AT THE start of stage 14 of the Tour de France in Rodez a policeman stood at the entrance to the Team Sky bus, and a security guard from the Tour organisers loitered nearby. Security has been increased around the British team of the overall leader, Chris Froome, after reports of violence and abuse on the roadside.
But they can’t look after Froome during the stages. And on the road to Mende, when Froome was riding up a drag, on the left-hand side of the road, he spotted a spectator acting strangely. The spectator then threw a cup of urine over Froome, and yelled “Dopé!” at him.
It overshadowed what should have been a triumphant day for another British rider, Steve Cummings, who won this tough stage by riding with his head as well as his legs. The 34-year-old now rides for the African team, MTN-Qhubeka, who were especially motivated to do something on Mandela Day.
Cummings rode brilliantly, getting into the day’s big break then biding his time. When the two French climbers Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot got away on the steep ascent to the finish, he didn’t panic, but slowly reeled them in then caught them by surprise with a powerful counter-attack. Cummings’ team is managed by a Scot, Brian Smith, who was jubilant. “Steve came back to the car and said, ‘What do I do?’ and I said, ‘Be really patient,’” said Smith.
“What a magnificent day,” Smith continued. “It’s huge. We came here with a stage win in mind, to have a leader’s jersey [which they had in the first week, thanks to Daniel Teklehaimanot], and to be prominent. I think we’ve done that already.”
Behind Cummings, Froome responded to the attacks of his biggest rival, Nairo Quintana, on the final climb. Quintana got a gap, but Froome slowly closed it and even managed to finish a second ahead of him on the line.
He was visibly upset at the finish, though. “I saw the guy,” Froome said of the incident with the spectator. “It was on a drag about 50, 60km into the race. I had some team-mates around me, they also saw the incident. I was boxed in a little bit on the left, so I couldn’t move away from it.
“I saw this guy just peering around – it looked a bit strange – and as I got there he just launched this cup towards me and said ‘Dopé!’ There’s no mistake it was urine.”
Froome continued: “That’s unacceptable on so many different levels. We’re professionals, we work extremely hard to do what we do and for someone to come and disrespect us like that, that’s not on. That’s not in the name of sport. That’s not why we’re here. I certainly wouldn’t blame the public for this. It really is the minority of people out there who are ruining it for everyone else. I would blame some of the reporting on the race, that has been very irresponsible.”
Froome and Sky have been subject to criticism and suspicion in the French press in particular. It has ranged from the slightly absurd – L’Equipe ran a big story about the fact they have more vehicles than anyone else, and their inconsiderate parking at hotels – to the more damaging allegations that they are doping. There is no evidence that they are, other than the fact that they are winning and dominating – and doing so with such apparent ease.
Although the Tour is watched by an estimated 15 million roadside spectators, such ugly incidents are rare. In 1975 Eddy Merckx, whose domination made him unpopular among some French supporters, was punched by a spectator as he climbed the Puy de Dôme. His injuries were so painful that he reckoned it cost him a record sixth victory.
“I wouldn’t say something’s changed,” said Froome. “It’s the tone that’s set by some of the irresponsible people reporting on the race. They set that tone and people believe what they see in the media. I certainly want to stress that it really is a minority of people out there. But Richie Porte got punched a few days ago. It’s just not on.”
But he ended with a note of defiance. “I’m not scared about this. I just hope it doesn’t interfere with the racing. That’s why we’re all here. I’m staying focused on my job that I’m here to do. I’m not going to let anything throw me off this year.”