This decision was made well before we knew exactly how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic would unfold in the coming months. At best, the Tour de France could be a flash of normality to cheer up after a dark summer of lockdown and a rescue effort for the sport of cycling. At worst, it could be a public health and public relations nightmare that could irreparably harm sport.
COVID-19 will still be available in August, for sure. And it will also be available next July. Recent studies predict waves of new virus cases and the necessary measures to suppress social distancing and the cancellation of mass events intermittently until 2022. These measures are not a cure for the disease – nor vaccination against future epidemics, all they do is slow the steady march of the coronavirus through an almost entirely susceptible population.
With so much uncertainty for the foreseeable future, professional cycling needs flexibility, creativity and experimentation – no cool heads and a blank understanding of tradition.
Yes, cycling needs racing soon and needs its stars now. The sport must continue to attract fans and maintain those who already exist. Without fans, the bike sponsorship model simply collapses like a pack of cards. Without sponsor income, the teams fall back and disappear. The races also rely on partners, sponsors and suppliers – all of whom have focused on events that are now closed and are currently in a very precarious financial situation. How can cycling continue to cope with the continual disruption of the calendar?
Flanders Classics produced a compelling and better-than-expected virtual tour of Flanders using BKool and laid the groundwork for something they can develop in the near future. In the process, they showed that the gamification of the bike attracts a younger population – something the bike really needs. They are certainly exploring how to monetize it.
Team Ineos’ run on Zwift brought in a record number. The Tour de Suisse and Velon are preparing to follow suit in Rouvy. There will be a virtual Amstel Gold Race and a Giro d’Italia Virtual. All not sanctioned, with different rules, but a proof of concept.
E-sports were already a $ 138 billion industry in 2018 and cycling didn’t even hit the market. This seems like a perfect temporary solution, but the UCI and the ASO continue, as if they were sailing on the Titanic, to play their violins after the iceberg has already torn in its hull.
Flanders Classics and Belgian host broadcaster Sporza have also produced high-quality “Behind the Scenes” films from the latest editions of the Tour of Flanders available for free to help keep fans engaged. The ASO must have warehouses filled with reels of old Tour de France footage, but did nothing for the fans, but created false hopes for a Tour 2020.
The stress of the pandemic already shows the weaknesses of the cycling sponsorship model: the teams were quick to ask the riders to take salary reductions, the races that depend on corporate sponsors and the VIPs with thick wallets favor already the cancellation, because the blow of the blockades of mass caused the biggest fall of the world economies since the Second World War.
Politicians are under increasing pressure to reopen the economy, while epidemiologists are sounding warnings too soon against relaxing the restrictions.
Scientists at Harvard and Imperial College in Britain, among others, agree that the inevitable lifting of suppression measures will lead to a second peak of COVID-19, the timing of which could very well coincide with this madness of the Tour de France from August-September.
The millions of unemployed, overworked health workers – thousands of whom have caught COVID-19 from their patients – and the 139,419 families (as of April 15) mourning the deaths of their loved ones may not find the Tour de France as a beacon of hope in August.
What would the Tour de France 2020 look like?
The UCI and ASO can set dates for an end 2020 calendar whatever they want, but there will be no platoon of world stars to participate in the races, unless travel restrictions are lifted.
Most countries have closed their borders to non-citizens. Even though France sees a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases during the summer, the lifting of travel restrictions in Europe will increase the risk of reintroduction and spread of the virus.
The scientific magazine calls the lifting of the blockages a “dangerous process of trial and error”. Once the blockages are lifted, the only tools left in the arsenal to combat the spread of COVID-19 will be quarantines and tracking of contacts of infected people.
Travelers such as professional cyclists returning to Europe to race, fans traveling to enjoy the show again or thousands of journalists, broadcasters and race personnel could break the latter weapon.
Visitors and their contacts are much more difficult to trace and they are also more likely to visit mass gatherings, potential hot spots for COVID-19.
Alessandro Vespignani, a disease modeller at Northeastern University, said, “As soon as you reopen to travelers, it could be something that the contact tracing system cannot handle. “
Professional cycling could implement an ADAMS-like system that can include the entire team and race staff to track where everyone is around the race, but extending this to spectators would be next to impossible.
In California, one of the hardest hit states in the United States, Governor Gavin Newsom warned: “The prospect of mass collection is negligible at best until we get to immunity collective and that we come up with a vaccine. which bring hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of foreigners are not on the cards according to our current guidelines and expectations. “
Certainly Newsom is not the only leader to think that way.
A second wave
Collective immunity. Easier said than done. The British government has already discovered the dreadful optics of suggesting letting the virus invade the population to speed up widespread immunity – a strategy that would no doubt have led to an unthinkable number of preventable deaths.
