Stage ten of the Tour de France to Megève may have been won by Magnus Cort after a thrilling tactical battle, but most of the post-race discussion focused on an incident that occurred 36 kilometres back down the road.
Cort’s EF Education-EasyPost teammate Alberto Bettiol was out front on his own when the race was brought to a grinding halt by a group of protesters who sat tied to each other across the road, blocking the race’s path, while setting off flares.
The protest, which forced the stage to be paused for over ten minutes, was quickly claimed by the French environmental activist group Dernière Rénovation, who accompanied a photo of the demonstration on their website with the caption: “Non-violent disruption is our last chance to be heard and avoid the worst consequences of global warming.”
Some of the eight protesters also wore t-shirts with the slogan “We have 989 days left”, in an attempt to highlight the urgent need for governments to act on the climate crisis.
“What do you expect from me? That I stay on the roadside watching my life go by like I watch cyclists go by?”
Dernière Rénovation made headlines around the world last month when an activist tied herself to the net on the Philippe-Chatrier court during the French Open tennis tournament in Paris.
The group says it aims to “achieve a political victory over energy renovation, through non-violent disruption actions repeated over time” and is calling on the French government to commit to a comprehensive and energy-efficient renovation of all buildings by 2040.
“Our goal is to force legislation to drastically reduce France's emissions,” the group's website explains. “Starting with energy renovation, the area most likely to bring together social and climate justice today.
“Faced with the current ecological disaster, we want to demonstrate that it is possible for citizens around the world to impose on their governments the political agenda that we desperately need.”
Image: A.S.O., Aurelien Vialatte
One of the activists involved in yesterday’s demonstration at the Tour, 32-year-old Alice, wrote: “I would prefer not to come to this. I would rather be with my grandfather, be quiet on my sofa watching the Tour de France, while the government does its job. But this is not the reality.
“The reality is that the world which the politicians are sending us towards is a world in which the Tour de France will no longer be able to exist. In this world, we will be busy fighting to feed ourselves and to save our families. Under these conditions we will face mass wars and famines. We must act and enter into civil resistance today to save what remains to be saved.
“What do you expect from me? That I stay on the roadside watching my life go by like I watch cyclists go by? No, I decided to act and interfere to avoid the worst episode of suffering and create a new world. Because everything can still change.”
Why protest the Tour?
Image: A.S.O., Aurelien Vialatte
Dernière Rénovation’s decision to protest the Tour de France was a clever one. The Tour is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, with a global mainstream outreach no other cycling event can match, and has long been a conduit for activists seeking to place their ideals and outrage in the global shop window.
Crucially, the race also acutely represents the paradox between healthy (and superficially green) sporting activity with environmentally damaging behaviour.
For a mode of transport so intrinsically associated with green living, professional cycling’s environmental track record (spoiler – it’s not great) has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
The Tour de France isn’t just 176 cyclists riding their bikes around Europe (a trope used by a number of Twitter users critical of yesterday’s protest). It’s a vast, fuel-spewing caravan of team, organisation, media and VIP cars, buses, publicity vehicles, lorries, helicopters, and planes.
The Tour may not have the carbon footprint of other major sporting events – organisers ASO, who have launched a range of climate-conscious initiatives in recent years, claim that their race’s annual footprint is between a sixth or seventh of that of the Olympic Games – but it’s still pretty significant. Going by ASO’s estimates, the race emits the same amount of carbon as 68,500 French people in a year.
Beyond the Tour, the travel required for teams to compete across Europe and the world arguably represents cycling’s most dangerous impact on the planet. For example, as pointed out by Richard Abraham in an article for Procycling magazine last year, Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl’s annual emissions (90 percent of which come from travel) total roughly 1,280 tonnes of C02 – the equivalent of 1,280 passengers taking return flights from Brussels to New York, and which require 3,000 football pitches of reforestation to offset.
Pro cycling, remember, also takes place out in the real world, and is perhaps the sport most susceptible to rapidly changing and unpredictable weather patterns. Stage 19 of the 2019 Tour to Tignes, abruptly cancelled midway through due to a landslide at the bottom of the Col d’Iseran, was ominously described by ITV presenter Gary Imlach as “the first Tour affected by climate change”. As temperatures soar across Europe this month, he may be proven right.
With all that in mind, growing pressure has been placed on teams and races to avoid sponsors intent on ‘greenwashing’ their earth-damaging activities by associating with an environmentally friendly activity such as riding a bike.
At the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire anti-fracking campaigners protested petrochemicals giant Ineos, the sponsor of a team, lest we forget, which wore a special rainforest rescue jersey at the 2011 Tour de France. In 2012 the Australian GreenEdge team, set up with the apparent aim of promoting green travel, also came in for flak when it incongruously accepted mining company Orica as its title sponsor.
In January this year, the South Australia branch of Extinction Rebellion announced plans to disrupt the Santos Festival of Cycling in protest against the event’s sponsor, one of Australia’s worst greenhouse gas emitting companies.
“Fair play – good on them”
Despite the seemingly obvious reasons behind Dernière Rénovation’s protest yesterday, some of the riders – focused, of course, on competing and winning in the biggest event of their year – were less than impressed with the mid-stage disruption.
“I saw them from a distance, and I knew something was up. I was able to get through, but I knew the bunch wouldn't be able to get through because there were quite a few of them and they were pretty determined," Alberto Bettiol, the first to reach the protesters, told cyclingnews.
Bettiol, who claimed that he wasn’t aware of the protest’s purpose at the time and who later gave a statement at a local police station, continued: “These are things that happen, but they shouldn't happen, because in the end, we're working and they could do it differently.”
Bahrain-Victorious’ British rider Fred Wright, part of the chasing group behind Bettiol, said: “They're protesting about a good thing, but it's not great when it's at the front of the Tour de France.”
Speaking on France Télévisions’ post-race analysis show, Tour director Christian Prudhomme skirted around the reasons behind the protest.
“It was unexpected and untimely. That happens on the roads of the Tour de France because it can be a big soap box,” he said.
“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.”
While Prudhomme and France Télévisions seemed keen to avoid the issue altogether, the UK’s broadcast media’s coverage of the protest received a mixed reaction from viewers.
2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, reporting on the race for Eurosport and GCN, divided opinion online after describing the protest as “probably over nothing” and the demonstrators as “imbeciles”.
ITV4’s pundits, however, were rather more balanced. As part of the team’s ‘Never Stray Car’ podcast, commentator Ned Boulting defended the mid-stage stoppage which, he pointed out, was the first time since that dramatic stage to Tignes in 2019 that the Tour has been forcibly halted.
Boulting then echoed his colleague Imlach’s comments by describing that day’s landslide on the Col d’Iseran as “a symptom of the growing abnormal weather patterns in Europe and a result of the climate emergency. So the point [the protesters] were making is reasonably valid.”
His co-commentator and former pro David Millar replied: “I don’t think anybody argues that – it’s extremely valid.”
But when asked by Boulting if the demonstration was a legitimate form of protest, Millar, with his pro racer hat firmly on, responded: “I don’t think so, no. Unless they’ve got a whole strategy to follow up, which is what would be required.”
Former world champion Lizzie Deignan, however, working on the race for ITV4 this summer, was much more supportive of the protester’s aims.
“Fair play to them, they stopped the biggest bike race in the world,” the Paris-Roubaix winner said.
By focusing our attention on the climate emergency, Boulting noted that “they’ve achieved what they wanted to do, with minimal disruption. They stopped a sporting event for a few minutes. They haven’t ruined people’s lives, have they? So I’d say it’s perfectly legitimate.”
Deignan concurred: “Yep, fair play to them. Good on them.”
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