BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON, France (VN) — In a Tour de France that’s seen hooligan violence amped to the extreme with smoke bombs, spitting, jeers, boos, and even fans shoving riders, Tuesday’s stage drove to the edge of absurdity.
Police, wrestling away protesting farmers that tried to block the road about 30km into Tuesday’s stage 16, brought the peloton to grinding and tearful stop. Tear gas deployed by police to clear out the rabble-rousers wafted onto a peloton full of riders who began coughing and tearing up.
It’s just what an already extreme Tour needed.
“It’s really powerful stuff,” said Mitchelton-Scott’s Jack Bauer. “By the time I rode through it, I couldn’t see anything. You could feel it in your eyes, then you couldn’t see anything.”
Some suggested it was pepper spray — French police said in an official statement they used tear gas to push protesters off the course — perhaps it was both. The peloton rode past the hay bales and straight into a cloud of toxic gas.
“There were hay bales and hay in the road, and tractors were moving around and then suddenly there was this burning fog and it was like something is wrong here,” said Sunweb’s Chad Haga. “Some guys got a real face full of the stuff and it really affected them. I got a throat full and it burned for a minute.”
Race officials dealt with the mayhem of coughing and tearful riders as best they could. They stopped the race about a kilometer after the incident and allowed doctors to tend to the peloton with eye drops and washes for their faces, eyes, and throats.
“I’ve never experienced that before and I could have lived without it,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Toms Skujins. “It’s very irritating. Your eyes start watering. Not fun.”
Four-time Tour winner Chris Froome was spotted applying eye drops. Other riders dumped water over the heads to clear out the gas.
A day after Sky principal Dave Brailsford criticized French fans for booing and jeering his team, many braced for something bad to happen as the Tour pedaled into the Pyrénées. No one, however, was expecting striking farmers.
“It’s the Tour — but that was weird. Really weird,” Rory Sutherland (UAE Team Emirates) said. “I can understand why people want to protest. You stop one of the big bike races in the world — I get it — but what if there were crashes and stuff? It’s unfortunate that that has to happen. It was the first time I was ever pepper-sprayed before, and I just got a little bit. I can’t imagine getting a full shot right in the face.”
Strikers and protesters have often used the Tour as a high-profile platform to transmit their message. Bernard Hinault famously punched a protester during the 1984 Paris-Nice.
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), third overall at 1:50 back, didn’t seem too pleased that his race was the target of a political protest.
“It was crazy,” Dumoulin said. “We didn’t do anything wrong, or did I? Did I do some farmer near Carcassonne wrong? I don’t understand some people in the world, and I never will understand them.”
The disruption came in the larger context of heightening tension not only during this Tour de France, with aggression and attacks largely directed at Team Sky, but a general sense that there is more hooliganism and unruliness on the road. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), the 2014 Tour winner, abandoned the Tour after fracturing a vertebra in his back when an unruly fan hooked his handlebars on Alpe d’Huez. Police already have a strong presence on the Tour this year and effectively shut down “Dutch Corner” on Alpe d’Huez last week.
Police this week banned smoke flares with a penalty of up to one year in prison.
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Overnight leader Geraint Thomas (Sky) has been dealing with the growing tension throughout this Tour. His Sky teammate Chris Froome has been the butt of most of the aggressive behavior. Thomas urged everyone to calm down.
“I think it is hard in cycling when it’s just on the open roads and it’s not in a closed stadium like football,” Thomas said. “The police and ASO are doing the best they can. I don’t think I feel unsafe. It is just unfortunate sometimes. Everyone can just behave and let us race.”
On Wednesday, the sight of police, tear gas and police vehicles brought out the worst fears of many. The Tour has been on the edge since a series of bloody terrorist attacks across France the past few years. The Tour is seeing increased police and military presence throughout the race with road blockages, checkpoints, and patrols with fully armed soldiers wielding automatic weapons, bomb-sniffing dogs, and armored vehicles.
In that context of that larger threat, many were relieved it was “only” police breaking up over-zealous farmers.
“If you really want to attack somebody, it’s so easy,” said Quick-Step director Brian Holm. “When you saw all the trucks and the police — thank God it’s just some silly farmers protesting something, so it’s not that bad. There were a couple of silly farmers and police using the tear gas. It was a bit of a backfire when the tear gas blows back onto the riders, isn’t it?”
The race moved on just as quickly as the tear gas blew away. The stage unfolded without further incident and everyone seemed to take it all in stride.
“I always like new experiences, but that’s not one I expected to get this morning when I woke up,” said UAE Team Emirates rider Dan Martin.
Astana’s Michael Valgren seemed to think it was a splendid idea.
“Give me those farmers’ phone number,” Valgren said. “I want to call them and tell them to protest [Wednesday’s] stage. Maybe they would cancel the whole thing.”