Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme condemned the actions of protesters who forced stage 16 of the race to be temporarily stopped as riders were caught in a cloud of pepper spray.
Race leader Geraint Thomas, his Sky team-mate Chris Froome and world champion Peter Sagan were among those affected after police had used the spray to break up a protest by farmers, who blocked the road with hay bales.
The race was stopped for 15 minutes after the incident, which came 29 kilometres into the 218km stage from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon.
Several riders required medical treatment after getting the spray in their eyes and throats.
“Do not add to danger for the cyclists,” Prudhomme said. “Their field is the road, the road is open – we cannot lock them in a swimming pool or a stadium or in a tennis court. They must be respected, they take enough risks for their job.
“Many respresentatives of the agricultural world have clearly criticised and condemned this intolerable action. Leave the road to the riders, respect them. When the road goes up, when it goes down, the French riders, the foreign riders, the yellow jersey, all of them.”
Froome said he was grateful the race had been neutralised to allow riders to recover.
“I just sprayed some water in the eyes and water in the face,” the four-time Tour winner said. “My throat, nose and eyes were burning afterwards, but I think quite a lot of riders were in a similar situation so I think we were all grateful for the temporary neutralisation just to have a couple of kms to clear our eyes, nose and throat out and then the race continued again.
“Thankfully the effects didn’t last long but temporarily everything was stinging and burning but it wore off pretty quickly.”
Thomas added: “It was certainly unfortunate that it was still lingering around when we came through. I could feel it in my eyes, a little bit of tingling, I gave them a wash and rinsed my mouth out. I was kind of lucky it didn’t affect me too much.”
Though farmers’ protests are nothing new on the Tour, the sight of riders suffering from the affects of pepper spray were.
“Was it mace?” Irishman Dan Martin asked at the finish. “That’s a new experience. I’m always open to new experiences but pepper spray in a race?
“You could feel it in your lungs, it wasn’t pleasant but they dealt with it pretty well and the medics got everyone going again. But bizarre – what an eventful day.”
The incident added to the already heightened tension regarding race security. Froome was jostled and spat at on Alpe d’Huez, while 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali saw his race ended after he was brought down in a tangle with a fan on the same mountain.
Prudhomme’s point about the dangers riders already face on the road was illustrated by nasty crashes for Adam Yates and Philippe Gilbert, who both crashed out of the lead in separate incidents – Yates just 6.5km from home.
Gilbert’s was the more dramatic incident as the Belgian disappeared over a wall on the descent of the Col de Portet-d’Aspet, the stretch of road which claimed the life of Italian Fabio Casartelli following a crash during the 1995 Tour.
After falling into a ravine, Gilbert was fished out by a combination of neutral service mechanics and staff from his team car. Though he rode to the finish, collecting the day’s combativity award with blood still seeping through his bandages on the podium, the Quick-Step Floors rider then announced his Tour was over.
Yates was dreaming of a stage victory to salvage his Tour when he went down on the final descent into Bagneres-de-Luchon,
The Mitchelton-Scott rider, whose general classification hopes were ended by dehydration in the Alps, had crested the Col du Portillon with 22 seconds advantage over Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe, and set off on a 10km dash to the finish.
But he lost the front wheel on a corner 6.5km from the end, and Alaphilippe zipped by in the polka dot jersey to collect his second stage win of the Tour.
“It one of those things,” Yates said. “I’ve taken more risks on more technical descents in the past and never had a problem. We recon all these stages but you never know what’s coming up. It was a bit damp.
Asked if he had any injuries, Yates added: “Just bad morale – when you come so close to winning a stage, not just for me but for the team, we’ve been working for a while to win one of these stages.”
The main contenders crossed the line in a group some nine minutes after Alaphilippe to mean there is no change at the top of the general classification.
Thomas continues to lead by one minute and 39 seconds from Froome, with Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin a further 11 seconds behind going into Wednesday’s potentially explosive 65km stage from Bagneres-de-Luchon to the summit of the Col du Portet, starting with an F1-style grid.