The Words on the Street

Painting the roads of the climbs has long been a part of cycling culture, but do professional racers notice the messages of encouragement written by fans? We spoke to former and current riders David Millar, Lachlan Morton and Ian Boswell to find out.

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Ever since there have been smooth enough road surfaces to paint on, cycle racing fans have expressed their devotion to their favoured rider, and many other emotions, by scrawling across the asphalt along the course.

Archive images of the Tour in the fifties and sixties all reveal the hastily applied names of the cycle stars of the time along with words of encouragement, with ‘Allez!’, meaning ‘Go!’ in French, proving a popular early example.

Dutch and German fans are reportedly the biggest culprits these days, which tallies with the passion they show on race day – the Dutch in particular occupying their own corners of race stages and creating a sea of orange, their enthusiasm legendary.

Road graffiti is an opportunity for supporters to make their feelings known above the deafening hysterics of the gathered masses. The climbs are the most popular locations for such a medium of encouragement, because that’s when the riders will notice the words the most, when they are crawling up a mountain with their eyes transfixed on the few feet of road ahead. For the riders, it’s also the time when they appreciate the sentiment the most.

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Graffiti on climbs holds a particular relevance for Ian Boswell of Team Sky: “I always dreamed of doing a climb covered in graffiti like I saw on TV in the Tour. In the USA I had never seen it. That all changed when I moved to Chico, California in 2009 and rode the Honey Run Road climb – it’s covered in graffiti. I remember the first time climbing it and picturing myself on a climb in the Alps. It always gave me a huge boost of confidence and reason to ride the climb hard.”

The graffiti-covered alpine passes Ian refers to have been added to over decades of Tours de France. The effects of the weather and the salt applied to the roads in the winter months, as well as regular resurfacing results in a patchwork effect and means there is always a piece of blank road to paint . There are often occasions when environmental conditions fail to do the job quick enough, particularly when the graffiti is of a more controversial nature. Giant body parts are a common theme but even the most innocuous slogans can be subject to the pressure washer. In 2014 North Yorkshire County Council removed the words ‘Va Va Froome’ and ‘Allez Cav’ on the A61 close to the stage one finish after complaints by residents.

Whether road graffiti should be left after a Tour has passed through is a topic that will always prompt debate but the inspiration these words offer to the cyclist labouring up the mountain on race day itself is not to be underestimated. “It’s a mini ego boost,” explains former professional cyclist David Millar. “Granted, you only really noticed that type of thing when you were dropped, which is probably when you need the boost most.

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For Lachlan Morton of Team Dimension Data, the impact of road graffiti depends more on the kind of day he’s having: “If I’m in the breakaway and feeling comfortable, it’ll bring me a smile, sometimes I’ll wave to show I appreciate the support. If I’m fighting in the peloton, often I don’t notice especially if I’m under pressure. If I’m out the back it’s the last thing I want to see, it feels like I’ve let the supporters down in some way. In hindsight it’s always humbling.”

A guaranteed way to have your words appreciated is for them to come from the heart – all the better if you’re a family member. “On stage two of California this year, my mom was out on Mt. Hamilton and had written “Go Boz” (in chalk, she’s not a vandal) on the climb,” says Ian Boswell. “I happened to be off the front with an elite group. That was a nice reminder of the support and love I have from my mother and family.”

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Artwork on the Asphalt

Time constraints and a widespread demise of signwriting skills could be blamed for Tour graffiti being for the most part hastily applied and absent of much artistic merit, although there have been occasions when the roads of Tour stages, particularly on the more notable climbs, have been decorated with flair.

In 2009 Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong organisation enlisted a Chalkbot, essentially a glorified road marking machine, to apply slogans of encouragement in chalk along the length of the Tour route. The impact of said messages were slightly diluted by Chalkbot’s habit of hyphenating longer words, and probably more by the scandal bubbling up around Armstrong himself.

In the UK the much-loved Box Hill in Surrey provided the canvas for a commissioned piece of art by British artist Richard Long. The Road River, a meandering and curling white line, was intended as a permanent legacy of the London 2012 road race.

On the route of another Tour, of Lombardy in Italy, exists perhaps one of the most inspiring examples of road graffiti. The Muro di Sormano is 2km of suffering on a bike, with an average 17% gradient, topping out at 25% in places. The pain is eased somewhat by the beautifully painted messages of encouragement on the road.

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Tag your climbs

Whether your regular rides take you up Alpe d’Huez or down to the shops, share your climbing stories with us using #RaphaRising. Use chalk to create your own tapestries on the tarmac, and we’ll reward the most creative efforts with daily prizes.