But with supporters firmly sidelined, declared by the government that it was best to stay home and watch the races on TV, the Tour has lost much of its party atmosphere. There was very little of the usual fellowship between the athletes and their beloved audience that made the venerable 117 year old roadshow unique among sporting events in a more carefree era.
Overlooking thin crowds in the Nice finish straight which would usually have been filled with deep spectator rows, Norway’s Alexander Kristoff won the first stage with a scary final sprint. He celebrated by giving a COVID sensitive punch to a teammate.
Winning the first stage earned Kristoff the first yellow jersey of the 2020 Tour, which he will wear as the race leader on Sunday’s second stage which loops into the mountains behind Nice. Usually a race official or VIP would have helped him don the iconic jersey, one of the most coveted and recognizable in the sport. But not this year, social distancing being the priority.
Kristoff stood alone on the winner’s podium, flanked by a host and hostess at a safe distance. He then disappeared backstage to squirm in the jersey himself, before returning to pose for photos. Still, the thrill of wearing the jersey for the first time in its eight laps more than made up for the weirdness.
“An incredible feeling,” he told reporters upon arrival. “It means a lot to my career and a stage victory shows that I can still be up there even at 33 and with four children.
With infections steadily increasing across France, the Tour has no guarantee of reaching the finish in Paris on September 20. Runners will have daily health checks and coronavirus tests during the race, and may be rejected if they fail. Entire teams could be sent home if two or more runners or staff test positive for COVID-19 within a week. Fans have been told not to approach runners for selfies or autographs and always wear masks.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French minister in charge of sports, was optimistic at the start on Saturday, saying that the Tour had only a “very slim” chance of being canceled before Paris but also warning that “anything is possible”.
“That sort of thing could happen, but of course I hope it won’t and I think it won’t because the Tour organizers have done an amazing job,” he said. .
Crowd control and social distancing measures have sucked up much of the usual boisterous joy of the Tour’s first day. Strange silence, and a thin crowd, far removed in an empty plaza, greeted the runners as they paraded onto the stage at the start. Even a stone statue that overlooked the bizarre scene wore a mask marked “protect us”.
Still, roadside fans were thankful for the show, after horrific months of growing deaths in France – now at 30,600 – and lives shattered by the virus. The European Football Championships and the Olympic Games have been postponed to 2021 and many other events have been canceled. But the Tour, delayed from July, has survived and is becoming an indicator of the feasibility of continuing to host mega sporting events during the pandemic.
The sight of the peloton passing over the bend he chose through the port of Nice made the 32-year-old tennis teacher Benjamin Sand shine, delighted by the speed of the runners in the bend.
“We are so lucky,” he says. “It’s such a breath of fresh air.”
Fans were also rewarded with high drama on the 156km first stage which made three loops around Nice and the hilly hinterland north of the city. Rainstorms made the tarmac so slippery that the riders eventually made a pact with each other on the road to slow the pace after several crashes.
Among the most spectacular, the Colombian pilot Miguel Angel Lopez skidded head first in a road sign. He worked to the end. Another crash took a bunch of runners up the dash towards the line on Nice’s splendid waterfront. Defending champion Egan Bernal suffered from the blow of having two of his support drivers from the Ineos team involved in painful stacks.
“People were crashing almost at every turn,” Kristoff said. “It was really slippery there.”