cyclists.
Each year, the 23-day race race traces a slightly different route through France, wending is way through mountainous and flat terrain, and featuring many classic climbs. Each of its 21 daily stages is designed to offer something for the different types of cyclists who enter: the sprinters, the climbers, the time trialists.
As a long-time cycling fan I’ve watched race coverage over the course of many years, once in 2003 in various Parisien bars and cafes when I happened to be in France during the period when the Tour was run.
Even better for me was the 2019 race, when I was visiting some friends who divide their time between London and a house not too far from Carcassonne. That year, we walked the half kilometer from their village, early in the afternoon on a bright sunshiny day, to wait alongside their friends and neighbours for the arrival of the Tour.
We arrived about a half hour before the riders were due to arrive. There was a bit of a build-up, with race officials and security personnel preceding the cyclists, along with employees of various sponsors who tossed various freebies off the back of trucks to spectators.
I don’t remember any breakaways that day. Finally the peloton whizzed by. I thought how vulnerable the cyclists were. Anyone was free to step into the route and if you watch the daily TV coverage, every day, people jump out onto the course, to experience a moment in the spotlight – often wearing an outrageous costume or trailing a banner the meaning of which is obscure to any observer.
But you don’t quite get how close they are – both to spectators and to each other – and how fast the pelotons travels, until you see it for yourself. That day, the riders passed safely past us and my friends and I walked, laughing, back to their home.
It’s not surprising that those with a cause to promote find the Tour to be an irresistible target for protest. Iin the past, Tour organizers have been able to manage this temptation. According to Cycling News:
There was a time when there seemed to be a tacit accord between the Tour organisation and protestors who used the race to alert the watching public to their causes. Race director Jacques Goddet, so the saying went, was France’s president for the month of July. And so, as the Tour travelled around the L’Hexagone, striking workers or protesting farmers would meet with the country’s temporary premier, and a quid pro quo would invariably emerge – the protestors’ grievances were given a public platform while the race continued largely unhindered.
That unspoken social contract seemed to break down 40 years ago, as the journalist Dan Perez outlined in L’Équipe earlier on this Tour. In 1982, steelworkers from Usinor protested the imminent closure of their plant in Denain, and their blockade caused a Tour stage to be cancelled for the very first time. In the four decades since the Tour’s ear for social protest has closed like a fist. Witness, for instance, the tear gas police used to disperse a farmers’ protest in the Aude in 2018.
“It was as if this episode marked the first division of the paths of workers and of cycling, which had for so long been intertwined,” Perez wrote of the 1982 cancellation. “The Tour would certainly remain free, accessible to proletarians, but the athletes hurtling down the road on their bikes were starting to belong to them no longer.”
I’m not sure the organizers of this year’s Tour de France climate protest didn’t do themselves more harm than good with this particular protest. They also risked serious injury – or worse – to themselves and the riders. The video of the protests made me recall just how vulnerable the riders are. As are all road cyclists. My husband is a keen cyclist and has competed in master’s duathlon races – e.g., triathlons minus the swimming – in GB national colors, He’s never been seriously injured in a crash, but he has crashed and cracked two helmets – helmets being designed to crack, so your skull doesn’t.
Besides, it seems to me, we’re long past the phase when protests are what’s needed. It’s time for the world to wake up and take serious steps to confront climate change.
Alas, instead we see the U.S. Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA restrict even further the Biden administration’s all-too-paltry efforts to regulate emissions. And the Western alliance fall over themselves to burn more coal and take further steps to spew more carbon in order to thwart those pesky Russians.
If I were to think about this insanity too much, I’d drive myself crazy. Instead, after I’ve finished posting for the day, I’ll sit down and we’ll watch a classic climbing stage, Briançon to Alpe d’Huez. That follows yesterday’s amazing state, when Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard seized the Tour de France lead and claimed the yellow jersey.
If you have eight minutes to spare, watch the official Tour de France highlight video of yesterday’s stage included in this link here. If this doesn’t pique your further interest in cycling, nothing will.