Punches, marches, banners and engine oil: 100 years of bike race protests

The open arena and global stage of big-name bike races have always meant they are a fertile ground for protest

Protesters on stage 4 of the Vuelta
(Image credit: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

Riders in the Vuelta a España had a narrow escape after police uncovered a plot to flood the road with engine oil on stage three by Catalan separatists. The plan, it transpires, was to let the black stuff wash over the road via tubes leading to barrels concealed in roadside bushes.

But the tarmac stayed clean and the plotters were given a couple of nights in the cells for their trouble, and still face potential charges of public disorder.

While it's alarming to think of the potential chaos and injury that flooding the riders' path with oil could have caused, protesters at bike races are nothing new. Only the next day at the Vuelta, demonstrators in favour of regional independence lined the roadside. 

The open, unticketed roadside entry of even the world's biggest races makes them very fertile ground for those wishing to express themselves in the name of a cause, who have been doing so for decades. Remember these?

Men's World Championship road race blocked, 2023

Protesters halt the elite men's world championship road race 2023

(Image credit: Pauline Ballet / SWPix.com)

You should remember this one, as it only happened a few weeks ago. The elite men's World Championship road race between Edinburgh and Glasgow was blocked by protesters with environmental group This Is Rigged, who glued themselves to the road and succeeded in halting the race for 45 minutes.

The main beef of the group was cited as the involvement of Ineos (the plastic-producing company, rather than the team's riders) within the sport. Five were arrested, and the race was ultimately able to continue towards a memorable finale in Glasgow, won by Mathieu Van Der Poel.

Riders endure pepper spray, Tour de France 2018

When farmers blocked the riders' way using hay bales during stage 16 of the 2018 Tour de France, police decided these protesters meant business – and didn't hold back in trying to get them shifted.

Out came the pepper spray, and while it undoubtedly helped them break up the protest – which was against a cut in state agricultural aid – it also lingered in the air and ended up in the eyes of some riders, including yellow jersey and eventual overall winner Geraint Thomas, as well as his Team Sky team-mate Chris Froome and Peter Sagan

The contents of bidons were put to use as eye rinse, while some riders sought medical attention from the race medics. The stage, between Carcassonne and Bagnères de Luchon, was restarted around 15 minutes after the incident.

Bernard Hinault retaliates, Paris-Nice 1984

Bernard Hinault punches a protester during the 1984 Paris-Nice

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What is perhaps the most famous protest in the history of bike race – or the most famous reaction to a protest perhaps – began as fairly standard fare for France in the 1980s. In this particular case, a large group of unhappy workers and union staff from a nearby shipyard spanned the road on stage five of Paris-Nice, hoping to raise awareness of their cause.

But they hadn't counted on the wrath of 'the Badger', leading the race in full flight, and in no mood to be held up.

Hinault rode into the group almost without braking, before dismounting and punching one of the protesters, as others tried to calm him down. 

Eventually the race got through, the stage won by Eddy Plankaert in La Seyne-sur-mer.

The Giro d'Italia's divisive Israel start, 2018

A Grande Partenza in Israel was always going to be divisive, and so it proved. Even before the race had begun there had been a protest – by Israel – over the use of the politically-charged term 'West Jerusalem' in the race's official route descriptions. The Giro was forced to change this to simply 'Jerusalem' to avoid Israel pulling out of the event.

Then on stage four, as the race hit Italian shores in Sicily, anti-Israel protesters lined the roadside to make their feelings clear: 'Israele assassina - Italia complice' read the banners.

MOR march, Tour de France 2003

No matter how much EPO is coursing through the veins of the peloton, you're still going to get protests, as was demonstrated by the supporters of jailed anti-globalisation activist José Bové at the 2003 Tour.

The protests took place on stage 10, and saw demonstrators marching down the middle of the road in support of Frenchman Bové, who had been sentenced to 14 months in jail the year before, for destroying genetically modified crops.

Reports from the time describe the race as being briefly halted as "police dragged protesters away".

And what about the riders?

Rider protest and heavy rain halt racing on stage 19 of the 2020 Giro d'Italia

(Image credit: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

While bike racing sees regular roadside (and in-road) protests by groups representing any number of causes, the riders themselves have been known to protest themselves – generally about race conditions.

In one notable example from not so long ago we saw stage 19 of the 2020 Giro d'Italia to Asti halved in length after riders objected to taking on its original 258km in awful weather conditions.

But rider protests are as old as the sport, with the 1924 race, for example seeing protests at working conditions that included the defending champion Henri Pelissier quitting the race in disgust, famously complaining that cyclists were 'forçats de la route' - convicts of the road.

Possibly the most famous rider protests took place at the 1998 Tour de France – the year of the Festina Affair. Even with one team thrown off the race and EPO apparently rife throughout the peloton, the riders remained baffled that the media – and indeed the police – seemed unable to simply sit back and enjoy the racing. They showed their displeasure with sit-down protests in the second and third weeks.

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After cutting his teeth on local and national newspapers, James began at Cycling Weekly as a sub-editor in 2000 when the current office was literally all fields. 

Eventually becoming chief sub-editor, in 2016 he switched to the job of full-time writer, and covers news, racing and features.

A lifelong cyclist and cycling fan, James's racing days (and most of his fitness) are now behind him. But he still rides regularly, both on the road and on the gravelly stuff.