DEFENDING champion Chris Froome almost crashed out of the Tour de France — after being knocked off his bike when an overzealous policeman mistook him for a fan on stage 17 Wednesday.
Team Sky leader Froome, a four-time champion, finished the stage in eighth place at 1min 35sec behind Colombian winner Nairo Quintana and 48secs behind teammate and overall leader Geraint Thomas.
The Kenyan-born Briton had put on his rainjacket and was cycling back to the Team Sky bus when a policeman on the side of the road mistakenly took him for one of the thousands of cycling fans who traditionally ride up the mountain stages to catch a glimpse of their idols.
He tried to get Froome to stop and in the confusion the six-time Grand Tour champion crashed.
He avoided injury and is set to start stage 18 on Thursday.
“It was a misunderstanding. Chris is fine,” said a Team Sky spokesman. Froome, who had been aiming for a fourth consecutive Grand Tour victory after triumphing at the Vuelta a Espana last year and this year’s Giro d’Italia, is now in a battle for a podium place.
The incident came a day after police used tear gas to disperse a farmers’ protest that had blocked the road with bales of hay.
Froome was among a large group of riders whose eyes needed treatment due to the tear gas.
He has been a repeated target of fans after he was cleared of doping five days before the race began. The four-time champion had been racing under the cloud of a potential ban for using twice the permitted level of salbutamol during his victory at the Spanish Vuelta in September.
Froome said he has been repeatedly spat at since the race started, and that spectators have punched him and tried to make him fall off his bike.
Team boss Dave Brailsford said they will now plan to make sure Froome joins Thomas on the Tour de France podium: “He’s not out of it necessariyl, there’s a big mountain day to come, and the time trial.
“We’ll sit down tonight, review everything, see how everybody feels then make our plan of attack.
FROOME CRACKS ON STAGE 17
His tongue dangling from his mouth, his pedal stroke strained, Chris Froome’s hopes of a record-tying fifth Tour de France title slowly drifted away.
Up amid the thin and misty air of the Col du Portet – rated the second toughest climb in Tour history – Froome cracked on the feared 17th stage through the Pyrenees on Wednesday, solidifying Sky teammate Geraint Thomas’s hold on the yellow jersey.
“Froomey said on the radio (at) maybe 5K or 4K to go that he wasn’t feeling super,” Thomas said after increasing his lead to nearly two minutes over Tom Dumoulin. “That gave me confidence because I knew if Froomey suffered, everyone suffered.
“I didn’t want him to have a bad day like he did but it just gave me confidence knowing someone of Froomey’s stature was struggling, and I just knew I would be able to respond to the attacks.” Froome finished eighth, 1 minute, 35 seconds behind stage winner Nairo Quintana, and dropped from second to third overall, a distant 2:31 seconds adrift of Thomas.
Froome said the goal was to look after Thomas
. “I’ve won the last three Grand Tours and G has ridden an absolutely faultless race this year, so he fully deserves to be in the yellow jersey, and fingers crossed he finishes it off and gets the job done in Paris.”
The stage was a strong signal that Froome has reached his limit after winning the Tour and Vuelta last year, and the Giro d’Italia in May.
“What you’ve got with Chris is he’ll empty the tank,” Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford said. “He deserves a lot of credit having gone to the Giro … He’s a great, great champion. He’s not out of it necessarily … If anybody can bounce back it’s Chris Froome – I wouldn’t rule him out.” After a less arduous Stage 18 on Thursday, there is another mountainous leg in the Pyrenees on Friday. There’s an individual time trial on Saturday before the three-week race ends Sunday in Paris.