After fans had caused chaos in the Alps by setting off flares, tear gas from police played havoc with Tour de France riders during the first stage in the Pyrenees on Tuesday.
Four-time champion Chris Froome was among a group of riders whose eyes needed treatment when police intervened to disperse farmers protesting funding cuts by disrupting cycling’s biggest race.
Bales of hay blocked the road 30 kilometres (18.6 miles) into the 218-kilometre stage from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon. Tour organizers said police used tear gas to move the protesters as the peloton approached.
Four-time champion Froome, race leader Geraint Thomas, and world champion Peter Sagan were among those affected. Froome was treated with eye drops and Sagan poured water over his face to clean his eyes.
“I was lucky that it did not affect me too much, I had a bit of tingling in the back of the throat but I used some water to wash it out,” said Thomas after keeping his overall lead intact on the finish line in the spa town of Bagneres-de-Luchon.
Frenchman Pierre Latour, who wears the white jersey for the best young rider, said he noticed police were using tear gas when he arrived at the road blockade.
“With the headwind, the gas came back to the peloton. Lots of us had to stop to drink and douse water over our eyes,” Latour said.
Stage 16 resumed after a 15-minute delay.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme condemned the farmers’ action and demanded more respect for riders.
“The road should remain free, we are not going to lock the riders in a stadium or on a tennis court,” he said. “The riders’ job is extremely dangerous, they are taking risks every day, people should not block the road, no matter what causes they are fighting for.”
Belgian classics specialist Greg Van Avermaet said race organizers made a good decision by neutralizing the stage, allowing the peloton to resume competing after three kilometres.
“I was not affected because I was not in the first 10 of the group,” he said. “I heard some of the guys had problems so I thought it was a good decision to stop and wait and bring everything together.”
According to French media, the small group of farmers from the local Ariege department made the intervention to protest the reduction of European Union funding.
This Tour has been marred by incidents.
Race organizers have struggled to deal with angry fans protesting Froome’s participation. After fans threw flares at riders in the climb to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, Tour organizers banned the use of smoke flares for the rest of the race.
Froome raced all season under the cloud of a potential ban for using twice the permitted level of salbutamol during his victory at the Spanish Vuelta in September. He was cleared only just before the Tour. He said he has been repeatedly spat at since the race started, and spectators have punched him and tried to make him fall off his bike.
Froome remained second in the general classification, 1 minute, 39 seconds behind Sky teammate Thomas.