Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford has blamed the hostile roadside reaction his team have faced at the Tour de France on a 'French cultural thing' and suggested that the race omit non-French teams if they are not treated with more respect.
Chris Froome and the rest of Team Sky have faced pockets of abuse, booing and liquids thrown at them during this year's race. The air of tension surrounding the team has been a central theme, with the governing bodies and several riders from Team Sky and other squads calling on those at the roadside to respect the race and those taking part.
Speaking at Team Sky's rest-day press conference in Carcassonne on Monday, Brailsford, clearly with no intention to try and diffuse the situation, blamed the home nation for the behaviour.
He referenced fans from other nations and tried to make the point that at the Giro d’Italia in May, when Chris Froome's salbutamol case was still ongoing, the response from fans had been positive. Froome was cleared of wrongdoing on the eve of the Tour.
"It's interesting. We raced in Italy and Chris's case was open when we were at the Tour of Italy and the Italians were fantastic, to be fair to them. The Spanish, fantastic. It just seems to be a French thing,” Brailsford said.
“It's like a French cultural thing really, isn't it? That's it. I'm not sure that they would have liked their football players spat at in Russia [at the World Cup -ed]. I'm sure that there would be a word or two about that. But it's okay to spit on us and our staff."
Brailsford then singled out a member of Team Sky's staff and referenced her by name. She is 21 and works as part of the support staff and alongside their media department at the race.
"I've got young staff. She [we have chosen not to name her -ed] is 21. She's a young girl and she's trying to drive around France and it's intimidating for her. To be spat at… personally, I'd have a bit of an issue if that was going on in my country. But there we go. We'll carry on.
"I don't think it's going to stop. I'm not too optimistic on that front. It's challenging, we accept it, and we just have to make a decision as to how to behave. We're trying to remain dignified. We're trying not to react. We're trying to stay in a mindset where we're not distracted by it. Equally, I don't think that spitting has a place in the sport. I'm not sure it has a place in everyday life, really. It seems to be the thing that's done here. It's a shame but we're not going to let it distract us.”
Brailsford's insistence that his team was trying to race with dignity came less than 24 hours after their Italian rider Gianni Moscon was expelled from the race for throwing a punch at a French rider from a rival team during stage 16 to Carcassonne. Such conduct is, unfortunately, unlikely to endear Team Sky to the home crowds when the relationship is already strained. Brailsford admitted as much when asked directly about the matter.
"Probably. I don't have an answer to that. It's not going to calm people down. I'd ask them to call down. At the end of the day, if you want to host… the Tour de France is promoted as the world's greatest sporting annual event, and if that's what you want to host and you want the best international riders to come and take part in an international event then maybe treat them with a bit more respect. If you don't want them to come you could have a Tour de France for French teams if you want but if you want international teams to come then treat them with a bit more respect.
"This isn't something new. This is just part of the Tour de France. We know that we're going to get stick, that we're going to get stick from the crowd and get abused. We know that there's not much that can be done about it and that's just part of winning. We'll just keep focused. We've been here before and we're experienced at it. We'll smile and try and win it."
One journalist then pointed out that Team Sky are not the only non-French team in the race - 17 out of 22 are not French - yet the hostility is only directed at Team Sky. What's gone wrong, asked the journalist.
"They're not winning, though, are they? You tell me… I don't know…" was Brailsford's response.
As for Moscon, the Italian's future remains unclear. Brailsford said three times during his press conference that he would gather the facts and look at them after the race but this is not the first time the rider has caused controversy.
In April 2017 Moscon admitted racially abusing Kevin Reza at the Tour de Romandie. Team Sky stuck with their rider - choosing not to send him home from the race - and later handed him a six-week ban that mostly covered a period in which he was not meant to race, while he was also sent on a diversity course. Later last year, the Italian was accused of deliberately causing Sebastien Reichenbach (FDJ) to crash during the Tre Valli Varesine, but the UCI disciplinary committee dropped the case in June. Team Sky denied and Moscon strongly denied the allegations.
Reichenbach suffered a fractured elbow and hip in the crash, and the Swiss rider believed Moscon deliberately caused the crash in retribution for his part in highlighting how the Team Sky rider had racially abused Reza. Following that incident at the 2017 Tour de Romandie, Team Sky said: "Gianni knows that there is no excuse for his behaviour and that any repeat will result in the termination of his contract."
Last night Moscon offered an apology but Brailsford refused to make a call on whether the rider still had a place within the team.
"Gianni has left the race, which is pretty disappointing. He's really disappointed. He's let himself down, he's let his team down and he's gone home. From a team point of view, I'm going to keep the focus on the rest of the race. When I get back next week I'll gather the facts, look at the process and make a decision as to what we do from there."
When asked specifically as to whether Moscon's contract could be terminated, Brailsford responded: "I'll gather the facts, look at the process, and go from there."
And when asked by Cyclingnews as to whether he would look at Moscon's previous rap sheet and take that into consideration, the team manager said: "I'm only going to say the same thing. I'm going to go back, I'm not going to concentrate on it here. I've got a duty to the guys who are still here and I'm going to focus on the rest of the race. When I get back I'll gather all the facts and I'll make a decision as to what I'll do."
Finally, Braislford was asked if Moscon had been provoked. "I've got some information about it but I'll look at it all when I get back,” he said.
‘I've not heard Wiggins’
While the Tour de France rumbles on, in the UK Bradley Wiggins has caused a storm with his comments relating to the British parliament’s DMCS report from March, which painted a damning picture of medical practices at Team Sky and British Cycling.
On Saturday, and in direct relation to the DCMS report and the Jiffy-bag affair that lead to a UK Anti-Doping investigation, Wiggins told ITV: "There are things that have come to light with this whole thing, that we've found out since, that are quite scary actually. It's very sinister, and we're still not at the bottom of it. We're finding stuff out daily, to do with this package that never was and all this stuff, and it's quite frightening actually."
Brailsford, who has remained silent on the DCMS report, despite calls over the last few months to answer questions in the media about the topic, once again declined to comment.
"I've not heard what he's said. I've not seen what Bradley's said. I've not seen anything what Bradley's said. I think I've mentioned that previously. I've mentioned everything I've got to say about the DCMC report."