There are very few sports other than road cycling, where fans and spectators can experience the sport so close to the elite athletes. This has pros and cons for athletes. The atmosphere can carry athletes through tough stages, and creates a fantastic experience for fans. It also allows cyclists to hear and experience support close to them from fans and spectators. It is therefore also easier to hear abuse and experience hostility, often the overwhelming noise, whether positive or negative, can lead to distraction for the athletes.
This year’s Tour de France has shown us some of the toughest stages, some spectacular racing but also some poor behaviour from spectators. Team Sky and more specifically Sky athlete Chris Froome have faced allegations of doping, with questions being raised about his performance numbers, in particular his wattage output, VO2 max and weight. Froome specifically was the victim of hostility from the crowds, being spat at and booed throughout the race, but perhaps the most unacceptable was having urine thrown at him on stage 14, which led to the Tour’s race director Christian Prudhomme calling on fans to “respect the jersey”. The hostility towards Froome was particularly apparent when riding up Alpe d’Huez, cycling’s and the Tour de France’s most iconic climb. The crowds surrounding the elite cyclists as they climbed the steep ascent were booing, gesturing aggressively and spitting at Froome, who has had to defend himself throughout one of the most important events of the year in cycling’s race calendar. Spectators have also attacked the Sky Bus and team cars, smacking on windows as the cars past and throwing eggs.
Riding up Alpe d’Huez, technically it is the French teams and French riders that should benefit from any homefield advantage as they are riding on home turf. The homefield advantage, the psychological advantage the home team has over the visiting team due to familiarity and the supportive fans, and its positive effects on the ‘home’ team are clearly documented. Teams playing at their home stadium win on average around 56 % to 64 % of the time. Gold medal winning Hungarian Kayaker Attila Sandor Vajda told reporters, “These Olympic Games, it’s so nice… but not for European People” alluding to the cheering crowds that accompanied every Chinese athlete at the 2008 Beijing Games where China won a record number of medals for the country (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011). The presence of even a single person can influence performance, by either reducing anxiety or by instilling apprehension. Despite being on French soil, the positive effects of the homefield advantage are not home advantage per-say but more support for the favoured team, which due to location is most likely to be the French teams and cyclists.
Larger audiences, such as those often experienced at the Tour de France reaching an estimated 12 million spectators along the route in a typical years race, exaggerates the effect on athletes, by either bringing out the best in the athletes or by creating a negative influence resulting in an under par performance. It is the supportiveness of fans that contribute to the homefield advantage for both teams and individual athletes. Supportive crowds increase athlete’s motivation and help reduce anxiety, where as hostile crowds increase anxiety and increase aggressive behaviours in players. Athletes who perceive the crowds to have judged them or their actions unfavourably are most likely to have increased anxiety levels during competition. On the other hand, extreme positivity may also be hard for the elite cyclists to manage psychologically. Maintaining focus on the race and the team strategy and not getting too caught up in the atmosphere is as much a test of mental strength as withstanding hostility is.
The proximity of the audience also plays a key role in its effect on the athletes. Schwartz (1975) proposed that the location of the audience in relation to performance was a key factor in social facilitation. The closer the audience to the event, the greater effect on arousal, either positive or negative. Agnew & Carron (1994) found that the only significant predictor of game outcome was crowd density. It was indicated that as crowd density increases, home advantage increases. Nevill, Newell & Gale (1996) observed significant home advantage with larger crowds in football. The largest home advantage was found in the English first division. Interestingly the English first division have considerably smaller crowds than the Premier league but more advantage, suggesting once a crowd has reached a certain size or density, a peak in the home advantage is observed.
Limitations in the performer’s attentional capacity can explain the effect of an audience. The audience become additional ‘cues’ and therefore a distraction by overloading the attentional space of the performer. This is particularly true in road cycling with athletes having to concentrate on pedalling, handling the bike, listening to the team radio, maintaining contact with team mates and fulfilling their role within the team, monitoring breaks by other teams and through most stages of the 2015 tour, navigating climbs, which also involves avoiding the spectators who creep ever closer to the cyclists. This often means athletes struggle to overtake or move amongst each other in the pack, with some fans even dangerously running alongside or across the athletes route, wafting flags in faces, throwing water, setting off flairs and perhaps the most intrusive spectators patting cyclists, either for the personal satisfaction or to push the cyclists to ‘help’ them get up the climb. On a climb where cycling journalist David Walsh in the Sunday Times describes your heart as more important than your heart rate, where it is not what you inflict but what you can endure, for Froome and Team Sky to navigate the climb and to block out the negativity they were subjected to up Alpe d’Huez, can only be testament to their mental toughness.
Williams (1998) states that one of the most important psychological attributes in achieving performance excellence is mental toughness, which is required by all 2015 Tour de France athletes to perform through harsh conditions for 3360 kilometres. Mental toughness allows an athlete to relax and persist in the face of failure, consciously increasing their positive energy flow and promoting the right attitude towards problems that they come across (Loehr, 1982). Mental toughness, is crucial in road cycling due to the endurance nature of the sport, the risk associated partly due to precarious climbs and treacherous terrain and the threat of crashes due to the close proximity of riders to one another. There are many positive characteristics associated with mental toughness within the literature, but what is consistently agreed by researchers is that mental toughness is reflected in an athlete’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety associated within the highly pressurised environment of competition (Goldberg, 1998; Gould et al., 1987).
Matt Slater for the BBC writes that Geraint Thomas told him “They loved us last year, when we were losing.” which suggests an element of jealousy in the hostility Team Sky have faced this year, perhaps exacerbated by the fact a French rider has not won this race for 30 years. The French public preferred Raymond Poulidor, the “eternal second”, to five-time winner Jacques Anquetil. The hostility Froome faces echoes abuse Eddy Merckx faced, most notably Merckx was even punched by a spectator at a pivotal moment on the summit on the Puy de Dôme in the 1975 Tour. It is not just during the stages that Froome has faced negativity. There have been continual media reports and messages on social media during the 21 days of racing, with a combination of those defending Froome and Team Sky, but the majority raising doping allegations. Questions have been raised over Froome’s physiology, forcing Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford to release Froome’s data to help prove that he is clean. Competing in an endurance event such as the Tour de France is tough enough with support, but to not only compete but to win despite the adversity requires mental toughness. Athletes are often advised to refrain from using social media during big competitions to prevent them losing focus and/or confidence due to comments they have read.
Whether you agree with the doubters that Froome and Team Sky are doping or have more faith that they are racing clean and that Froome is gifted with a special physiology, Froome’s mental toughness is undeniable. Mental toughness is required by all elite cyclists to successfully withstand the 21 stages of the Tour; Team Sky’s mental toughness has been pushed to the limit by the adverse reactions of a small minority of the supporters along the Tour route, the fans on social media and the journalists and reporters in the media. It is generally acknowledged that when you reach elite sport level, mental ability plays a more significant role, as physically very little separates the athletes. Sky’s successes at this year’s Tour de France are even more spectacular when you consider the hostility they faced throughout the twenty one days.