Yesterday, Lance Armstrong again demonstrated his mastery of the competition in the 2004 Tour de France by winning the Stage 16 mountain time trial to Alpe d'Huez. It was not surprising that Armstrong considered the stage dangerous because of the sheer number of fans on the sections of the course that did not have barriers:
It was a little scary. The Pyrenees were exactly the same, so it wasn't necessarily abnormal. But [on Alpe d'Huez] you had longer sections of four and five kilometres with people on the road.
Perhaps the most surprising development was how quickly Tour de France race director Jean-Marie LeBlanc called the venue choice a mistake.
As I said yesterday, my wife and I made the pilgrimmage to Alpe d'Huez in 2001 for Stage 10. There were more people than ever before on the mountain, but I think the crowd was still manageable. We were able to drive up from Grenoble, find a little space on the lower slopes of the mountain, enjoy the Caravane and the race, and return to Grenoble in one long day. That doesn't seem to have been possible this year.
It seems like Alpe d'Huez reached a critical point during last year's Centenary Tour. People seemed to accept the size of the crowd back then as if it would be a one-time inconvenience. However, the crowd grew even larger and more unruly this year, probably because most cycing fans concluded that the mountain time trial could be the Tour's decisive moment. I don't think that continued crowd growth at Alpe d'Huez is in anyone's interest, and the Tour organization should do something to disrupt the momentum.
If I were the Amaury Sports Organization, I would seriously consider not including Alpe d'Huez next year. There are several places where the Tour could have a mountain-top finish in the Alps. One place I'd like to see the Tour return to is Sestriere, Italy. I think the last time the Tour visited there was 1999. Sestriere might have trouble hosting a stage finish next year because they will be preparing to be a venue in the 2006 Winter Olympics.
I don't have any first-hand knowledge of the Tour venues in the Pyrenees, but the crowds looked just as crazy and difficult to control in some places as they did at Alpe d'Huez. I think the rate of growth of the crowds in the Pyrenees may be faster than in the Alps. Greater venue diversity may be a good idea there as well.