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Uniquely vulnerable: The Tour and terrorism

Editor’s note: This article is from the February issue of Velo magazine.

Six months after the terrorist attack on the Paris offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, a small, black Renault sped into barriers set up at the Place de la Concorde, a few hundred meters from the finish line of the Tour de France. Police, out in numbers never before seen at the Tour, fired into the vehicle; the driver escaped and was chased through Paris for an hour. He turned out to be a drunk just trying to avoid a police checkpoint. But as the peloton made its slow, celebratory way from Sèvres to Paris, news of the incident spread, and the alert level rose.

Hours later, a man draped in white sheets made his way onto the Tour course and stood like a mid-river stone as the Tour peloton streamed around him on its eighth circuit of the Champs-Élysées. Policemen rushed in from the race’s edge, waited for the riders to pass and the cars to stop, and submerged him in a pile of blue and gray.

Everyone who saw the man in white expected the worst. In the end, nothing bad happened; the protest was peaceful, if inherently dangerous. But the fact that an un-credentialed bystander had been able to place himself in the middle of the peloton — on that day, with that level of security — was lost on no one. Among sporting events, bike races are uniquely vulnerable.

“Actually, the whole day I was worried something was going to happen,” said André Greipel, who ended up winning the sprint on the Champs. “We all were.”

Terrorists have never successfully targeted pro cycling. And security analysts say they know of no credible threats against major cycling events. But in a post-Paris, post-San Bernardino, post-London, post-Mumbai, post-Boston world, and in a sport so popular and exposed, the issue is inescapable.

Countless lives were saved in Paris in November when security workers at an entrance to the 80,000-seat Stade de France, where the French national soccer team was playing Germany, detected a suicide bomber’s explosive vest during a routine frisk. The Tour de France involves 15 million people lining open roadsides for three weeks and a worldwide live television audience, and no stadium walls or gated entrances exist to help control things.

“I don’t mean to be too alarmist, but the Tour de France is almost impossible to secure,” says David Murakami Wood, a surveillance researcher and event-security expert at Queens University in Ontario who is also an avid cyclist. “You’ve got a rolling event that moves around the country, through public roads, into some areas that are varyingly remote. There’s no way you can create the kind of island security effect used elsewhere. You just cannot protect it in the same way.” (“Island security” refers to the creation of enclosed spaces with recognizable borders that can be defended. Metal detectors, fences, and armed guards work at a stadium, but not across an entire country.)

Barring the Tour’s start and finish zones — which feature fenced-off areas for riders, media, and VIPs, with entrances manned by unarmed ASO staff in green shirts — the entire 2,000-mile route of the Tour de France is relatively exposed, protected only by police presence and the intelligence services that work with them.

Tour security is a government operation, not one dictated by the race’s organizer, ASO. “We are going to improve [security] in some aspects, but we are not the ones who write the laws,” says ASO director Christian Prudhomme. “As race organizers, we clearly follow all of the recommendations from the government. The Gendarme and the police are our best allies. Of course, we cannot give away too many details about what we’re going to do, for obvious reasons of confidentiality and for the protection of the country.”

The Gendarmerie is a branch of France’s armed services that exists under the Ministry of the Interior, alongside the French intelligence agencies. The rough equivalent in the U.S. would be a combination of the National Guard and local SWAT teams. The 91,000 Gendarmes are much more active and visible in France’s daily life, though, in both intelligence gathering and execution of policing duties.

The presence of both Gendarme and local police at the Tour has been increasing. As Chris Froome jumped onto the podium in Paris this year, hundreds of heavily armed security personnel stood in a long line, one every 15 paces, along the Champs-Élysées, facing out at crowds as riders and media wandered the closed road behind them. It was a security measure that hadn’t existed a year prior, and it is backed by the same massive intelligence apparatus now monitoring global chatter for both general and specific threats.

The problem, Murakami Wood says, is the weight of unpredictability. “As we know from the Paris attacks, most of the threat is likely to come from people inside France, who have no specific connection but are inspired by ISIS,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to predict where those people might come from and what they might do. This is one of the biggest problems for intelligence more generally. There’s no pattern at the moment.”

Discussion of terrorism pivots so quickly into the realm of the hypothetical. It’s a dangerous place, the imagination. This is terrorism’s goal: using the fear of death to take the joy out of life. Which, of course, means the Tour must go on. “Abandoning the Tour would be a strong symbol that terrorism won,” Murakami Wood says.

If a real threat were detected, race organizers would face a difficult choice: cancel or continue on, confident in the Gendarmes, local police, and intelligence services. Neither is an attractive option. But the French have proven in their return to cafes and rock concerts — just as Boston proved in its return to the marathon and London proved in its return to the Underground — that resilience trumps fear, and normalcy quashes panic.

“The most important thing is that we continue to live as we always have,” Prudhomme says. “That’s the best answer we can have.”

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