The 2020 Tour de France, scheduled to start in Nice on Saturday, is edging closer to collapse after the Alpes-Maritimes region, site of the opening stages of the race, was placed on red alert owing to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tensions surrounding the race ramped up further still on Thursday evening after the Lotto-Soudal team announced two of their team’s support staff has tested “non-negative” for Covid-19 and had been sent home from Nice. “Safety remains priority number one,” the statement read.
“Only world wars have stopped the Tour de France, ” the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, said in March this year, but the rapidly growing concerns over the wisdom of going forward with this year’s race led to a cross-examination of the prime minister, Jean Castex, by journalists on Thursday.
“We have taken numerous precautions and health protocols and I’d remind you that this is an open-air event,” Castex said. “The places where the virus spreads and there is transmission have no organisation. The Tour has an organiser.”
Confirming that Nice was one of 19 new regions to be placed under red alert, Castex stated that “the pandemic is regaining ground and now’s the time to intervene”, adding: “France must do everything to prevent a new lockdown.”
But the French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, echoed Prudhomme in saying the Tour should go ahead. “It is a sign that we can continue to live, and of the resilience of our society,” he said.
Stages one and two both finish in central Nice on Saturday and Sunday and are sure to attract large numbers of roadside fans. They also include several of the major mountain climbs just inland from the city.
Prudhomme had also vowed that the race promoter ASO would not stage the Tour without crowds, or “behind closed doors” yet the prefecture of the Alpes-Maritimes has now suggested that on this weekend’s major climbs at least this may well be the case. Bernard Gonzalez, prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes, said a “reduced scale” of Grand Depart would take place “almost behind closed doors”.
That sense of caution was confirmed by the city’s mayor, Christian Estrosi. “We want zero mistakes by Monday [when the race leaves Nice],” he said. “We want to show people around the world that we are beyond reproach.”
But an increased scepticism that this year’s Tour will make it to Paris or even to the first rest day, on 7 September, has taken hold, including some of the peloton’s star names.
“The way 2020 has been going, nothing surprises me any more,” the Irish sprinter Sam Bennett said. “We just have to stay open-minded. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did make it to Paris, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t make it past the weekend.”
With uncertainty over the duration of the Tour gripping the Grand Depart bubble, some teams have hinted they will race day by day, while others have insisted it will not change their long-term tactics.
“We don’t have a strategic plan to be in the lead in case the race stops after one and a half weeks,” Tom Dumoulin, former Giro d’Italia champion, and teammate to Primoz Roglic, said.
“The winner after one and a half weeks isn’t the real winner of the Tour de France. That’s not a Tour de France, that’s a 10-day race. It’s a completely different race. We’re preparing for a Grand Tour and we want to win the Tour de France.
“At the moment it doesn’t look good with some of the numbers around Nice and France but at the moment we are just in our own bubble and we’re just looking to be back racing,” the Dutchman said.
Yet speculation is growing that ASO has made a contingency plan, in the event that the Tour is stopped and that a winner would be declared only after the race had passed the midway point on stage 10. But the current rules of cycling, both those composed by the UCI and ASO’s own regulations, are unclear and do not take into account the prospect of a truncated or cancelled Tour.
The Tour’s current rules state the “general individual classification by time is established by each rider in the 21 stages taking into account penalties and time bonuses” and when referring to the green points jersey or the King of the Mountains jersey state specifically that “the winners [. . .] must complete the Tour de France”. But while the race still hangs in the balance, there was confirmation from the UCI president, David Lappartient, that a women’s stage race, organised by ASO, was expected to be launched in 2022, staged immediately after the finish of the men’s Tour in Paris.
“Whether this race will also be called Tour de France, I don’t know yet,” Lappartient told the Dutch website wielerflits.nl. “I am assured that ASO will be ready to put this event on the calendar in 2022. This is a very good step in the further development of women’s cycling.” – Guardian