Tensions at the Tour de France around Chris Froome and his Sky teammates showed little sign of abating on Wednesday. The defending champion was booed once again at the start village for stage five, and a French fan holding up a “Sky – Go Home” banner outside the Team Sky bus had it snatched out of his hands by Froome’s teammate, Luke Rowe.
Asked immediately afterwards by reporters about the incident, Rowe denied any involvement. “I don’t know what you mean, it wasn’t me,” he said.
After the finish in Quimper however, in which Peter Sagan took his second stage win of the 2018 Tour, Rowe elaborated. “The fan had a sign that said ‘Sky – Go Home’,” he said.
“When I went to sign on I rode past him, he was kind of laughing about it, I was laughing about it, he’s stood next to his son in a Team Sky jersey, and I grabbed it off him.”
“It wasn’t meant to be malicious or anything,” Rowe said. “I don’t think he was too bothered.” Asked what he had done with the sign Rowe said: “It was laminated so, you know, #passonplastic – I put it straight in the recycling bin which is I think where it belongs. I don’t think I have to be sorry for anything, do I? It was no big deal – just a bit of banter.”
However the fan, Didier Bregardes from Lorient, told a different story. “The rider came over, quickly grabbed my placard and threw it down,” the Frenchman said. “I’ve nothing against Froome or the riders, but it’s the way the manager of Sky, Dave Brailsford, dealt with the Froome case. It’s insulting what Brailsford said about [the UCI president David] Lappartient, about him being a mayor of a small town.”
For Team Sky, their safety during the Tour remains a concern, according to Brailsford. “We’ve got young women in the team that come and support the VIPs, and normally they drive around on their own, but I can’t allow that to happen in this race,” he said.
But Brailsford was more conciliatory than earlier in the race. “It was blown out of proportion,” he said of his comments on Lappartient. “I was just trying to address a few points – it wasn’t meant to be insulting, it wasn’t meant to be confrontational. It was just to try and raise awareness around the safety of our riders here in France. I think the mayor’s done a fantastic job in his town, as all mayors are doing in their towns. I don’t want anybody to get the wrong end of the stick.”
But the man ousted by Lappartient in last year’s UCI presidential elections, Brian Cookson, bemoaned the public confrontation between the two men, describing it as an “own goal”.
“It is really important that all of us in positions of leadership respect each other and do not indulge in personal attacks,” Cookson said. “We have all seen examples of unacceptable and dangerous behaviour on the roadside. We are often a heartbeat away from disaster.”
Out on the route, along the hilly and twisting roads of Brittany, the repetitive steep climbs took their toll. One of the first riders to struggle was Mark Cavendish, although he was soon joined at the back of the field by rival sprinter, Marcel Kittel.
Up at the front of the peloton, the fast finish to Quimper, which included the steep ramp of the Côte de Stang Vihan, saw the weeding out process of the overall contenders begin to take shape.
Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sagan had the most powerful sprint in the sinuous uphill finish, the Slovak passing rivals such as the Bahrain-Merida’s Italian rider Sonny Colbrelli and BMC’s yellow jersey wearer Greg Van Avermaet, of Belgium, to claim the 11th Tour stage win of his career. Just behind him, Sky’s Colombian Egan Bernal paced his leader Froome to the line, and there were the first flashes of form from the 2014 Tour champion, Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali.
“Everyone knew that was going to be a tricky finish today,” Froome said. “But Tom Dumoulin is the guy that stands out at the moment as he’s still quite far ahead of me. His team rode a good team time-trial and he hasn’t lost time.”