Tour de France: Grappling with staging the world’s toughest bike race in a pandemic

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Watched on television by millions across the world, the annual race is deeply embedded in French culture as it weaves its way across stunning countryside and vertiginous mountains, as well as through picturesque towns and cities before concluding on Paris’ Champs-Elysées.
The Tour is normally held during July, but the global pandemic put paid to that idea, hence the August 29 start. The pandemic and a recent spike in new infections in France has also left organizers with a real logistical challenge in how best to stage the 23-day race.
Adding to organizers’ worries, the Alpes-Maritimes region — the site of the opening stages of the race — has been declared a red zone because of a recent rise in Covid-19 cases.

In red zones, the authorities are able to make masks compulsory outdoors and close bar. But with the French government ready for worse case scenarios with plans for local or national lockdown in place, questions are being asked as to whether the Tour will even reach Paris.

“The Tour de France will not stop if there’s a positive case, even if nobody knows whether it will be completed or not,” International Cycling Union (UCI) president David Lappartient told Reuters.

To ensure the race is completed, teams will be expelled from the 2020 event if at least two riders or members of staff show strong symptoms or test positive for Covid-19.

Documents obtained by cycling website VeloNews — which were confirmed to CNN as accurate by race organizer Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) — state that team members will have to pass two coronavirus tests before being able enter the Tour’s mandatory “bubble” three days before Saturday’s start in Nice.

“If two persons or more from the same team present strongly suspect symptoms or have tested positive for Covid-19, the team in question will be expelled from the Tour de France,” the document reads.

“Its riders will not be authorized to start the Tour de France (or the next stage) and the team’s personnel will have their accreditation withdrawn.”

All team members will again be tested on both of the Tour’s rest days — September 7 and 14 — but team doctors and race medical staff will also decide whether or not a rider showing milder symptoms can participate in a stage.

Fans cheer Italy's Vincenzo Nibali in the last kilometre before the finish line of the twentieth stage of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race between Albertville and Val Thorens, in Val Thorens, on July 27, 2019.

The moving ‘bubble’

Due to the hectic nature of the cycling calendar, riders and team members have been regularly tested prior to competing in races leading up to the Tour, including the Criterium du Dauphine, which finished two weeks ago and was used as a test event.

While teams aren’t restricted to a certain radius — as they are in the NBA’s Disney bubble — and there is an element of self-policing involved, the ASO has still taken strict measures to ensure the Tour bubble remains secure.

“There aren’t other guests at our team hotel, there’s just one or two other teams here,” a spokesperson for the South African NTT Pro Cycling team told CNN Sport.

“All mask wearing is compulsory, obviously sanitizers are widely available and I think from a team perspective, our head doctors are constantly in communication with everybody in the team, as well as the organizers and the relevant health authorities.

“Food preparation and that all happens on site, so we try to minimize exposure points, but our sport requires us to be out on the open road and not in a stadium that you can shut off. So, I suppose for everybody, there’s always there’s always a risk.

“All of that’s obviously not normal in terms of how we normally experience racing, but I think everything considered we’re feeling pretty happy and comfortable.”

The Tour might have the advantage of being staged in the open air, but negotiating 3,470 kilometers still remains a tricky proposition.

“Organizers have been very specific around what departure villages will look like, what the paddock will look like, who has access to those, the different requirements for those people that do have access to have been tested, and how that that environment kind of moves through the countryside,” the NTT Pro Cycling spokesperson said.

“So that’s from start point, throughout the race to the finish and then on to the hotel. For all intents and purposes, that bubble will be maintained and those directives are issued by the organizers. We’re pretty happy with what they put in place.”

Tour director Christian Prudhomme says he’s happy with the way the sport has adjust to the new preventative regulations.

“So far cycling has not tripped on any obstacle,” he told Reuters. “There will be police officers on the climbs, who will filter the crowd and make sure fans are wearing masks since I’m confident all the local authorities will make it mandatory.”
Colombia's Tour de France winner Egan Bernal (L) poses for a 'selfie' with a supporter from Colombia ahead of the start of the Acht van Chaam criterium cycling race in Chaam on July 31, 2019.

No selfies allowed

One large part of the Tour’s attraction comes in its accessibility to fans, who are able to line the roads in their thousands at various stages to cheer on the riders.

This, of course, makes it far more challenging for organizers to make the race a “behind closed doors” event and a particular concern in a given the recent spike in Covid-19 cases.

“For instance, there won’t be the opportunity to sign autographs or to get selfies, those type of things and I think those are just common sense measures and the organizers have made that pretty clear as well that the routes are pretty well barricaded and marshaled,” the NTT Pro Cycling spokesperson said.

“Access to certain areas where they would normally be pinch points on climbs and areas where fans would normally congregate [has been restricted] and they’ve put a lot of measures in place.

“So I think we’re very comfortable that will all go ahead and it’s important for the sport that the race goes ahead and goes ahead safely. I think that we all kind of recognize that point.”

Going into the first stage on Saturday, defending champion Egan Bernal is joint favorite to win the famous yellow jersey along with Slovenian rider Primoz Roglic.

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