Uncertainty envelops the Tour de France against COVID-19

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PARIS (AP) – Already delayed, the Tour de France starts on Saturday in uncertainty, flying in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the imponderable question of how many of the 176 riders will avoid infection and endure three exceptionally difficult weeks of racing for reach the finish in Paris.

This is if the rolling roadshow goes that far.

Hosting the first cycle race when COVID-19 infections rise again in France represents both a health risk and an embodiment of French President Emmanuel Macron’s insistence that the country must learn to function as normally as possible with the virus.

Failure to safely conduct the Tour on the cobblestones of Champs-Elysées Avenue in Paris on September 20 could cast further doubt on the feasibility of holding other mega sporting events, including the Games. Tokyo Olympics postponed until next year, as coronavirus remains untamed. A key question asked while continuing the race will be whether it would have been wiser and safer to simply cancel it.

“Does the tour add to the experience of the human community this year? Or hurt him? That’s the answer, ”Jonathan Vaughters, EF Education First team leader, told The Associated Press. “If we choose to take the risk of living life, then I guess we may have to take the risk of letting go of events that make life worth living, like the Tour. Is it responsible for the community as a whole? I think there are many opinions. A lot. ”

Amid the pandemic, the generally boisterous celebration of cycling that for decades drew crowds of cheering roadside spectators promises to be a strange, more moderate affair, out of place for the first time in her 117 years. history out of its traditional July slot to a September month when many fans will be back to school or work after summer vacation.

Runners who in more carefree days were usually besieged by admirers gathering in front of their team’s buses and hotels should be largely isolated from the outside world, except on the roads. Organizers are imploring spectators to wear face masks, but won’t be able to stop them from turning up to watch the runners slip through their towns and villages, starting on Saturday in the Mediterranean city of Nice. Masks will be mandatory for spectators at the start and finish of stages, and have become mandatory outdoors in a growing number of towns and villages, as French infection rates have increased over the summer.

“If you like the Tour, if you like champions, wear a mask,” said race director Christian Prudhomme. “Not only will this not be the year to collect an autograph, but you shouldn’t be asking for autographs or asking for selfies. . Runners will say “Hello” from afar. It doesn’t mean they aren’t nice. All in all, it will be like Wimbledon: you don’t get (Roger) Federer’s autograph in the morning. ”

In an attempt to prevent the coronavirus from infecting the peloton of runners as it negotiates the route clockwise, 3,484 kilometers (2,165 miles), organizers aim to protect the 22 teams at the inside what they call a “racing bubble” – open only to runners and staff who tested negative twice during the race, including this week at a mobile lab in Nice.

The Tour’s COVID-19 protocol, detailed in a 17-page document distributed to teams and obtained by the AP, says teams will be expelled if two of their riders or staff members test positive for the virus or exhibit strong symptoms of infection. Race organizers say this scenario will only be reserved for two or more cases over a seven-day period. The threat of expulsion makes riders and managers even more nervous than usual on the eve of the biggest event on the cycling calendar, worried not only about the infection but also about the reliability of virus testing.

German team Bora-Hansgrohe are among those who have expressed concern after their riders first tested positive and then negative on Tuesday resulting in their entire team being withdrawn from the one-day race de Bretagne Classic. Bora team principal Ralph Denk has called for immediate changes to the cycling testing regime to combat false positives.

“We are talking about athletes who have been preparing for a race for weeks or months and who might not be allowed to start the event due to a false discovery,” he said.

When the Tour teams arrived in Nice, some were surprised to find that they were sharing their designated hotel with regular customers, raising doubts about the tightness of the racing bubble.

In addition to concerns about COVID-19, riders will face one of the most relentless Tour routes in memory, with an overall high total of 29 difficult climbs. They will climb the five French mountain ranges: the Alps, the Massif Central, the Pyrenees, the Jura and the Vosges. Uphill slogs arrive from stage 2 on Sunday, in a first for the race, with two climbs of 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) and more.

An uphill time trial on the penultimate stage before Paris decides on the ranking of the contenders for the podiums and for the winner’s prize of 500,000 euros ($ 590,000).

Defending champion Egan Bernal of Colombia is the only previous winner in an area stripped of quadruple champion Chris Froome and 2018 winner Geraint Thomas, both omitted by Bernal’s Ineos team, leaving him as their sole leader. The main among Bernal’s rivals could be Primoz Roglic, a Slovenian who finished 4th in 2018, and Tom Dumoulin, the Dutch runner-up that year who is now Roglic’s teammate at Jumbo-Visma.

But with the pandemic having forced riders to train indoors on stationary bikes and with limited races in this tumultuous year, preparing the top contenders is one of many uncertainties in a Tour unlike any other. .

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More Tour de France coverage: https://apnews.com/TourdeFrance

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