One day after Team Sky rider Gianni Moscon punched French rider Elie Gesbert and was disqualified from the Tour de France, his team manager Dave Brailsford has said that an antagonistic approach by fans to the squad was ‘a French cultural thing.’
Brailsford was commenting after an at-times hostile reception to the squad after Chris Froome was unexpectedly cleared prior to the race of an investigation into elevated salbutamol levels at last year’s Vuelta a España. A spectator was arrested on Alpe d’Huez for shoving Froome. The team has also faced booing and, according to Brailsford, spitting from some fans. The timing of his comments so soon after Moscon was ejected from the race has prompted some debate online.
“I don’t think it’s going to stop, I’m not too optimistic on that front,” he told reporters at Team Sky’s rest day conference, launching what was referred to as a ‘scathing critique of French cycling culture’ by British newspaper The Independent.
“It’s challenging, we accept it, we just have to make a decision as to how to behave. We’re trying not to react. We have a mindset where we don’t get distracted by it.
“I don’t think spitting has a place in professional sport personally, or in everyday life, but it seems to be the thing that’s done here [in France]. But we’re not going to let it distract us. It’s interesting, we just raced in Italy and if this is all about Chris and his case, well his case was open during the Tour of Italy and they were fantastic, the Italians. The Spanish, fantastic. It just seems to be a French thing. A French cultural thing really, that’s it.
“I’m not sure they’d have liked their football players being spat at in Russia,” he continued. “I’m sure there would have been a word or two about that. But it’s OK to spit on us, and on our staff. Emma Kennaugh [a young staff member] is 21. She’s trying to drive around France and it’s very 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 just carry on.”
Froome has ridden just one race in Spain since the news emerged of his salbutamol case, namely the Ruta del Sol/Vuelta a Andalucia in February. His participation in the Giro d’Italia came prior to the decision by WADA and the UCI to drop the investigation into him. However Team Sky has faced a hostile reaction in the past while racing in the Tour.
Brailsford was asked about Moscon punching a rider from the French Fortuneo-Samsic team. “It’s certainly not going to calm people down,” he conceded, while saying he had “some information” as to what had caused Moscon to lose his temper. However he said he was not going to elaborate on that now.
He played down the significance of the team losing a rider while defending the yellow jersey of Geraint Thomas. “Thankfully it wasn’t earlier in the race. It means some riders will have to do a bit more work, but I’m not so sure it will have an impact on the race. The last couple of stages would have hurt us more.”
Brailsford then returned to his criticism of the race organisers and spectators. “The Tour de France is promoted as the world’s greatest annual sporting event. If you want the best international riders to come to your country then maybe treat them with a little more respect. If you don’t want them to come, you can maybe have the Tour de France for French teams — that might work. But if you want international teams to come, then treat them with the same respect that you’d want your team to be treated when they go to Russia, the World Cup or wherever else.”
When it was put to him that French fans were not aggressive to other teams, Brailsford suggested it was due to Team Sky’s success. “They’re not winning though, are they?”
“I’m used to it. We’ve had it for years,” he said. “This isn’t something new. Part of winning the Tour de France for us is to come and try and win it again having won it for a long time. We know we’re going to get stick, we’ve been here before, we’re experienced at it, we carry on with a smile and just try to win the race.”
However Brailsford has also inflamed the situation. In the early days of the Tour Brailsford expressed criticism of the French president of the UCI, David Lappartient.
“I gave him the benefit of the doubt when he started,” he said. “I thought, ‘he is new to the job, he obviously doesn’t quite understand the responsibilities of a presidential role.’ I think he has still got the local French mayor kind of mentality.”
Lappartient is indeed a French major, presiding over the Brittany town of Sarzeau. The race ended there two days after Brailford’s criticism of Lappartient.
Lappartient responded via La Parisien. “I will say that the last one who called me a ‘Breton mayor’ was not brought any luck. It was Brian Cookson,” he said, referring to the British former president of the UCI who he defeated in last September’s elections.
“And then, by insulting me as mayor, he insults the 35,000 French mayors and the French in general. I do not know what he’s looking for with that.
“Because he does not realise that it takes mayors taking stages of the Tour de France for such great events to take place. He does not understand much about cycling.”
He also said that Brailsford’s attacks risked inflaming the situation. “When you have his level of popularity, you’d do better to keep a low profile,” he said, according to Reuters.