It had to happen.

Not that the 2013 Boston Marathon had to be ruined by the acts of one or more sociopaths who do qualify for George W. Bush’s term “evildoers,” but an act of this genus and species was inevitable. Attacking a sporting event in the United States was—to use a cliche—bound to happen sometime. Let’s be honest, the idea had been out there since 1977 when the Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern thriller “Black Sunday” opened in theaters. In the film, Dern, a blimp pilot aids a terrorist group (back when they were disaffected Europeans) by constructing an explosive device that attaches to the bottom of his blimp, which is scheduled for camera work at the Super Bowl.

For aspiring terrorists with a short memory, the idea got a reboot in 1991 with the Tom Clancy novel “The Sum of All Fears” in which a dirty bomb—a nuclear weapon that doesn’t go critical and instead sprays radioactive material over a few square miles—is detonated at (you guessed it) the Super Bowl.

The business of terrorism has been something like a game of chess. Someone attacks a Federal building in Oklahoma City. We surround all Federal buildings with bollards. Several someones fly planes into buildings. We up security at airports. Someone sets their shoe on fire on a plane. We all take our shoes off at the security checkpoint in the airport. They move a pawn, we move a pawn. The important lesson is, they never move the same pawn to the same square twice.

What it suggests is that whoever these people are, what they don’t lack (we can debate why they lack a moral compass and empathy until the next election) is creativity. That’s what makes them so dangerous.

When I was in high school I worked as a concessioner, selling hot dogs from an aluminum box with Sterno in it. I did this at the Liberty Bowl, the football stadium in Memphis, Tennessee. One night, as a game drew to a close, I found myself standing just outside the press box, next to a paramedic who was on duty for the football game. One of the sportswriters heading out got to talking with him and when the paramedic told him there’d been two heart attacks and one knife fight, the journalist responded with surprise. That’s when the paramedic said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Think about it; you put 60,000 people together and these things are bound to happen.”

I think the Super Bowl has never been attacked because at this point fights at lesser events have been too prevalent. The Super Bowl is too obvious a target; security is too high to be worth the trouble.

But what of events that are run over open roads?

The Boston Marathon is arguably the closest thing the U.S. has to the Tour de France. Even so, it’s broadcast to a fraction of the households that the Tour de France or even Paris-Roubaix is.

To be sure, France’s national pastime has seen its share of disruptions. From farmers protesting to Basque bombs—hell, the riders themselves!—the Tour has seen a variety of pissed-off people use its spectacle to garner attention for their causes. And that’s the important distinction—those people wanted to be heard, they wanted a place at the table, had something to negotiate. However, those behind the biggest acts of terrorism here in the U.S. weren’t looking for a dialog. They were simply acts to hurt others and inspire fear. Because initially we didn’t know who was responsible for any of the incidents and as a result didn’t know either if they were more acts to come or what the motivation was, the acts—the explosions, the murders, the families torn apart, the destruction—accomplished boatloads of both hurt and fear.

I can’t help but think about Lance Armstrong and the force field of body guards he used to travel with when he was King of le Tour. He claimed to have received threats. Because Armstrong’s life has been built on so many fictions, we can’t know if that was true or just part of the myth that was constructed. However, it doesn’t matter. Would I have been disappointed had religious extremists made Armstrong the target of an attack? Of course. Would I have been surprised? Given the way he embodies a particular image of America, not in the least.

It may be that the Tour and other races have so far escaped these most random of terrorist acts for the simple reason that it is not an American event. But that doesn’t mean that we should expect it will always escape the gaze of those who look to disrupt our lives. At a certain point the ease of access, the size of the crowds and the TV viewership make the Tour de France a more than obvious target. I’m reminded of that Far Side cartoon that goes “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” This is no laughing matter, of course. As much as I’m concerned for the welfare of the riders, my greater concern is for those who wish to witness the spectacle. I’ve been to a great many sporting events in my life, but I’ve not witnessed anything that left me feeling as simultaneously breathless and alive as the Tour de France. It’s something every cyclist should see, the absolute #1 bucket-list item for anyone who has ever been inspired by anyone who went fast on two wheels.

Now, I have to be concerned about taking my boys to the Tour. Well doesn’t that just suck large-scale ass.

