Fending off multiple attackers using weapons and knife tactics is Erwin Ballarta's specialty. He's spent 22 years in law enforcement. He's a master instructor of the Pekiti Tirsia Kali (translation: Filipino combat) system. He's a defensive tactics instructor for the Texas Department of Public Safety and has instructed other agencies, including the U.S. Marines. It's no surprise that the world's most famous cyclist, Lance Armstrong, wants Ballarta by his side.
Ballarta, along with his partner Serge Borlee, has provided executive protection—or perhaps more properly celebrity bodyguard service—to ensure the safety of Armstrong during the Tour de France every year since 2000. This year he again guarded the 2,241-mile course from July 2 to July 24.
Also see an interview with celebrity protection specialist Gavin de Becker
Ballarta's gentle manner and emphasis on teamwork may seem to contrast with his combat skills, but he is a good match for Armstrong, who asks his bodyguards to "smile and be nice."
Keeping Armstrong safe includes managing overzealous fans, boisterous crowds and those intent on harming Armstrong during the race. To meet these challenges, Ballarta works in tight collaboration with Borlee, his Belgian counterpart. He also meets with local forces before and during the Tour to forge bonds and discuss crowd control, security threats and movement concerns (routes, exiting the venue and so on). Building those relationships has been crucial, he says. "We are Americans in a foreign countrywe're on their turf. It helps that I'm also in law enforcement. We can bridge cultural barriers with common issues and goals." His collaborative attitude also extends to crowd control. Like all great security professionals, he emphasizes prevention and eliciting voluntary compliance.
Of prime importance is knowing the locations of all the medical stations and trauma doctors. During much of the race, Ballarta and Borlee scan for potential threats and create contingency plans. As Armstrong nears the finish line for each stage of the race, the two run beside him to ensure "smooth movement through the sea of spectators and reporters." Ballarta has resolute belief in the power of a kindly "S'il vous plaît, le mouvement de retour" ("Please move back"), but he will move a person himself if the need arises.
Ballarta's polite attitude has served him well. Armstrong was one of the first cyclists to use a bodyguard, which did nothing to endear him to the European public. Worse, Ballarta's predecessor, a French kickboxer, displayed a tough, elbow-the-crowd style. Public perception about Armstrong has improved in recent years, and Ballarta takes his part in this seriously. "I'm there to represent Lance," he says.