(CNN) – He’s had urine thrown at him during a race and been taunted by fans brandishing giant inhalers, but that could be the tip of the iceberg for Chris Froome despite being cleared of anti-doping violations ahead of this year’s Tour de France.
The Briton is free to challenge for a fourth straight Tour victory and record-equaling fifth title when cycling’s most famous race begins Saturday, but there are fears Froome could face a backlash from angry fans lining the 3,350-kilometer route over the next three weeks.
Froome has been under an anti-doping cloud since he was found to have more than the permissible level of asthma drug salbutamol in his urine at last September’s Vuelta a España.
After a nine-month investigation — during which Froome constantly protested his innocence — cycling’s governing body the UCI, on the advice of experts from the World Anti-Doping Agency, dropped the case Monday.
But given cycling’s long and murky history with doping, tensions remain high and some fans have vented their anger, both in person and on social media.
The race has already employed extra security in the wake of recent terror attacks in France, but Team Sky has taken further measures, including a personal bodyguard for Froome and additional security once the race begins.
At the pre-race ceremony to present the teams in La Roche-sur-Yon Thursday, Froome and his team were greeted with boos, jeers and whistles.
And worries remain over the vulnerability of riders — notably Froome — during the race, given that fans stand literally within touching distance, particularly on the grueling mountain stages when the riders are grinding slowly uphill.
The urine incident occurred during Froome’s 2015 Tour victory, while the inhalers waved by fans dressed in surgical gowns and masks appeared during this year’s Giro d’Italia, which the Briton won to become the first rider since 1983 to hold all three Grand Tour titles — the Tour, Giro and the Vuelta.
“If I were Team Sky I would be concerned,” said Jonathan Vaughters, the manager of the Education First team.
“Reading comments on social media from people saying, ‘Since justice wasn’t served, by the UCI and Wada, we’ll serve it from the side of the road’, that’s basically an outright threat. And it does feel [the Tour promoter] ASO fired things up when it’s their responsibility to protect them.”
Vaughters was referring to comments made during the investigation by Tour organizer Amaury Sport Organisation saying it did not want Froome involved while his case was ongoing.
Five-time Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault has also been highly critical of Froome and last month urged riders to strike should the Briton compete in the Tour.
Team Sky came into the sport proclaiming it would compete clean in the wake of the Lance Armstrong era, but its reputation has been tarnished in recent years, notably over the therapeutic use exemption (TUE) case of its former Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins and whether the team crossed an ethical line by using legal medication to enhance performance.
However, following Monday’s decision, the president of the UCI, David Lappartient, called on fans to “respect the judicial decision” and urged a “safe and serene” environment for Froome to compete in.
One of Froome’s main rivals, Frenchman Romain Bardet, said the focus should return to celebrating the sport throughout this year’s winding odyssey from Noirmoutier-en-l’Île in western France, through the Alps and Pyrenees, ending up in Paris on July 29.
“The Tour is part of French heritage, it’s a celebration, a big party and it’s important that we speak about sport. That’s what it’s all about, it’s the Tour de France,” he told reporters.
Talking ahead of the start, Froome issued a plea to fans, saying: “If you’re not necessarily a Team Sky fan or a Chris Froome fan, come to the race, put a jersey on of the team you support and support the race in a positive way,” he said. “Don’t bring negativity to the race. That’s my advice.”
The Kenya-born rider also wrote an open letter in French newspaper Le Monde on the eve of the Tour.
“I am proud to start the Tour as the defending champion and will obviously be fighting hard to win the maillot jaune [winner’s yellow jersey],” he wrote.
“But I also recognise that the build up to this race has not been the easiest — for me, for the race organisers and for you all — the cycling fans and people of France who are the heartbeat of the Tour.”
He explained how he has suffered from asthma since childhood, and how his case was not an anti-doping violation, but an adverse analytical finding which is usually investigated confidentially, and spoke of the gaps in the science behind the regulations.
“I meant it when I stood on the podium on the Champs Elysee and said I would never dishonor the yellow jersey and my results would stand the test of time. I won’t — and they will,” he wrote.
“I love this sport. I am passionate about the Tour. To win any race based on a lie would — for me be a personal defeat. I could never let that happen.”
Victory in Paris at the end of July would put Froome alongside Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Migual Indurain as five-time Tour winners.
Armstrong’s seven titles were wiped from the history books after he admitted long-term anti-doping offences. Another notable doping controversy in cycling was the scandal surrounding the Festina team in 1998.