The Tour de France which has delivered everything

CNN  — 

Protests and controversies have long been associated with the Tour de France, cycling’s most prestigious race.

Farmers delayed the start of a stage in 1982, while six years ago vandals threw carpet tacks onto the road, causing more than 30 punctures for riders in the peloton.

In 2009, riders Oscar Freire and Julian Dean were even shot at with air guns. As far back as 1904 rider Maurice Garin was attacked by masked men.

There was discord this year too, although it was different. Police broke up a farmer’s protest by using pepper spray, which wafted in the wind and into the eyes of some riders, bringing the race to a temporary halt.

READ: Chris Froome pulled off his bike by French policeman

READ: Tour de France riders inadvertently tear-gassed by police

“I could feel something in my eyes and a tingle in the back of my throat,” said current Tour de France leader Geraint Thomas after the stage.

Tension between Thomas’ Team Sky and the French public has been apparent over the last three weeks. The British team continues to dominate and that success has bred hostility.

The French press have been unforgiving in their coverage of Team Sky, perhaps fueling roadside hostility, with daily newspaper Libération earlier this week describing them as “the snake with two heads.”

L’Équipe, France’s biggest sport newspaper, wrote: “When you wear the jersey of the British team, suspicion is as contagious as herpes.”

Team Sky – and specifically defending Tour champion Chris Froome – have been the focus of much of the French media and fans’ ire and have been on the receiving end of several protests.

Froome came into this Tour under an anti-doping cloud after he was found to have more than the permissible level of salbutamol, an asthma drug, in his urine at last September’s Vuelta a España.

After a nine-month investigation – during which Froome constantly protested his innocence – cycling’s governing body the UCI, on the advice of experts from the World Anti-Doping Agency, dropped the case just before the Tour began earlier in July.

Nonetheless, last week Froome and other Team Sky riders were targeted by a flare, while the four-time champion was reportedly spat at and pushed by road-side spectators.

Jonathan Vaughters, a former professional racing cyclist and current manager of the EF Education First–Drapac p/b Cannondale team, believes this year has seen an unprecedented level of hostility.

“I haven’t ever seen a Tour where there was as much negativity directed at one team,” he told CNN.

“That certainly has been different and this very negative, and occasionally aggressive, nature regarding Team Sky is something I’ve never witnessed for as long as I’ve been in cycling.”

Team Sky weren’t immediately available when contacted for a comment.

‘Persistently booed’

Team Sky’s Principal Dave Brailsford said that the team’s young marketing executive was spat at, while defending champion Froome was cuffed by one fan and spat at by another and had an unidentified substance thrown at him.

Tour leader Thomas has been persistently booed whenever he was presented with his yellow jersey.

“We’re trying to remain dignified, we’re trying not to react and we’re trying not to get distracted by it,” the Welshman told reporters during a rest day.

“But I don’t think spitting and throwing things has a place in professional sport or in everyday life but it seems to be the thing that’s done here.

“Personally I’d have a bit of an issue if that was going on in my country, but there we go. We’ll just carry on.”

Froome has been abused on the Tour before, of course. In 2015, he had a cup of urine thrown on his face.

And if it isn’t spectators harassing Froome, then it’s French policemen. On Wednesday, as Froome was making his way back to the team bus after Stage 17, a gendarme pulled the rider off his bike thinking he was a fan riding the route.

The Tour of 2015 was particularly hostile with fans booing Team Sky’s riders and throwing Coca-Cola cans at the team’s car while Richie Porte was hit in the ribs by a spectator during a stage.

“I don’t think I deserve to be punched just for doing my job,” Porte told Fairfax Media at the time.

Two years earlier, during a time trial in 2013, Briton Mark Cavendish was splashed with urine.

“No, no it (2018) hasn’t been more dangerous than previous years,” Vaughters explains.

“I think with the advent of social media and everyone being more aware of everything, a lot of the dangerous parts of it have been publicized more.

“The Tour by nature, just what it is, has always been a fairly dangerous event. That’s just part of the sport going back 100 years.”

A spokesman for the Amaury Sport Organization, who organize the Tour de France, told CNN: “For safety, it is too early to talk about the 2019 Tour de France.”

But for all the animosity towards Team Sky – the wealthiest team on the Tour – they continue to be the form team.

And it seems like that 2018 will see a changing of the guard, with Welshman Thomas, bidding to become his nation’s first Tour winner, stepping out of Froome’s shadow.