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Rough Riding For Chris Froome, In A Wild Tour De France

Chris Froome, the defending champion at the Tour de France, has fallen to third place. Along the way, he's been grabbed off his bike by police and struggled to match his top competitors.
Benoit Tessier
Chris Froome, the defending champion at the Tour de France, has fallen to third place. Along the way, he's been grabbed off his bike by police and struggled to match his top competitors.

The 2018 Tour de France has been a race of misadventures for defending champion Chris Froome – who was accosted by a police officer after finishing Wednesday's stage of the race. The incident came one day after police sprayed the air with chemicals along the course, in an attempt to disrupt a protest that wound up forcing the race to stop.

A blue-clad officer grabbed Froome and pulled him off his bike on Wednesday, shocking the cyclist and many spectators — and drawing a profanity from Froome. The altercation came after the officer apparently believed Froome, who had donned a dark gray rain jacket over his racing jersey, was a fan riding on the course. So he yanked the cyclist to the side of the road, and Froome came clambering down.

Moments before, Froome had struggled to follow his closest competitors up the Col du Portet, the severe climb at the stage's end. He was attempting to ride back down — on his bike that bears the racing tag number one, of the defending champion — when he was stopped.

It was the end of a disappointing day for Froome, who fell from second to third in the overall standings.

That incident took place one day after police used either pepper spray or, reportedly, some type of tear gas on protesting farmers who had tried to block the course with hay bales. The Tour's leading cyclists were forced to halt and wash their eyes and faces with water before the air could clear and the race could resume.

Froome is the four-time defending champion – but that streak is in jeopardy, as he currently sits in third place, more than 2 minutes and 30 seconds behind his teammate, Geraint Thomas. The race ends in Paris on Sunday.

In addition to searing heat, soaring climbs and the task of riding more than 2,000 miles, Froome and other cyclists have dealt with unlucky crashes and interruptions from unruly fans and aggressive gendarmes. Even more than usual, the twists have made this year's Tour a test of fortitude.

Here's a quick recap of other events that have made this Tour a grind for Froome and other elite riders:

Two of the sport's best all-around athletes suffered bad crashes this week. First there was Philippe Gilbert breaking his kneecap after being thrown over a rock wall on Tuesday – and finishing Stage 16 anyway.

Afterwards, Gilbert tweeted a photo of his badly swollen left knee, saying, "When you have a broken knee cap and decide to keep going for another 60 km [37 miles]."

Then, on Wednesday, Peter Sagan, the leader of the race's competition for sprinters, crashed off the side of a mountain road during a descent in the Pyrenees, leaving the right side of his body bruised and bloodied. Sagan hopped back on his bike and kept riding. He says he'll finish the race.

Sagan reportedly said, "I was braking but it wasn't enough. After I flew through the forest and I hit a big rock with my ass."

Also on Wednesday, Thomas, wearing the leader's yellow jersey, was nearly clotheslined by a spectator near the finish of Stage 17, as a fan wearing a jersey of a French racing team lunged over a barricade to grab at him. Thomas, who later said he had been going "quite fast," said of the spectator: "I think it was too much to drink and a bit of an idiot."

The week started badly for Sky. On Sunday, Froome and Thomas' teammate, Gianni Moscon, was thrown out of the Tour for punching another rider – delivering a backhand strike to the head of Elie Gesbert as they rode along the outer edge of the peloton.

In a tumultuous day on July 15, Froome was among a group of riders who crashed in the dirt of the cobblestones in Mons-en-Pevele. He briefly went airborne.

As is common for riders who race for hours every day, Froome's Tour has included mechanical mishaps – but when a teammate tried to give his bike to Froome last week, Froome tweeted in despair, "That moment you realize the spare from your teammate is flat too."

Even before the race began, Froome was in a difficult position in France. The defending champion's status to compete was uncertain, after medical tests showed his system had more of an asthma drug than was legally allowed. Froome said it was innocent — that a bout of asthma toward the end of Spain's big road race, La Vuelta, required more doses than usual.

It took a special declaration from cycling's governing body and the World Anti-Doping Agency to clear Froome, just before the race began. On the eve of the Tour de France's start, Froome wrote an article in Le Monde that was titled, "I Never Dishonored the Yellow Jersey."

French cycling fans have made no secret of their desire to see someone other than Froome win the Tour. In the race's final days, the defending champion will have to cement his spot on the podium in Paris — and spectators will learn whether his Sky team has decided to back Geraint Thomas' shot at winning it all, or to look for ways to somehow put Froome back on top.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.