SISTERON, France (VN) – Sailing the Tour de France is never easy. But after all these years, you’d think we’d figure it out.
Monday’s third stage was a preview of what the Tour de France 2020 will throw us in this COVID-19 edition. Roadblocks, literally and figuratively, hampered our frantic daily quest from start to finish that typically ruins much of the Tour’s hack day.
It started off badly, getting lost when leaving the nest of alleys of the Old Port of Nice. Then came a comic arrival at the Nice football stadium, where ASO subordinates lost journalists in a maze of stairwells, fences, barriers, security checks, hand sanitizing stations. and security guards waving their fingers. The morning chorus? You can’t leave here.
Almost as soon as we finally got there, we heard the pre-stage bell – kind of like a bell ride in a criterium race – except instead of running for the bounties you have to move your butt. Then came a moment of panic trying to find the car in the dungeon-shaped underground parking lot in the bowels of the football stadium (remember, kids, always take note of the parking space if it’s numbered).
Once on the racetrack – phew! – things are back to normal. Fans lined the road, the villages above Nice sparkled in the late summer sun. We stopped in Tourrettes-sur-Loup, chatted with fans, hit a bakery, took a few shots and watched the peloton go by. It almost looked like the Tour de France, except everyone was wearing masks.
We pulled up behind the broom cart as the sky opened. With increased safety and health measures, police told us there was no way to deviate from our course. And without limited access press accreditation, there was no way to get past the peloton.
We were stuck behind the peloton, the worst place to be in a bike race.
In simpler times – before global pandemics and terrorist attacks – photographers and scribes could jump past the course at every stage, using side roads and a keen sense of direction to catch the peloton two to three times, and always arrive for the finish in time for an orderly sprint.
Not anymore. We took our photos early, in the 25 km opening, but there was still a wire-frame left for us to get to Sisteron.
After some creative cuddles and pleas from a local policeman that got us through the barriers, we returned to the French Riviera, just in time for what turned out to be two big “traffic jams” – a peculiar guy. French traffic jam – on the main toll road.
Fortunately for us, the peloton was in slow motion and we arrived in Sisteron some 30 minutes before the peloton. Everything is fine.
A tour like no other
The line above has been the refrain so far of the 2020 Tour. Exceptional conditions require exceptional measures.
Everyone will see this play out in the first mountain top final on Tuesday. According to Tour Race Director Thierry Gouvenou, cars and campers will not be allowed on 27 summits and climbs throughout this year’s edition.
This will mean that this year’s Tour climbs could be virtually devoid of some of the most colorful and dynamic aspects of what makes the Tour so unique in the world of sport.
The ability of cycling fans to get so close to their sporting heroes – too close in some cases – is a vital part of the history of the Tour. With the coronavirus threatening the Tour, race organizers felt they had no other option.
The last thing anyone wants is the Tour to become a COVID-19 spreader event, and the rationale is that if there are fewer people on the usually crowded summits, the lower the risk.
Insiders tell us it was a heartbreaking decision for ASO to cut off access to fans on the Tour’s most famous climbs. Fans are the lifeblood of a sport that doesn’t charge admission or have stadium seats.
It’s important to point out that climbs are not entirely prohibited – fans can still go up on foot or by bicycle.
Cheering on the stars of the peloton will just require a little more sweat energy this year.
It’s time to plug in that electric bike.
Tuesday stage to thin out the herd
I’m looking forward to Tuesday’s fourth 160 km stage at Orcières-Merlette in the southern French Alps. Why? Because I have no idea what’s going to happen.
The final climb isn’t that hard by WorldTour standards – 7.1 km at 6.7% – but the fact that it comes so early in this Tour in a truncated season where everyone’s form is everywhere on the map, well, how can we predict what will happen?
One thing that will happen is some GC hopes will be torpedoed. We’ve already seen a few big names giving up time. Tuesday should see a little more.
It’s the classic “you can’t win the Tour but you can lose it” kind of ascent.
I expect a few things: first, Jumbo-Visma will try to club the Ineos Grenadiers again. The Dutch team are coming out loud, so let’s see if they continue to build up the pressure. This Tour is so long and so difficult, however, I wonder if it could backfire later in the race. Egan Bernal has been playing cool so far, so I expect Ineos’ DS to keep whispering in his ear so as not to get on the bait.
I also very much hope to see Tadej Pogačar leave by plane. He’s only 17 seconds away from the yellow jersey and he’s only 21 – of course he will attack! I just hope the UAE doesn’t try to hold it back. The exuberance of youth only lasts so long. If he has the legs, let him run.
My choice: Pogačar for the victory, and Julian Alaphilippe defends the yellow with a mustache.