Tight checks for safe finale as riders roll in

The pack riding past Chantilly Castle at the start of the 113km 21st and last stage of the 103rd Tour de France. Despite the tight security, one of the charms of the race is the ability of fans to get up close to their sporting heroes.
The pack riding past Chantilly Castle at the start of the 113km 21st and last stage of the 103rd Tour de France. Despite the tight security, one of the charms of the race is the ability of fans to get up close to their sporting heroes. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The riders come screaming around the final corner onto the Avenue des Champs-Elysees - wheels whirring and gears clicking in a frenzy of motion.

All down the famed Parisien boulevard, fans are chanting and screaming their favourites home after 21 days and over 3,500km of racing.

The scene is an annual affair in Paris when the biggest cycling race comes to town, and people come out in force to watch the rainbow procession of riders zoom past.

But the terrorist attacks in France this past year have cast a shadow over the 103rd Tour de France.

Along the boulevard, French police officers lined the street, weapons at the ready.

On Saturday, police said "enhanced" security measures had been taken - including restrictions on public street access, a crackdown on alcoholic drinks, reduced street parking, and a ban on fireworks and imitation firearms.

"There are many police, many military all around. I think that has made people feel safer and not so nervous," said Philip Justin, 40, who has been running a drinks stall on the Champs Elysees for 15 years.

Just two weeks ago, on Bastille Day, 84 people were killed when a suspected terrorist drove a truck into crowds watching the fireworks on the French Riviera in Nice.

France has been in a state of emergency since the Paris attacks last November that killed 130.

The attacks have led to an unprecedented level of security this year. The race was protected by a force of 23,000 police officers, according to race organiser the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO). This includes the French elite special operations force GIGN.

Each of the 22 teams were assigned a dozen police officers.

Before the Tour began earlier this month, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the race this year was taking place under a "special context", and no chances would be taken.

At yesterday's start in Chantilly, just north of Paris, security in the team area was as tight as Fort Knox.

Large backpacks were not allowed - only handbags, laptop cases and smaller rucksacks.

Vehicles had to pass through multiple checkpoints before entering the town.

All along the 113km route to the French capital, vehicles were stopped and bags were searched.

Yet it was widely understood that a race like the Tour - which spans miles of unfenced public roads - cannot be perfectly secure.

Interestingly, its vulnerabilities are part of the reason why the race has endeared itself to fans, who flock each year to the French countryside. Up to 12 million of them crowded the roadsides just last year, according to figures from the ASO.

Some, such as Danish teacher Gunni Ostegaard Pedersen, 67, come back year after year. He was among the crowds on the Champs Elysees yesterday, hoping to catch a glimpse of Danish rider Lars Bak, who rides for team Lotto-Soudal.

"In the mountains, some fans can get carried away, but this is part of the beauty of the Tour," said Pedersen, referring to incidents when fans get too close to the riders.

There were a few this year, but one was particularly remarkable - on Stage 12, the thick crowds on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, in Provence, caused three riders to crash into the back of a TV motorbike, including race winner Chris Froome.

The Briton's bike broke and he was forced to run some distance up the mountain until he got a new bike.

But Froome left the jitters of those hectic days behind yesterday, riding triumphantly into Paris to seal his third Tour title.

His achievement was celebrated by many a British fan in France. Photographer Chris Mellor was one of them.

"He's dropped everyone, on the descents, ascents and the time trial. It's fantastic," said the 55-year-old.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Tight checks for safe finale as riders roll in'. Print Edition | Subscribe