Appeals for calm among Tour de France spectators appeared to fall on deaf ears as a lit flare was tossed into the peloton before world champion Peter Sagan claimed his third stage victory of the race in Valence.
Twenty-four hours after four-time winner Chris Froome was slapped and apparently spat at by elements within the massed crowds on Alpe d’Huez, there was fresh trouble when a spectator threw the flare around 16 and a half kilometres before the finish of the 169.5km stage from Bourg d’Oisans.
Spewing yellow smoke, the flare appeared to be thrown over Team Sky’s riders, massed on the right-hand side of the peloton around Geraint Thomas in the yellow jersey, before bouncing across the road without bringing down anyone.
“I didn’t actually notice it,” Thomas said. “Sixteen kilometres to go, did you say? I was fully in the zone then fighting for position. It was pretty stressful so I had no idea.”
The incident came only hours after Tour director Christian Prudhomme called for calm at the roadside after events spilled over on the Alpe d’Huez on Thursday.
Froome was slapped by at least one fan and appeared to be spat at by another, before Vincenzo Nibali crashed after touching a spectator, fracturing a vertebrae to put him out of the race.
“We need to restore calm and respect all the riders,” Prudhomme said.
“It was a very annoying climb of the Alpe d’Huez. The riders on the Tour, and champions of the Tour, must obviously be respected, as they are by the large majority of the public.
“By the roadside it was very calm for 10 days, with only a few anti-Froome or anti-Sky placards. But at a stroke, it all went up again.
“I can only renew my appeals for calm, for common sense, with regards to the riders who make up the Tour de France.”
Speaking before the start of Friday’s stage, Froome called for riders to get more protection.
“I think the organisers had tried to put in a few special precautions to stop those kind of things happening,” he said.
“When you’ve got fans touching and interfering with the riders, who are doing everything to try and get up the climb, that’s not a situation anyone wants to see. That’s not acceptable.
“I was pushed a few times but thankfully I stayed on my bike and didn’t get knocked off.
“(Appealing for calm) is a step in the right direction but I think there are more measures that can be taken, for sure.”
There had been fears about security on Alpe d’Huez with Froome still facing lingering ill-feeling among some cycling fans following the salbutamol case in which he was cleared of wrong-doing just days before the Tour began, while Sky have often faced a mixed reception in France due to their dominance of the Tour in recent years.
For a third straight day, Thomas heard some boos as he appeared on the podium to collect his yellow jersey in Valence.
Asked why, he said: “I think that’s a question for the people out there. I don’t know. We just train hard, work hard and come here to try to win the race. That’s a question for the people on the side of the road.”
The day’s stage came down to a sprint, though there were only a handful of real contenders after the Alps saw no fewer than five fast men eliminated from the race through missed time cuts or abandonments.
Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sagan picked up his third stage win of this Tour as he overhauled UAE Team Emirates’ Alexander Kristoff and Arnaud Demare of Groupama-FDJ in the final few metres to win by a wheel length.
“I think I left it a little bit late and I was a little bit behind in the final 600 metres,” Sagan said. “With the short climb I tried to bring myself to the front and stay on the wheel of Kristoff. I am very happy to beat them.”
The flare was the only thing that came close to upsetting a relatively quiet day for Thomas after the drama of his back-to-back mountain stage wins which thrust him into yellow.
“It wasn’t exactly a rest day but for sure it was a lot easier than the last three days,” he said. “It was nice to go on fast roads, the wind was kind to us and it was a good day to get ticked off. A welcome easier day for the whole peloton.”
With no change in the General Classification, Thomas leads Froome by one minute and 39 seconds, with Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin a further 11 seconds back.
Adam Yates will target stage victories in the final week of the Tour de France after seeing his general classification hopes end in the Alps.
The Mitchelton-Scott rider came to the Tour hoping to build on the fourth place he achieved in 2016 and animate the race in a fashion similar to his twin brother Simon’s performance in the Giro d’Italia in May.
