RBA/AFP Photos: Bettini
Tour de France sprint king Peter Sagan once borrowed a beat-up bike from his sister on his way to dominating his rivals in a Slovak Cup event. So when it came to speaking out against the “excited” fans accused of sullying the sport during Thursday’s drama-filled climb to the Alpe d’Huez, it was no surprise the maverick Slovakian did not play ball. “We’re not racing in the stadium or on a track, so it’s a bit difficult to control everybody, especially on the last climb,” Sagan said Friday after claiming his third stage win of this edition and 11th of his career with a powerful sprint to the line in Valence.
Despite his versatility on several types of terrain, Sagan is used to trailing home among the late finishers on the punishing mountain stages of the Tour. That means being spat at, pushed or crashing because over-enthusiastic fans get too close for comfort is unlikely to happen to him. When the peloton’s remnants drag themselves to the summit, they are widely applauded. Sagan, known as one of the most fun riders in the peloton, often replies with one of his trademark wheelies. But it’s not the same for the men fighting each other for the yellow jersey.
On Thursday race leader Geraint Thomas was booed off the podium after claiming his second successive Alpine stage to reinforce his grip on the yellow jersey following another dominant Team Sky display. Earlier on the stage, teammate and four-time champion Chris Froome was reportedly spat at and pushed heavily by a man who was later arrested by police. Both survived to tell the tale, a fate not enjoyed by Italian rival Vincenzo Nibali.
The 2014 champion looked on great form when he got tangled with a bag or camera strap as he raced through billows of smoke from flares deployed by rowdy fans. Nibali came down hard, broke a bone in his back and, despite finishing the stage only 13 seconds behind Thomas, abandoned late on Thursday evening. Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme on Friday said: “If we really want to see things over-spill on the Tour, we have to look all the way back to 1975 and Eddy Merckx.” That year, Belgian legend Merckx had to actually abandon due to injuries suffered when an angry fan punched him in the side of his body. But Prudhomme hinted tighter controls on stages featuring climbs that attract thousands of fans, many of whom run beside and hinder the riders, could be introduced. “They (fans) have only one wish, to be on television and take a selfie,”
Prudhomme told AFP. “We have no wish to see that again. Rocket flares don’t belong on bike races. They make the riders breathe in noxious air, and they blind them. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Sagan, who is well on his way to winning a sixth green jersey for the points competition, refused to criticize the fans. “The people are everywhere. They want to be close to us, and to touch us. Many have travelled many miles to see us,” he said. “They’re very happy and emotional. It’s sad incidents like that happen on the Tour de France, but in these moments the people are not really themselves, because they are excited.”