Don't insult French fans, UCI boss urges Team Sky's Brailsford

BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, France (Reuters) - International Cycling Union (UCI) president David Lappartient urged Sir Dave Brailsford on Tuesday not to insult French fans after the Team Sky principal said spitting and booing at riders was a “French thing”.

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Defending champion Chris Froome was slapped across the shoulder by a spectator during the climb up to l’Alpe d’Huez last week, and the Briton has also said he has been punched and spat on.

His team mate Geraint Thomas, the overall race leader, was booed on the podium after he won the Alpe d’Huez stage, as some fans expressed their frustration that Sky have dominated the Tour since 2012.

In comments that will have offended the host nation, Brailsford said on Monday that the physical intimidation “just seems to be a French thing. Like a French cultural thing.”

But Frenchman Lappartient, whom Brailsford has previously accused of having a “French mayor mentality”, asked the Sky team’s boss not to stir up animosity among the local fans.

“First thing, there are not just French fans on the Tour. They come from everywhere, and I don’t think it is healthy to make it about nationalities,” said Lappartient.

“This is happening just as we are trying to call the fans to be calm, to make sure that the riders - their riders - and especially Chris Froome, are respected. He is pouring oil on the fire. It’s not very good.”

Froome was cleared of a doping offence just days before the start of this year’s race, after an investigation that had dragged on since last September, leading some to call for him to be excluded from the race.

Lappartient spoke to Reuters in Carcassonne before the start of the 16th stage of the Tour, which was briefly brought to a halt as bales of hay were thrown on to the road by protesting farmers and police tear gas blew into the faces of some of the riders.

Lappartient said he believed Brailsford was reacting to the fact that his team has not been popular in France, where their domination of the race in the last few years is reminiscent of that of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal in the early 2000s.

“He might be frustrated that his team is not popular, but it’s not a reason to lash out at a country,” he explained.

“You have to respect the spectators, those who come to see a cycling race. When you have a cycling team, you don’t insult those who come to see a race.”

Lappartient, however, praised Froome and Thomas for their calm amid the storm.

“Chris Froome said that he loves France, that he loves racing in France and that he trains every day in France. He speaks our language, and he knows what the Tour gave him,” he said.

“As we and the riders are trying to ease the pressure, it’s wrong that a team manager pours oil on the fire.”

Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson