July 11, 2005: Staying on guard

Index to all entries

It didn't take long after the bombings in London to have people over here wondering out loud about security in and around the Tour de France, and even Lance Armstrong noted the tragedy in his post-race comments. "Once again, free society is struck by needless and senseless terror. I think we've all had enough but it seems like the enemies are persistent. Obviously, my heart goes out to all the people in Great Britain and to the Prime Minister," he said following Stage 6.

The sport of cycling sport lends itself to being very near to its fans, sometimes literally inches away, especially on mountain climbs. And when you add in that Lance Armstrong is as much an American icon over here as he is a 6-time Tour champion, the Tour being a potential target for terrorism is not something to take lightly.

Protecting 189 riders plus the thousands of people who work the Tour and the millions who witness the overall event requires a major security presence. In the macro sense, 13,000 members of the French military and 9,000 local policemen are employed in a variety of ways ranging from traffic control to being stationed every few hundred yards in areas where crowds are largest. Add in 45 policemen on motorcycles traveling with the peloton and that's a very visible force.

But the reality of completely securing 3584 kms/2227 miles of road is that it's basically an impossible task. There's plenty of technology available and being used by terrorists today that allow attacks from remote locations in very undetectable ways, such as roadside car bombs.

Even a crazed fan might try to bring a rider down. In 1975 a French spectator punched five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx in the stomach, and Armstrong has received several death threats over the years including last year's Time Trial up Alpe d'Huez. With a million people on the mountain it was a security nightmare. "We were terrified," team manager Johan Bruyneel said afterwards. And so, given the long distances that each stage covers through a variety of terrain as well as rural and urban settings, the Tour de France protects what it can and hopes that general vigilance and speed will get them through the day.

Lance Armstrong knows that his situation is unique and requires special attention. In addition to his two personal bodyguards, Texas' own Erwin Ballata and Belgian Serge Borlee, there are several French plainclothes policemen within the crowd at the beginning and end of each stage. Erwin summed up his role this way, "We coordinate with a variety of agencies here, including the Tour security, local police, and whatever security staff they have at the hotels. We have to make sure that Lance is safe and secure, but also that the people have a chance to get to meet him."

Erwin and Serge literally run with Lance to the start line and then catch him afterwards, whisking him away in a team car after all the ceremonies in a vehicle they have dubbed "Air Force One." And much like a head of state, Lance is expected to work the crowd, sign autographs, pose for pictures, and get very close to the masses. But unlike a head of state, Lance stays in general hotels with very visible team buses and trucks so it doesn't take long to figure out where he's at.

I've said many time that there are only 3 things that can stop Lance Armstrong from winning the Tour de France: illness, injury, and incident. With a security force that numbers in the thousands, here's hoping that "incident" is never one of them.

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Chris will be bringing us daily updates from within Discovery Channel HQ, getting the lowdown from team management. Discovery Channel is the team on everybody's lips at this year's Tour de France. Why? One name - Lance Armstrong. This network of riders and staff previously existed as the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, helping Lance win his six Tour de France crowns, and in 2005 they're gunning for a seventh title. Follow the progress of the team here on Cyclingnews.com from 'Behind the Blue Curtain' Australia UK USA