The Tour de France was already braced for a huge security operation for the 2018 edition, but the hostile reception for Chris Froome at the teams presentation on Thursday has only heightened fears that the safety of the riders could be at risk.
Froome was booed and whistled by the crowds in La Roche-sur-Yon, with many making a thumbs-down gesture and some brandishing signs with messages such as 'Go home cheater'.
Tour organisers ASO last week attempted to block Froome from taking part, but despite the four-time champion being cleared in his salbutamol case on Monday, and thus cleared to race, the ill-feeling among the home fans has evidently not dissipated, even with calls for the public to respect the decision from the home favourite Romain Bardet.
According to French news agency Agence France Presse, more than 30,000 security officials will be deployed at the Tour to maintain order on the roads, from police and firemen, to private security officials. Agents from the GIGN – the special forces arm of the French police – will be called upon to face the threat of terrorism, but the other principal concern is that of spectators interfering with the race.
Unlike the more controllable environment of a football stadium, a stage of the Tour de France can cover more than 200 kilometres of roads, with anyone free to stand just feet away from the riders. The mountain stages, where fans set up camp hours in advance on the big climbs, with alcohol often involved, are the biggest worry for the security officials, with a full 3.5km of the notoriously rowdy Alpe d'Huez set to be barriered.
Team Sky have reportedly bolstered the security around the team after seeking advice from parent company Sky. That was evident at their pre-race press conference on Wednesday, where the riders were flanked by burly security officials even in the relatively sleepy setting of a sports hall in rural Saint-Mars-la-Réorthe.
"In terms of the safety, I'd obviously encourage fans of the sport to come and watch the race," Froome said during the press conference. "And if you're not necessarily a Chris Froome fan or a Sky fan, come to the race and put a jersey on of the team that you do support, and support the race in a positive way. Don't bring negativity to the race."
Froome made an effort to engage with the public by saying, in French: "I love France. The Tour is the most beautiful race in the world.
Similarly, Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford, speaking in fluent French, attempted to play to the home fans.
"We have confidence in the French people," he said. "They will understand this is someone innocent. I think they're fair, the French. This is not to do with sport – you can support one team or another, that's another thing – but I think if they're up to date with the truth of this situation, we're confident in the values of the French people."
Froome added: "I've just come off the back of the Giro, and things [the salbutamol case - Ed] were still undecided at that point, so you'd think if we were going to see problems, we'd have seen them in the Giro, but there weren't any."
All that, however, was before Thursday and the boos and the whistles at the teams presentation.
"If I were Team Sky, I would be concerned," EF Education First-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters said on Friday, speaking to *The Guardian*. "Reading comments on social media from people saying, 'Since justice wasn't served, by the UCI and WADA, we'll serve it from the side of the road' – that's basically an outright threat. And it does feel as though ASO fired things up when it's their responsibility to protect them. The amount of vitriol and anger directed at Sky is pretty impressive. The barriers need to go further down the mountain climbs, but you can't barrier 200 kilometres of open road."
The possibility of spectators lashing out has even led to concerns from Froome's rivals.
"I think I'm going to ride a place – or five places – behind him," said Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin, referring to the prospect of urine being thrown. "A spray like that can easily miss the target."
Other team managers have spoken less jokingly about warning their riders not to take a position in the peloton too close to Sky.
Boos and whistles are nothing new to Froome and Sky in France. The Briton was jeered in the Stade Vélodrome on the final day of last year's Tour, two months before the adverse analytical finding (AAF) for salbutamol. The atmosphere at the 2015 Tour was more toxic still, with widespread speculation over the credibility of Froome's performances. During that Tour, Froome alleged that a spectator threw a cup of urine on him, while Richie Porte said he was punched in the ribs.
Geraint Thomas has ridden alongside Froome in each of the past five Tours, and spoke about the tension between riders and spectators.
"I don't mind any sort of verbals – that's just, like, whatever – but when people start throwing stuff at you, or try to punch you, or just sort of affect the race, then that's obviously going too far," he said.
"It's like football. Those boys get a lot more abuse – when they go to take a corner or whatever – than we get. They get it week in, week out. We get it for… We don't even get it that much, really. It's just the odd person that comes out a bit drunk, and they're not even fans anyway. They just come out to do that.
"You just try to zone out, and really focus on what you've got to do, and try not to let the outside things influence you," said Thomas. "It's hard to do at times, especially if someone is running alongside you. Even if they're not abusing you, just running next to you is dangerous anyway. I've got every confidence that the organisers are going to make it as safe as possible."
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