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Tut tut: Belgian cyclist Dries Devenyns throws his bottle during the 10th stage of the 2011 Tour de France. EPA/Nicolas Bouvy

The Tour de France – race of beauty or environmental hazard?

It’s that time of year again. The 101st Tour de France begins this Saturday July 5 in the Yorkshire city of Leeds, and three days later it returns to French home soil for Stage 4 (Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to Lille).

The Tour is a global sporting phenomenon. Every July, many millions of people tune in to watch the television coverage, and legions follow the race in person. The roadsides of every Tour stage these days are thick with spectators.

For many people, one of the most appealing things about the Tour de France is the spectacular scenery on show as the race winds its way through the Alps, Pyrenees and other picture-perfect areas of France and its border countries.

But look a little closer at the Tour, and against the stunning natural backdrop to this beautiful cycling race you will see something out of place.

Is the Tour clean or dirty?

Every July now for the past 15 or so years, I have become increasingly distracted by the sheer volume of drink bidons and food wrappers discarded by riders during this three-week race.

In fact, during last year’s Tour, I started counting the bottles and other objects riders were hurling into the bushes and undergrowth, or over the sides of mountains – inaccessible for even the most serious souvenir hunter.

I lost count at around 200 in only four stages. Multiply that by all the Tour stages over the decades since plastic bottles and wrappers were introduced, and the numbers get big.

Lance Armstrong throws a bottle during the 2005 Tour de France. EPA/Gero Breloer

Of course, my back-of-the-envelope estimates are not a reliable measure of unrecovered Tour de France rubbish. Nevertheless, the question of what becomes of all the rider discards in cycling races like the Tour is worth pondering.

And I’m not the only one.

Tour de France waste is a topic that you’ll see from time to time in the cycling blogosphere, with most of the comment page discussions calling for greener practices.

In 2010, the environmental group Coalition Nature lodged an official criminal complaint against a number of professional cyclists (including Chris Froome) for littering during the famous Belgian Flèche-Wallonne race.

And in 2013, complaints about rider littering threatened to prevent nearly 20 professionals from starting the Liège-Bastogne-Liège race (the world’s oldest road race).

Tour organisers care about the environment

Lots of riders can mean lots of litter. EPA/Eric Lalmand

Fortunately, the Tour de France organisers do appear serious about environmental issues. Each year, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) installs a comprehensive waste management action plan that targets Tour spectators, officials and riders.

Some of the key components of this plan include:

  • awareness raising broadcasts and messaging pre-race
  • supply of waste disposal bags
  • clean-up efforts following every stage
  • rubbish collection zones in each stage where riders can discard rubbish

Indeed, the Tour de France Refreshments and Environmental Measures regulations (Article 6) stipulate:

A waste collection area is in place at the start and end of the [Feed] station. Riders are only permitted to throw their rubbish, water bottles and all other waste in this specific area.

In order to respect the environment and with a view to safety, it is strictly forbidden to carelessly jettison food, feeding bags, drink containers or any other accessory outside of the waste collection zone or any other place set aside for this purpose.

And the Tour Road Book even has these reminders for riders of the behaviour expected:

I will use the bins positioned at the start and end of the feed zones in which to throw my rubbish during the race (water bottles and wrappers).

Outside of the feed zone, I will put my rubbish in my pockets.

But the thing is, if you watch the live coverage of the race you soon see that the riders do not routinely do this.

According to the official Tour website, the ASO has conducted an environmental impact evaluation of the 2013 Tour de France passage through the so-called Natura 2000 zones (protected natural habitats crossed or bordered by the Tour route).

EPA/Ian Langsdon

Unfortunately, the official findings do not appear to be publicly available yet. But other sources give a sense of the potential scale of the challenge.

UCI environment policy

Cycling’s international governing body – the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) – also appears serious about environmental issues in cycling races.

There is a UCI Eco-cyclo program, which includes a volunteer patrol group that promotes environmentally responsible amateur rider behaviour. The UCI has also developed a ReCycle environmental guide.

And the current UCI Discipline and Procedures section of its Cycling Regulations specifies penalties for “illegal or dangerous throwing of an object” and “refreshments and behaviour which damages the image of cycling”.

But again, judging from rider behaviour during each Tour de France, it appears that whatever fines are given by the [commissaires](, these are failing to have any great preventative effect.

Le Tour is still dirty

Even allowing for the official clean up and spectator souveniring of discarded items, it seems unlikely that all the rider rubbish is recovered from each stage of the Tour de France.

Fortunately, many of the drink bottles used by today’s teams are biodegradable polyethylene, with the estimated time to complete bottle breakdown between one to five years.

Beautiful. Why spoil it? EPA/Gero Breloer

Still, the image of professional cyclists hurling rubbish along France’s most beautiful roads and mountain areas is hardly a good look for the massive global audience that watches the Tour each year.

You have to wonder about the flow-on impact of enthusiastic fans seeing their cycling heroes throwing everything away during a race.

Unfortunately, in Melbourne at least, its not uncommon to see discarded energy gel and bar packets, punctured inner tubes, and even dropped drink bidons on the roads popular with cyclists. And my guess is the same can be seen in other Australian cities, and other countries too.

What more can be done?

The Tour de France organisers and the UCI already do a lot in this space. But watch any live stage of the Tour this year and you’ll see there is room for improvement.

The official Tour website environment section reminds us there are already “waste” pockets on the race leader jerseys (yellow, green, polka dot and white) supplied by the organisers. So why aren’t these pockets routinely used by riders for rubbish? Is it time for new jersey designs?

EPA/Gero Breloer

An alternative response would be a mainstream media campaign using high profile professional cyclists to promote a “no ride litter” message or similar. This could be broadcast to all international media outlets taking the live Tour feed, and promoted more widely on social media.

The Tour de France officials might also consider making better use of fines or other penalties (such as loss of time and/or points, or prizemoney). Or as some suggested recently:

Sling some litter into the countryside and maybe there’s a cash fine when what’s needed is on the spot action and visible justice so that the millions of TV viewers know it gets dealt with.

Such measures may not be popular. But these would be consistent with the rhetoric and environmental policy stance of the Tour de France organisers, and the wider charters and regulations in this area set out by the UCI.

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