MENDE, France — Being doused in liquids by roadside fans goes with the terrain of being a Tour de France rider. But this spectator was yelling “doper!” at Chris Froome and the liquid couldn’t have been more unwelcome.
“No mistake, it was urine,” the race leader said.
While Stage 14 signaled a double celebration for British cycling, with Froome extending his lead and fellow Briton Stephen Cummings getting a first win for South African team MTN-Qhubeka on Nelson Mandela Day, the unpleasant assault dampened the leader’s mood.
Froome blamed “very irresponsible” reporters for turning public opinion against him and his Sky team. Just as he did in winning the Tour for the first time in 2013, the Kenya-born Briton has faced pointed questions about his dominant performances — and those of his teammates — along with insinuations of doping.
Froome said he spotted the spectator acting bizarrely about a third of the way into the day’s 178-kilometer (111-mile) west-to-east ride from Rodez to Mende. The route through plains and hills on the fringes of the Massif Central region included a detour through the breathtakingly spectacular Tarn gorges.
“I saw this guy just peering around and I thought, ‘That looks a bit strange,’” he said. “As I got there he just sort of launched this cup toward me and said (in French) ‘Doper!’
“That’s unacceptable on so many levels.”
His Sky teammate Richie Porte said another person, also seemingly a spectator, thumped him with a “full-on punch” a few days earlier on a climb in the Pyrenees. Porte suggested journalists may be putting riders in danger by “whipping up all the rubbish that they are.”
Froome echoed that thinking.
“I certainly wouldn’t blame the public for this,” he said. “I would blame some of the reporting on the race that has been very irresponsible.
“It is no longer the riders who are bringing the sport into disrepute now, it’s those individuals, and they know who they are.”
He refused to identify specific journalists or reports, but said: “They set that tone to people and obviously people believe what they see in the media.”
Although such assaults remain rare, Froome is not the first rider in Tour history to have been doused by urine, nor is Porte the first to be punched.
Still, the aggression shows how their generation is paying the price for decades of damage done by dopers, none more infamous than Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of seven Tour victories and confessed to systematic cheating after years of lying.
In the lingering atmosphere of distrust, Froome’s repeated assurances that he is clean have fallen on deaf ears.
“Unfortunately this is the legacy that has been handed to us by the people before us, people who have won the Tour only to disappoint fans a few years later,” Froome said.
“If this is part of the process we have to go through to get the sport to the better place, obviously I’m here, I’m doing it,” he added. “I’m not going to give up the race because a few guys are shouting insults.”
Especially when only the Alps loom as the last major obstacle between the 2013 winner and a second victory in Paris on July 26.
On a fiercely steep final climb to an airfield above Mende, Froome again proved untouchable.
While other podium contenders labored up the three kilometers (just under two miles) with an average 10-percent gradient, Froome caught Nairo Quintana and, to show who’s the boss, beat the Colombian with a finishing sprint.
“Every little second will help,” said Froome. “I thought I might as well give a little nudge for the line, see if I could take another second or two.”
He took one second from Quintana and more from others who are, in effect, now competing for second and third spot on the Champs-Elysees podium.
Tejay van Garderen, the American leader of the BMC team, suffered most on the climb among the big names. From second overall at the start of the stage, he slipped to third and is now 3 minutes, 32 seconds off Froome’s pace. Quintana vaulted from third to second place, but trails Froome by 3:10, a comfortable cushion for the British rider to carry into the Alps in the last week.
Cummings’ MTN-Qhubeka team wore special helmets in Mandela’s honor and met Saturday morning to concoct a winning strategy for the day meant to encourage South Africans to emulate his humanitarian legacy and recognize the decades he spent fighting apartheid.
“Qhubeka” means “to progress” or “move forward” in the language of the Nguni people of southern Africa, and the 34-year-old British rider did just that to dash French hopes on the day when France’s President Francois Hollande was visiting the race.
Cummings ambushed two French riders, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, on the short flat section to the airfield after riding at his own pace up the steep final climb where, he said, “everyone went bananas.”
“Pinot and Bardet were just ahead and I used them as the carrot dangling in front of me for motivation,” he said.
After reaching the summit together, the French pair made the mistake of dawdling, watching each other and neglecting the danger from Cummings — who used his speed on the flat to catch them from behind and claim the stage win.
”He was very crafty,” Bardet said. “Very disappointed.”