However, there are few who discuss the terrible trap of playing hide and seek with a pandemic: the better a country can prevent infection now, the sooner it will consider reopening. But with fewer people recovered and now immunized against the virus, the more vulnerable the population will be. The methods currently used to prevent foreigners from bringing the virus – border closings and compulsory quarantines of 14 days – are simply not suitable for cycling, a sport based on the fluidity of movement of people.
Holding the Tour de France even four months after the number of confirmed cases started to slow down seems ridiculously optimistic.
The original Imperial College modeling study by Ferguson et al – the supposed suppression measures would remain in place until September, but six weeks after their lifting, there will likely be another significant spike in infections. If the woodpecker is pushed further in winter, notes an article in Science, it could coincide with flu season and a new strain in the health system.
What the virus does in 2021 and beyond depends on many unknowns: how long does immunity to this SARS-CoV-2 virus last? If it’s like other coronaviruses where immunity lasts less than a year, it could continue to appear each season until we have a vaccination – which is at least 18 months by most estimates .
Cycling must plan for this landscape of changing dates and uncertainty – an environment that will make its traditional model impossible to maintain – and not cling so adamantly to its immediate history.
So many questions
Is there a way to have a Tour de France – or a professional race for that matter – in the traditional sense before the disappearance of COVID-19?
Roadsides lined with fans, motor homes full of families, people riding on each other at every turn of a major mountain climb, fans coming closer to the runners to encourage them; all of this was exciting to see before COVID-19 but is now too horrible to even consider.
There are many obstacles to seeing a professional cycling race in the foreseeable future.
International support will be needed to ease travel restrictions before the race. Governments will need to loosen the lockout six weeks before the race so that runners can train. To be fair, all participants must have the same opportunities to train outside – who will build this international coalition? Or will it be limited to French residents? Will the winner receive an asterisk?
Let’s not forget that this is a professional bicycle race and that the teams will have to pay their riders. Will these wage cuts be reversed? Will all of this sponsor money suddenly come back just because there is a three-week bike race? If certain WorldTour teams break down, will the Tour allow new generic characters? When will this decision be made?
What about anti-doping? Will there be guarantees that all runners can be tested for an acceptable period before the race?
Speaking of tests, the Tour will surely have to carry out COVID-19 tests for everyone on the race – which extends to hotel staff, caterers, etc. – and be constantly vigilant for anyone with symptoms of illness. The tests must be precise and quick to perform. This is the only way to prevent the breed from becoming a traveling virus vector. There are such tests, but there is certainly no surplus. The priority will be to use them for public health at large in the world, and not for a sporting event.
There must be a fully communicated plan for the event so that someone in the race can be positive for COVID-19. The UAE tour showed that there are many lessons to be learned on how to manage the virus.
Will ASO be held responsible if someone in the race or on the sidelines dies of COVID-19 after having caught up with it during the Tour de France? Or will the riders’ personnel and everyone on the race have to sign legal disclaimers?
Will the riders want to risk repeating the UAE Tour – being quarantined for weeks but this time not even in an upscale hotel in Abu Dhabi but in a two star hotel outside of Lyon?
Will older staff, asthma sufferers, diabetics or people with heart disease want to take the increased risks associated with catching the virus? The average age of WorldTour directors and sport directors is 48 and they are all male – even without pre-existing conditions, these two factors alone increase the risk of serious effects from contracting the virus.
The questions are endless.
Will local hospitals have the resources to manage passengers injured in collisions? Will gendarmes and officials be able to control crowds and maintain distance requirements? Will the residents of the cities hosting the race really welcome those around them? Their leaders could join, but will citizens who have lost their jobs because of the repression measures be irritated, organize demonstrations, or worse – will they become violent towards the runners?
ASO thinks its tour will be “the beacon that allows us to look to the future and say,” yes, we are going to go through that “”, but will the French people feel like this after six months of devastation economic?
Finally, what kind of precedent is this framework? Do we want that, and is it fair that the ASO, the UCI and France make this decision?
Maybe the Tour de France should go back to its roots as a model for the future, maybe it should make the race look less like 2019 than in 1919, with small groups of riders spread over large distances with little or no support. Pilots like Geraint Thomas, Willie Smit, Robert Gesink and Laurens De Vreese have done huge coaching rides, why not have 380 km stages over 48 hours?
Perhaps there is also a way to continue the Tour de France tradition from its roots while embracing the virtual aspect of the sport.
It will take experimentation, innovation and creative thinking until the world is free of this virus – efforts now could change the business model of sport for the better and prepare cycling for the next pandemic. .
Going on as if nothing had changed is surely a recipe for disaster.