Boston is a city that has seen share of dark days. It has all the ills of any big city and while only one war was ever fought in its streets, the sons of Boston have fought in every war Americans have waged: 1812, Civil, WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Iraq again and Afghanistan.

But Boston has never been a symbol loss or the problems of society. When we utter the word Boston, what comes to mind for most people is the birthplace of democracy, a place where I new idea about what freedom really meant, how society could be re-imagined. Name another place on earth where a notion of hope did more to rebut tyranny than in Boston. It has a history marked by attracting greatness, as exemplified by serving as the home to one of the greatest centers of learning, Harvard University. And because Merlin Metalworks, Fat City Cycles, Independent Fabrication, Seven Cycles (just to name a few) have all called Boston home, it is the de facto spiritual center of cycling not just for New England, but all of the East Coast.

Boston will heal.

But where will they strike next?

, , , ,


  1. Full Monte

    When carpet tacks were thrown all over the TdF course last year, my first thought then was these tacks could have just as easily been bullets. Or grenades or bombs. There’s no telling when the TdF will be attacked, but I imagine some madman will try. Hundreds of km’s to guard every day, tens of thousands of spectators, vehicles, bags. International coverage. Celebration and color and exuberance — the perfect target for darkness.

    But here’s the deal: I’m not crossing it off my bucket list. I’m going. Someday. Just like I’ll be going to the Chicago marathon this year, cheering on the runners. See, they’re attacking endurance athletes/events, and that’s the key – endurance. We run and ride in packs, we compete against each other, but also for each other. We pull each other on, and through, and over. Farther than most people think is sane, or even possible. That’s who we are. We endure. And endure this we shall. Stronger, wiser, kinder, braver.

  2. mr

    I was thinking of this last night as well. Having spent a fun day watching a summit finish of the TdF a few years ago, the possibility scares me a bit.

    Someone pulling a similar stunt on a crowded mountaintop, with 2 or 3 narrow roads down, and no hospital in the vicinity, could inflict a lot more damage than in the center of a major city with emergency response, police, and hospitals all relatively accessible.

  3. RPD

    I’m from the state, or commonwealth of as we’re typically called, of Massachusetts. Once upon a time, I lived in Sommerville (for a “while”), and still work in Watertown. I can walk the Copley area with my eyes closed. I have friends who live and work in the back bay, and I had a cousin run the race yesterday. She was scheduled to arrive at the finish line 10 minutes after the 1st explosion. For a couple hours, myself an a number of friends waited to hear if she was ok. By about 4:45 she posted to her Facebook page that she was ok. 10 minutes later she sent me a text “I’m ok”. 5 symbols on an iPhone screen that lifted a heavy heart as much as it could be. Stay safe, stay strong!

  4. P Poppenjay

    Profound, thoughtful and beautifully written, Padraig, as is your invariable style.
    Liked Full Monte, as always.

  5. SusanJane

    I was trying to tell my family how I felt about the bombings. But they don’t share my passion for the open road and crowds who brave all conditions to cheer when the peleton rides by. To them it’s tragic, of course. Tragic but also faceless unfortunate people in the news. I’ve never been at the TdF finish line but I still feel like those are “my” people, that I’m one of them. So when I think about the finish line in Boston I am as equally horrified as I am angry. We love a different sport but the venue is the same. Exactly the same. The open road and the cheering crowds.

  6. Sam Findley

    I cheered from the sidewalks of Wellesley every year of my childhood (until we moved to Chicago). I’m thinking I might go back to the old neighborhood and cheer again next Spring.

  7. Patrick O'Brien

    Fear is a powerful force. Sometimes it causes the brakes to come on in a descent, which is reasonable. Sometimes is causes the expenditure of trillions of dollars and limits on our every day lives to prevent that one incident, which is not reasonable. The Boston Tea Party, Patriot’s Day, income tax deadline day, and an international race with world wide press coverage and interest presented a terrorism opportunity that the TdF doesn’t, especially for a domestic serial killer. They want an irrational response to their senseless act. Don’t give it to them.

  8. Patrick O'Brien

    Time to turn off the radio, take a break from the news churning, jump on the Niner, and head up Brown Canyon. As a friend, who hike and camps often, says “I need some dirt time.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *