The Institution

gendarme

The average European road is built more for helping cars navigate communities than turning traffic into high-pressure hydraulics. The narrow roads, roundabouts, median strips and occasional stretches of decades-old pavement strike me as, well, civilized. Group rides on such small roads make 40km/h feel like 50km/h. Unfortunately, the fire hose of a PRO peloton zooming down these same roads at 60km/h can be nearly suicidal.

The gendarmes who help direct the racers over the course have my utmost respect. Theirs is a long day with a negative glory quotient. What really impresses me are the guys who stand in front of the road furniture waving relatively modestly sized flags to get the peloton to split around the medians. Done right, their job isn’t even a footnote, but if something goes wrong, it’s big news and can wreck riders’ seasons.

I shot the image above in the town of le Bourg d’Oisans in 2004 when the time trial went up l’Alpe d’Huez. It’s a simple image but it contains much. In him I see the French people’s love of the Tour de France and their respect for one of their country’s great cultural artifacts.

The seriousness with which this jeune homme acquits himself says volumes about the love the French people have for le Tour. There is a race to run and it must be run to the high standards that the world has come to expect from the Tour de France.

Those who have experienced the frustration of dealing with a French bureaucracy might find his diligence surprising, but it speaks well of the Tour itself. The fact is (and Bill McGann points this out in his history of the Tour de France), the Tour de France has been almost without exception devoid of the sort of nationalistic bias that has caused both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana to be decided in favor of a homeboy.

As much as the French hate the fact that a countryman hasn’t won their national treasure since 1985, that unfortunate record has helped to confirm the fact that the French value fairness above the reputation of French riders. Some folks might wish to think the whole of the French people have it in for Lance Armstrong or other American riders; certainly l’Equipe seems to have it in for Armstrong, but no matter. The Tour itself has been kept assiduously devoid of any organizer cheating with almost no exception, though there have been rumors here and there. That said, none of the rumors is less than 40 years old.

Some years ago, I was atop a Pyrenean climb, waiting for the peloton to whip me and 100,000 of my tribe into a frenzy. The task was but a nudge; the promotional caravan had us throwing elbows like we were headed to the toy aisle for a day-after-Thanksgiving sale. A keychain arced its way through the leafy sky and struck the banner zip tied to the crowd fencing against which I was leaning.

I tried leaning over the barrier to reach the trinket as yet unnoticed by anyone else. I couldn’t reach it. I tried sliding my fingers under the stiff board. No dice. It was then that a gendarme walked up to me, waggling his finger in a most universal “no.” I tried to explain that I just wanted the keychain, the prize, le prix. His finger never stopped its metronomic wave. And suddenly, he bent down, grabbed the keychain, stood up, and handed it to me.

Embarrassment is crimson. Merci, merci. Suddenly, I understood that I hadn’t understood. I had been afraid that in keeping order he might prevent me from getting a little nothing. In fact, his job was to keep order to the degree that the race could proceed undisturbed, no more.  From that moment on, I watched the gendarmes and how they dealt with the crowd. It was different from the way I had seen police forces deal with crowds anywhere else in the world. These officers could steer a lion through a steeplechase with a feather. No one’s buzz got killed; kids were left in trees and nothing, but nothing disturbed the racers as they swished past.

While nothing else is as big as the Tour, I’ve seen the gendarmerie in action at other events. Where the crowds aren’t as large, their touch is even lighter. While talk of rider safety comes up at the Classics and each of the Grand Tours, I think it’s easy to underestimate what an amazing job they do given the exotic circumstances.

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5 comments

  1. Brendan

    Interesting perspective. For the most part, from what I saw, I agree with you. However, I did see one time when I didn’t think the gendarmerie played it very cool.

    This year at stage 18, after the race had long passed the finish line, a wave of spectators came down the Colombier on bike. A single officer had stopped probably 100 riders and was yelling at them and gesturing that they were not to continue. I’m not clear what he was yelling, but the crowd was very unhappy. My party (on foot) stood back to watch.

    Ultimately, one rider slid past the barricades and past the officer. The officer threw his expanding metal baton (seen here: http://www.safecity.nsw.edu.au/aspblalar.jpg) at the rider. It missed him, but it could have been quite a mess.

    While the rider (who knew enough French to be verbally involved) shouldn’t have shot past the officer, it was unfortunate to see the officer loose his cool like that. It was the only time I saw anything like it.

  2. mark

    Thanks for giving props to an under-appreciated but critical part of the race. I only wish in the US we had such respect for the racers and their safety. A lot of pain could have been avoided here locally had the DOT been willing to close a road for a couple hours.

  3. Erik

    I was fortunate enough to be caught up in the team caravan chasing Paris-Roubaix this year. I was an American without a decent map who was winging it through the French countryside. Several other drivers such as myself had wiggled their way in between team cars and raced down the highway into Roubaix. As we approached the velodrome a gendarme — seemingly with only the power of his mind and a single angry finger — turned all of us interlopers away from the roads forbidden to us. He didn’t even flinch, just guided the team cars in one direction and left the rest of us to figure out how to navigate the streets of Roubaix without a guide.

    It was totally sweet.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Great comments.

      Brendan: Perhaps the exception proves the rule.

      Mark: I was disappointed to read about the crash and the injuries and, now, even more disappointed to read such an uninformed perspective as the one you linked to. Bike racing without challenging roads leaves me cold, and the reality is, if there’s a road too dangerous for a cyclist, it is much too dangerous for a car.

  4. Vlaanderen2010

    I enjoyed your pro French sentiment. I’ve spent a great deal of time chatting with the different gendarmes when we are at the Dauphine, and their responsibility to the French social system is admirable. When I was at the ill-fated NYC Championships a few years back, I was standing on the lower bar of the metal barricade craning my neck to get a better view of something, before the race started. An NYC police officer came over to me and told me to get off the barricade. Typical New Yorker, I responded back and asked him why exactly? He said I was going to break the barricade. Civic duty is a large responsibility, and plays a huge role in protecting the people’s interest and commitment to a national treasure, like the Tour de France.

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