Backlash easing against Sky, Froome after tough start to Tour
The presence of Chris Froome in the peloton of the Tour de France in 2018 has been the subject of conjecture. Depending on who you listen to, it is either a volatile situation or just an isolated few who are souring the otherwise festive tone.
From afar you could be led to believe that everyone on the roadside is hurling abuse at the defending champion and his Sky teammates. But those close to the action don't see it that way.
It wasn't a pretty beginning a week ago but, according to riders and staff, the mood has quelled somewhat since the Grand Départ in the Vendée last Saturday.
Speaking with staff and riders from Team Sky, the feedback is that it was a little awkward at the start of the Tour but the dark mood is lifting.
"The first two or three days many people were aggressive," Matteo Tosatto said before stage seven.
The Italian joined the team as a directeur sportif in August last year, after he retired from racing following a prolific, long career. He raced 20 years as a professional and contested no less than 34 Grand Tours [Giro d'Italia x 13, Tour de France x 12, Vuelta a España x 9].
Tosatto made his debut at the Tour in another era of racing all together; 1997 seems like a lifetime ago for someone who only stopped racing in 2017, certainly long enough to have experienced the differences in pro cycling during a period of significant — and much needed — change.
He raced the Tour before the Festina Affair brought cycling to its knees 20 years ago. He was in the peloton during the troubled Lance Armstrong years. He knows about the good, the bad and the ugly of his sport.
Tosatto says that public sentiment can indeed be nasty but the 44-year-old believes that it's often portrayed as being worse than it really is.
"A lot of people are big fans of Team Sky but there is a small group that isn't happy that Chris is riding the Tour," Tosatto said.
That's what it all boils down to — people either love Team Sky or hate it.
There are some fence-sitters when it comes to this polarising topic. It could be Sky's rather belated attempt to present the facts about the adverse analytical finding [AAF] for Salbutamol, that changed the opinion of some; or perhaps it's the huge delay in finding a resolution to the matter that has contributed to the disillusionment of many who had once considered themselves fans.
On the whole, however, there are the believers or the non-believers and herein lies the problem. Since the Festina Affair, a saga that broke on 8 July 1998 when a soigneur for the Festina team was arrested while driving a car with a huge collection of doping products, cycling has been exposed as a sport that was rife with doping.
Ever since then, a huge effort has been put in to clean up cycling and, in fact, all sport.
Rarely a season goes by when cycling isn't affected by one scandal or another but the reality is that it's a much cleaner peloton in 2018 than it was in 1998. And that's a relief as it was, quite frankly, rank.
We now understand the extent of the cheating. Armstrong's belated confession at the end of 2012 confirmed what many long suspected — but it came only after he had won [and later lost] seven successive titles at the Tour de France.
It's largely because of the quagmire surrounding the credibility of cycling that there is such frustration among the public at Le Tour in 2018, and there are some observers who are wondering if the abuse will soon turn to danger.
So far, there's no sign of that happening. When speaking with people associated with the team, the biggest concern is the perpetuation of negativity by some commentators, including one "person who is very famous in France".
Long-time Team Sky directeur sportif, Nicolas Portal, was hesitant to say the name but it's clear who his reference was about.
Five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault had poured fuel on the fire when he suggested that Froome not be allowed to contest the Tour in 2018.
He's not quite cycling's Voldemort, but clearly in Team Sky circles they'd really rather not mention his name any longer.
Hinault, now 63, still has sway with the public, especially in France. If he speaks, there are many — particularly those of his vintage — who listen.
"A lot of the people who are hurling abuse seem to be around his age," said another person associated with Sky.
"It's obvious that they don't consider the facts, and aren't interested in learning about it [the Salbutamol case]. But they read what Hinault says and they believe it to be fact."
There is a wave of sound as the peloton rolls through France during the Tour. Even when no-one is on the roadside, there's the constant sound of helicopters overhead, sirens of police motorbikes, or the claxons of team vehicles.
"You get used to the noise. You zone out and don't really take it in. But then, amidst the hubbub, you hear an insult," said one Team Sky mechanic who spends race days in the team car following the peloton.
"It stands out because it's not normal. And in that sense, it probably seems even louder than it is."
Unlike Tosatto, Portal has driven behind the peloton in the Team Sky car for several years. He understands how the public has reacted pre and post-AAF. Both the Italian and the Frenchman have said that the abuse has quelled since the opening weekend of racing in 2018.
"It is how it is," said Portal after stage seven. "It has been a bit hard at the beginning but now it has settled, people are being a bit more friendly.
"We've got a lot of support, obviously, but you see sometimes some guys who are just not really friendly with us. It's all good, to be honest."
Portal is a savvy operator, a clever tactician who is aware of many elements that surround a bike race. He recognises accents and traits of fans from one country or another.
And he offers an example after hearing my tone while asking him about the mood of the fans in the race this year.
"We know how it is with the Australian fans, we hear their accents all the time and it's, like, 'Hey Froome Dog…!' things like that. It's a nickname, it's not offensive," he said.
"But I think in sport — and especially in cycling — the culture is for fans to come to watch and enjoy the event. It's a free sport to watch, you don't have to pay, you can bring your family. You need to feel safe.
"If you're not supporting a team, in general you don't say anything.
"It's just about fair play and you can bring your kids.
"I'm French and I would feel really comfortable if I was there on the roadside supporting Team Sky with my kids. If there are three or four guys booing Team Sky in front of my kids, it's not too bad.
"Again, it's just a few so it's okay."
Portal spoke moments after getting out of the team car following the longest stage of this year's race.
It was flat and fast and there will be bigger crowds in the coming days, particularly when the Tour arrives in the mountains — and that's when things may get a little more heated with exchanges from roadside fans, but he repeats his mantra: "It is how it is," then he concluded the discussion.
"It's done. And we're not going to play this game and be worried about that kind of sentiment.
"We'll just carry on in the race and I think the true fan will understand, 'Okay, there's nothing wrong…' And we've got plenty, plenty of supporters so it's fine. No worries."