Tour de Farce: Froome and Nibali clash as ‘fans’ shame the Tour
The row between the outgoing and incoming Tour de France champions escalated on Friday after Vincenzo Nibali exploited a Chris Froome mechanical en route to winning stage 19 at La Toussuire.
On a day of drama in the French Alps, Nibali’s apparent flouting of the unwritten rules of fairplay was mirrored on the side of the roads with further evidence of disrespect being shown to the yellow jersey from the public.
Adding to the urine and insults dished out in previous days, Froome was almost hit in the face by an old man making his feelings known with a rude hand gesture, while a younger spectator was caught on camera spitting on the maillot jaune in an otherwise exciting finale.
Froome stops to sort out a mechanical issue in stage 19Eurosport
With the yellow jersey in trouble, the Shark sniffed an opportunity and darted off the front – sparking a feeding frenzy amid the GC favourites.
“The radio never said there was a problem [with Froome] and Vincenzo does not have eyes in the back of his head,” Astana manager Alexandre Vinokourov later said when questioned about the questionable means by which Nibali sowed the foundations of his win.
Although a closer look at the TV images suggests quite the opposite…
If you think that Nibali was perhaps merely talking to his Astana team-mate Tanel Kangert there – which is quite plausible – then others suggest he had plenty of further opportunities to spot the race leader in distress.
Social media, of course, went into overdrive. Some people thought Nibali had committed the cardinal error of attacking the yellow jersey in controversial circumstances, while others pointed out that the Sicilian had no reason not to attack seeing he was no real threat to Froome in the overall standings anyway.
Either way, Froome found himself having to fight back into contention after the pace upped considerably as riders reacted to Nibali’s acceleration.
And it was here that one elderly fan brought shame on the Tour de France by repeatedly giving Froome the “bras d’honneur” or "middle finger umbrella" in the middle of the road. In fact, it wasn’t so much a finger as a fist – and it almost connected with the race leader’s jaw as he negotiated the tight right-hand bend where this bilious old troll had set up shop.
Undeterred, Froome managed to ride back onto the wheels of his rivals before the summit – with the exception of Nibali, who was flying to the stage win that would save his race and see him rise into fourth place in the general classification.
Support for Froome and widespread condemnation of the elderly fan followed the unsavoury incident, with footballer Thierry Henry, of all people, tenuously sticking up for the man who rides for the team sponsored by the company which pays his wages.
Things calmed down on the final climb to La Toussuire, where Froome, quite ironically, betrayed his own sense of fairplay when apparently disobeying team orders three years previously while riding away from Sky team-mate Bradley Wiggins, who was then in yellow.
With Nibali en route to a certain win, the battle of attrition resulted in a dour stalemate behind.
That was until Nairo Quintana lit the torch paper with 6km remaining – finally putting Froome under pressure after three weeks of racing.
Although some people weren’t so impressed by the marginal gains made by Quintana on the third-last major climb of this Tour...
It was when fighting to limit his losses inside the final 2km that Froome became the latest Sky rider to be spat at by what looked to be an inebriated fan brandishing a beer bottle on the side of the road, rocking a look that could only be described as Liam-Gallagher-In-The-Early-Oasis-Days.
"We're human beings, and then we're sportsmen. People need to remember that," Froome said to the BBC.
"You can't come to a bike race to spit at people or to punch people or to throw urine at them - that's not acceptable at any level."
Once he crossed the line, Froome – and not for the first time during this Tour – tracked down Nibali to let him know just what he thought about his behaviour.
Things apparently got rather heated…
Oh to have been a fly on the wall…
On the record, Froome told reporters that he was disappointed in Nibali. “I heard from other riders that he looked back. It was not sportsmanship – he had the whole climb to attack but waited until I had a mechanical.”
But there could well have been a happy ending of sorts for Froome after it was later revealed that fellow Brit Mark Cavendish had been fined by race organisers for insulting a spectator.
We can only hope that he took one of those ‘fans’ to task…
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Stage 20: Modane Valdrejus to Alpe d'Huez (110.5km)
In a nutshell: The shortest road stage of the race outside Paris no longer takes the peloton up the Col du Telegraph and Col du Galibier, but adds a second ascent of the Croix de Fer ahead of the showpiece finale on the Dutch Mountain.
History: Christophe Riblon's win in 2013 means the only former winners on Alpe d'Huez in the race are him and fellow Frenchman Pierre Rolland, winner in 2011.
Believe it or not: Winner on Alpe d'Huez in 2006, Frank Schleck's absence in this year's race owing to injury means this Tour will be the first in a decade without either of the Schleck brothers. Younger brother Andy famously won on the Galibier in 2011 - and was first over the summit one day later en route to Alpe d'Huez - before injury forced him to retire early from the sport.
Did you know: The cancellation of the Galibier means the riders will tackle the Croix de Fer for a second time in as many days, but this time approach it from the gentler east side – the opposite way from Friday – before descending the Col du Glandon in the opposite direction as two days previously. Also, only one rider has ever crested the summit of Alpe d'Huez in pole position and not won a stage on the Tour: Italian Moreno Moser, who led the race over the first of two Col de Sarenne-sandwiching ascents of Alpe d'Huez in the centenary race in 2013.
Look out for: Dutch fans and a sea of orange. Eight of the first 14 victories on Alpe d'Huez went to Dutchmen, earning the mountain the nickname 'Dutch Mountain’. Although there has been no Dutch win since Gert-Jan Theunisse in 1989, fans from the Netherlands still flock in their droves - gathering most noticeably at the seventh of 21 hairpins, which has been christened Dutch Corner.
Plat du jour: Anyone who negotiates all those dizzying hairpin bends and frantic fans to complete the final test of the Tour de France deserves a hearty Raclette - a circle of semi-firm cow's cheese which is melted on a stove and scraped off onto a plate of potatoes and mixed charcuterie.
Tour tipple: The riders will raise a glass of Domaine Belluard - the most sought after example of the local sparkling Savoie-Ayze wine. After all, they will have one foot in Paris now.