(CN) — This year’s Tour de France, a hallowed summer centerpiece of sporting heroics and madness in Europe, is starting two months behind schedule and heads across a France plunging back into the throes of a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Saturday, the 107th edition of the Tour – the crown jewel of professional cycling – sets off from the sunny city of Nice on the Mediterranean Sea amid uncertainty as France registers new record numbers of infections each day.
With infections surging, Paris on Friday made masks mandatory for people outside, though it exempted anyone doing exercise and riding bicycles. On Thursday, France recorded 6,111 new infections, the most since the end of a nationwide lockdown in May. More than 30,570 deaths in France have been linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel virus.
Holding the Tour amid a new wave of the pandemic is turning into a wild logistical feat – and potential debacle – for a sporting event that is, by its very nature, already so complex to pull off and where fans and professional athletes come into close contact as riders slowly pedal up grueling ascents and congregate at start and finish areas.
The three-week contest – which always takes place in July, but not this year – will be raced over a course of 21 stages and takes a peloton of 176 riders, and a caravan of vehicles, across France’s mountains, villages and cities to finally end on the Champs Elysees in Paris – 2,156 miles later.
But it will be a bizarre Tour – as bizarre as watching Lebron James, Lionel Messi and Serena Williams play in empty stadiums this year.
At start and finish areas, the number of fans will be scaled back and they will be required to wear masks. Along the entire route, fans are being asked to wear masks too and they will be kept away from the racers. They will be forbidden from asking for autographs and taking selfies with the cyclists.
One of the most striking changes likely will be the images from the Tour’s famous mountain passes: This year, authorities are planning to restrict crowds on the Tour’s beloved narrow steep climbs.
In normal years, the passage of the Tour over the Alps and Pyrenees always features wild scenes where the riders, and most vividly the race leader in the yellow jersey, wend their way through screaming fans, many of them decked out in costumes, face paint, wrapped in flags and often wearing close to nothing as they run alongside the cyclists, shouting encouragements and sometimes even giving them a push up the road – a violation of the rules and a danger.
Most importantly, the racers and teams are under strict safety requirements. Before Saturday’s start, the riders were tested twice for the coronavirus. Team personnel were also tested. No riders tested positive, but four staff for a Belgian team, Lotto Soudal, were sent home after positive tests showed up. The stakes are high: Entire teams are facing expulsion from the race if two or more riders test positive.
In addition, team doctors and riders will fill out health questionnaires each day to see if they are feeling any symptoms and riders will be tested twice during the race on rest days. Teams are taking extra precautions to sanitize hotel rooms, equipment and team cars and they are avoiding, as much as possible, contact with the outside world. Even news conferences will take place online.
The circus atmosphere around the Tour is being curtailed too. Each team’s support crew – mechanics, masseurs, cooks, coaches – has been reduced and the parade of sponsor cars that precedes each day’s racing has been cut. Typically, the Tour is a moving spectacle of about 5,000 people, but this year there will be about 2,000 fewer people attached to the race.
There will be other changes too – most notably on the podium at the end of races. In normal years, the awards ceremony features race leaders donning special jerseys, getting kissed on the cheeks by podium hostesses, shaking hands with Tour officials and race sponsors, and spraying fans with champagne. Not this year – and the podium hostesses who award prizes and kiss the winning riders may never return after race director Christian Prudhomme recently announced the Tour, like other sports, will discontinue a practice seen as sexist.
The Tour organizers say all these measures, and more, will make the stage race a moving “health bubble” and safe for riders and spectators.
“We are respecting our bubble and we’re proving this by changing our habits,” AG2R La Mondiale, a French team, said on Twitter. “No visits from friends or family. We’re in our bubble, no one’s coming in or going out.”
For now, at least, the race – watched the world over and broadcast in 165 countries – can be called a success and a point of pride for France.
“The Tour de France has been saved,” said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, at a team presentation ceremony Thursday. “We hope everything will run extremely smoothly and give happiness to France.”
“This is a special Tour de France, a different Tour de France,” Prudhomme, the race director, said during the event where the 22 teams taking part in the race were presented. Most riders, though not all, wore masks. He praised the teams and organizers for showing “solidarity” and working so hard to ensure the safety of the race.
But there’s still a long way to go and a lot can go wrong beyond the usual crashes, doping scandals and controversies between riders. A breakout of the coronavirus among the cyclists or forcing a race leader out of the competition because teammates test positive pose risks of making a race known as “Le Grand Boucle” – “the Great Loop” – into the Grand Debacle. Another concern is that the virus will spread as fans pour onto the roads lining the race.
A successful Tour is a critical test for professional cycling and it will determine whether Italy and Spain can hold their own national grand stage tours, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, in October. Infections are also soaring in Italy and Spain, causing alarm and new restrictions in these countries too.
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe, the professional cycling season was abruptly stopped along with most sporting events in Europe. By May, as Europe slowly got the pandemic under control, the cycling world announced a new calendar for its most prestigious races. The revised 2020 season was crammed into three months of racing between the end of July and the end of October.
For the cycling world, seeing the Tour get underway despite the pandemic is cathartic. When the virus broke out in March, there were fears the entire cycling season would be canceled and insiders warned the sport faced dire consequences and the risk of teams folding if the Tour wasn’t run.
“Generally speaking, mortality isn’t something I fear,” tweeted Jonathan Vaughters, the American team director for EF Pro Cycling, about the risks of racing during the pandemic. “I’d prefer that events that give us emotion and passion go forward. But should my personal choice be imposed on others that feel differently? That’s a question that needs answering.”
The cyclists are eager to race.
“I’m ready for it after a long time at home,” said Egan Bernal, the 23-year-old Colombian rider for Ineos Grenadier and the Tour winner in 2019, at Thursday’s team presentation.
There’s another big uncertainty about this year’s race: With professional cycling having resumed only a month ago, it’s far from clear who among the best cyclists is in top shape and who isn’t – and that could make it an unpredictable and competitive race.
“Very strange, you know, the year,” said Peter Sagan, a Slovakian superstar with Bora-Hansgrohe, when he was asked about his condition. “We’ll do the best show we can do.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.