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Police looking for spectator who sparked chaotic Tour de France crash

French police are looking for a spectator who sent dozens of elite cyclists crashing in a massive pileup on the first day of the Tour de France during the weekend.
Image: Italy's Kristian Sbaragli, left, and France's Bryan Coquard, right, lie on the ground after crashing during the first stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 197.8 kilometers (122.9 miles) with start in Brest and finish in Landerneau, France
Italy's Kristian Sbaragli, left, and France's Bryan Coquard, right, lie on the ground after crashing during the first stage of the Tour de France on Saturday. Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AP

PARIS — French police are looking for a spectator who sent dozens of elite cyclists crashing in a massive pileup on the first day of the Tour de France during the weekend.

On Saturday, German cyclist Tony Martin was sent tumbling at high speed when he rode straight into a cardboard sign being held out by an unidentified woman. Martin fell off his bike, leading to a pack of riders around him to crash as well — leaving behind a tangled mess of bikes and cyclists.

Television footage of the race showed the woman, wearing a yellow jacket, smiling and leaning into the road while holding up a sign that read "Allez Opi-Omi" (“Come on granddad-granny,” in a mix of French and German). As the pack of riders approached her, TV footage shows her facing television cameras, not facing the cyclists.

A spokesperson with France’s National Gendarmerie, one of the country’s two national police forces, told NBC News on Monday said they are still looking for the woman, calling her actions “imprudent.”

Investigators are combing through camera footage and asking for witnesses to come forward with any information about the incident. Police said the woman left the scene before investigators arrived.

The Tour de France normally sees thousands of fans cheer on the riders from the sidelines as they advance through the race’s grueling stages for three weeks.

With most Covid-19 restrictions lifted in France, enthusiastic fans took to the streets of picturesque villages along the route on the opening day of the race, and thousands lined the roads of the Brittany countryside.

Switzerland's Marc Hirschi lays on the side of the road after crashing during the first stage of the Tour de France on June 26, 2021.Daniel Cole / AP

In a press release Saturday, the National Gendarmerie said an investigation had been opened into unintentional injuries caused by the “manifestly deliberate violation of an obligation of safety or prudence."

Race director Christian Prudhomme told Eurosport in an interview Sunday that the woman's behavior was "unacceptable and intolerable."

“When we come to the tour route, it is to admire the champions, otherwise we have nothing to do with it," he said. "You have to be careful and not let yourself be carried away by enthusiasm. And above all, those who deserve television are the runners. The spectators do not come to see each other, they have their mirror for that.”

NBC News has reached out to ASO, the company that organizes the race, for comment. There was no further comment from the Tour de France on Monday.

The tour officials warned Sunday that fans have to respect the safety of the riders.

“Don't risk everything for a photo or to get on television!” they said in a tweet, accompanied by a video compilation of past incidents involving spectators distracting riders or not watching their children or pets.

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In a strongly worded post on his Instagram page Sunday, Tony Martin, the rider who first collided with the spectator's sign, also urged fans to be more respectful.

“To all the people next to the road who think that the #tourdefrance is a circus, to people who risc everything for a selfie with a 50 km/h fast peloton, to people who think it's nice to show their naked butt, to drunken people who push us sideways on the climbs, to people who think that it is a good idea to hold a sign into the road while the peloton is passing,” he said.

“I want to ask this people forcefully: please respect the riders and the #tourdefrance!" he added. "Use your head or stay home! We don't want you here."

The Tour de France continues through to July 18.

Nancy Ing reported from Paris, Yuliya Talmazan from London.