This Tour de France was the strangest and most surreal tour of France in living memory

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For journalists, it was a strangely baffling experience. The same but different.There were obvious frustrations in terms of access. Interviews should be conducted via Zoom. Mixed zones are very small, with journalists fighting over the “bib” which gives them access to the pen (all English-speaking race journalists were assigned a “bib” to share as they see fit).

But more than that, it’s how the virus subtly distorted the usual pace and feel of the race. Deprived of access to hotels and team buses, it was a more lonely experience. Less human. Less traffic too. This was an easier tour to cover in several ways.

The Tour caravan, which precedes the race and distributes Haribo candies and Bic biros to spectators, is still there (some traditions – or rather commercial considerations – are too sacred to be thrown overboard). But it is bare, less colorful than usual. The young people in their twenties who hand out the treats on the back of the milk floats seem to be having less fun. Perhaps it is the fact that they are forced to wear latex gloves and masks.

It’s not just the pervasive threat of Covid. It’s the fact that the race takes place in September, two months later than usual. French schools returned last week. The evenings are frankly cool. The afternoon shadows lengthen, giving the race a subtly different feel, more like the Vuelta a Espana which traditionally takes place in late August-September.

Sometimes you can almost forget that something is wrong. While sipping coffee in a café on the Côte d’Azur, watching the world go by. Then a voice sounds from a nearby Tannoy reminding the audience that it is mandatory to wear a face mask.

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