But he cracked over the three Alpine stages this week as what was a bad loss of time on Wednesday became a full-blown crisis by the foot of the Alpe d’Huez on Thursday.
“Obviously it’s disappointing,” the 25-year-old Lancastrian said. “We came here to ride GC but I’ve been suffering a lot in the heat in the past couple of days and it’s been pretty bad with the dehydration.
“I’d just get to the end and I’m just full of salt and dehydrated. It’s one of those things but that’s bike racing at the highest level.”
Yates lost four minutes 42 seconds on Wednesday’s stage 11 to La Rosiere but blew up completely on stage 12 to Alpe d’Huez, finishing almost 29 minutes after Geraint Thomas took the stage honours in the yellow jersey.
— Mitchelton-SCOTT (@MitcheltonSCOTT) July 20, 2018
Yates has now slipped down to 21st in the overall standings, almost half an hour off the top 10.
“The first mountain stage was good but I didn’t hydrate properly after the stage, and it kind of goes into a snowball effect there,” Yates said on Friday.
“Once you mess it up once and go into another mountain stage you’re dehydrated after and then I lost four minutes or something. I was hoping I could recover yesterday but obviously I didn’t. We’ve just got to change the objectives and go for some stages.”
The terrain evens out considerably over the weekend before the race heads into the Pyrenees next week, and that is where Yates will hope to be in the mix for a stage win.
“Anything that’s hard,” he said when asked if he had specific targets in mind. “If I recover well and feel as good as I did in the first mountain stage then I know I’ve got the legs to challenge. But whether I recover we’ll find out.
“It’ll be different, it’s a big change (of mentality) but I’ve done it before and we’ll just try and get stuck in. It’s all you can do.”
After being booed off the podium on Thursday and with teammate Chris Froome spat at on Stage 13, Tour de France leader Geraint Thomas hit back at the doubters on Friday by claiming Team Sky are racing “100 per cent” clean.
Thomas, the former Olympic champion in track cycling, was dramatically booed off the podium after claiming his second successive stage win in the high Alps to reinforce his overall lead on Thursday.
It was a lead he retained on Friday as the race returned to a sprint finish, with Slovakia’s Peter Sagan edging UAE Team Emirates’ rider Alexander Kristoff to claim victory – his third stage win of the 2018 Tour.
It was a bittersweet day for Welshman Thomas and Team Sky who saw their team leader and four-time champion Chris Froome spat at and pushed heavily by one of the many over-enthusiastic fans who line the 13.8km route to the summit.
Team Sky’s dominance of the race has caused the doubters to compare their performances to those of US Postal, the team once led by drugs cheat Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong, who won the Tour a record seven times, saw all his cycling results erased when he finally admitted he had taken performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.
But Thomas, who has a real chance of upstaging Froome to win the yellow jersey if the Kenya-born champion fails to step up in the crucial third week, said the doubters are wrong.
“I 100 per cent believe in myself and the team, that we do everything in the right way, along with the majority of the peloton as well,” said Thomas.
“I can’t say 100 per cent for the peloton, but 99 per cent I’m sure that everyone’s doing it the right way, working hard.
“I think it’s great for the sport. You look at all the anti-doping and all the tests and that type of stuff, and then you look at other sports.
“Cycling’s leading the way by a million miles, so I have every confidence in the sport at the moment.”
At the end of the mainly flat 13th stage, Thomas looked sheepish as he stepped on to the podium to be presented with the yellow jersey.
In comparison to Thursday, there were practically no boos or whistling, incidents that were condemned earlier by race director Christian Prudhomme.
“All I can do is renew calls for calm, for good sense and for serenity with regard to the riders on the Tour de France,” Prudhomme said.
“Don’t whistle and, obviously, don’t touch the riders. Even if it’s just an over-friendly backslap.”
Thomas, who takes a 1min 39sec lead over Froome into Saturday’s undulating stage to Mende, said he is prepared for the flak.
“Obviously, you’d prefer everyone to cheer you, but I can’t affect that,” he said.
“I’d rather be on the podium getting booed than sat on the bus and being cheered.”