Watched on television by millions of people around the world, the annual race is deeply rooted in French culture as it weaves its way through stunning countryside and soaring mountains, as well as picturesque towns before ending in the Champs-Elysées in Paris.
The tour normally takes place in July, but the global pandemic put an end to that idea, hence the start of August 29. The pandemic and a recent spike in new infections in France also left the organizers with a real logistical challenge to organize the 23-day race as well as possible.
Adding to the concerns of the organizers, the Alpes-Maritimes region – site of the first stages of the race – has been declared a red zone due to a recent increase in Covid-19 cases.
In red areas, authorities can make masks mandatory outside and close the bar. But with the French government ready for worst-case scenarios with local or national lockdown plans in place, questions arise as to whether the Tour will even reach Paris.
Documents obtained by cycling website VeloNews – which have been confirmed to CNN to be accurate by race organizer Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) – indicate that team members will need to pass two coronavirus tests before they go. be able to enter the compulsory “bubble” of the Tour three days before Saturday’s departure in Nice.
“If two or more people from the same team show strongly suspicious symptoms or have tested positive for Covid-19, the team in question will be expelled from the Tour de France,” the document said.
“Its riders will not be allowed to start the Tour de France (or the next stage) and team personnel will have their accreditation withdrawn. ”
All team members will be tested again on the Tour’s two rest days – September 7 and 14 – but team doctors and race medical staff will also decide if a rider with milder symptoms can. or not participate in a stage.
There will also be a Covid-19 mobile facility at each step to perform additional testing if needed. The testing process has been costly for the teams – Groupama-FDJ doctor Jacky Maillot told Reuters it cost the team $ 154,000 (€ 130,000) for the season.
The “bubble” in motion
Due to the fast paced nature of the cycling calendar, riders and team members were regularly tested before competing in races leading up to the Tour, including the Criterium du Dauphine, which ended two weeks ago. and was used as a test event.
While teams are not limited to a certain radius – as they are in the Disney NBA bubble – and an element of self-control is involved, the ASO has always taken strict measures to ensure the bubble security of the tour.
“There are no other guests in our hotel for the teams, there are only one or two other teams here,” a spokesperson for the South African NTT Pro Cycling team told CNN Sport.
“Any mask is compulsory, obviously disinfectants are widely available and I think from the team’s point of view our chief doctors are constantly in communication with everyone in the team, as well as with the organizers. and the competent health authorities.
“The meal preparation and everything happens on site, so we try to minimize the exposure points, but our sport requires us to be on the road and not in a stadium that you can close. So, I guess for everyone there is always there is always a risk.
“This is obviously not normal in the way we normally experience racing, but I think all in all we feel pretty happy and comfortable.
The Tour could have the advantage of taking place in the open air, but negotiating 3,470 kilometers remains a delicate proposition.
“The organizers have been very specific about what the start villages will look like, what the paddock will look like, who will have access to it, the different requirements for people who have access to have been tested, and how this environment is changing. through the campaign, ”said NTT Pro Cycling spokesperson.
“So it’s from the starting point, throughout the race to the finish, then to the hotel. For all intents and purposes, this bubble will be maintained and these directives are issued by the organizers. We’re pretty happy with what they’ve put in place. place. ”
Tour director Christian Prudhomme is satisfied with the way the sport has adapted to the new preventive regulations.
“So far, cycling has not come across any obstacles,” he told Reuters. “There will be police officers in the climbs, who will filter the crowd and make sure that the fans wear masks since I am convinced that all local authorities will make it mandatory.” »
No selfies allowed
Much of the attraction of the Tour is its accessibility to fans, who can line up the roads by the thousands at different stages to cheer on the riders.
This, of course, makes it much more difficult for organizers to make the race an ‘behind closed door’ event and of particular concern given the recent spike in Covid-19 cases.
“For example, there won’t be the ability to sign autographs or get selfies, that sort of thing and I think those are just common sense measures and the organizers have also made it pretty clear that the routes are pretty much boarded up and put together, ”NTT Pro Cycling spokesperson said.
“Access to certain areas where they would normally be pinch points on the climbs and areas where fans would normally congregate [has been restricted] and they have implemented many measures.
“So I think we are very confident that everything is going and that it is important for the sport that the race runs and runs safely. I think we all recognize this point. ”
Entering stage one on Saturday, reigning champion Egan Bernal is the common favorite to win the famous yellow jersey with Slovenian rider Primoz Roglic.