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How the Tour de France 2020 went ahead despite Covid-19

29 Sep 2020

Words: Richard Moore Photography: Chris Auld

The dying sunflowers said it all. In normal times, the sunflower fields are the perfect symbol of the Tour de France, showing the country at its vivid, high-definition, height-of-summer best.

The race should copyright the image: fields of tall, swaying, bright yellow sunflowers, with the peloton as a blurry backdrop.

In September, the sunflowers were wilting and rusty brown. And yet they were still the perfect symbol and metaphor – for this year’s delayed Tour de France in particular, and 2020 more generally.

I first covered the Tour as a journalist in 2005 and haven’t missed a race since. Sixteen Tours amounts to a full year (plus three weeks) spent following the peloton and over that sort of time you become so used to the way things work that you cease to notice the odd quirks and strange customs and etiquette of life on the Tour.

This year, however, was very different. Nothing worked as it usually does, and there was much to learn, or re-learn. That became clear in Nice, which hosted the Grand Départ and, unusually, the starts and finishes of Stages 1 and 2, then also the start of Stage 3.

Touch and go

When the route was announced last October I looked forward to those few days in Nice. One of the most exhilarating but exhausting things about the Tour is that you seem to be in perpetual motion for three weeks.

What bliss, what luxury, not to have to move for three days, and not to have to move from one of France’s most pleasant cities.

In the event, the stay was uncomfortably long. Staging the Tour at all seemed audacious, but once we were in Nice it felt more like a reckless gamble. In the week before the Grand Départ, the city was declared a Covid-19 ‘red zone’.

The build-up to the race was punctuated by the teams’ presentation in the Place Massena, scheduled for the Thursday evening, 48 hours before the race proper. ASO, the Tour organiser, was determined this would go ahead before 5,000 people, as French laws allowed.

But the situation was changing, and worsening, with each passing day. Cases of Covid-19 were rising, gradually at first but escalating rapidly as the Grand Départ loomed.

The impression from the outside was of ASO as an organisation stubbornly digging its heels in, wanting – or willing – it to be business as usual even as the French authorities and public health experts got increasingly jittery.

The teams’ presentation – a ceremony with no real value – assumed huge symbolic importance. If it didn’t go ahead, was the Tour vulnerable?

Race director Christian Prudhomme spent much of the week in meetings with politicians and local mayors; these meetings must have been increasingly fraught, not least when news broke that two staff members of the Lotto Soudal team had tested positive for the coronavirus and were being sent home.

It was the tip of the iceberg, some predicted, although there were no other positives in the battery of tests carried out before the start – the first of three rounds of tests, with the others happening on the first and second rest days.

Those days would feel like the old days – 2006, 07 and 08 in particular – when positive tests meant something else.

In the end, the teams’ presentation did go ahead, before 1,000 socially distanced guests.

Safety first

Meanwhile, discussions and arguments continued about the precise rules concerning positive tests. Two in a team meant the whole team would be excluded, but did that include staff as well as riders?

ASO said riders only; the French government said ‘non’, insisting that it include the whole 30-person entourage in each team. Some day the full story will be told of how close the Tour came to not starting. My guess would be very close indeed.

It wasn’t until the racing finally got underway with La Course, the women’s race held over 96km on the Saturday morning, that Prudhomme could truly breathe a sigh of relief.

Yet there was no easing into what some called the Covid Tour. After La Course served up an attacking race, won by Lizzie Deignan, the Tour’s first stage was appropriately chaotic.

It too was heavy with symbolism. Shortly into the stage the skies darkened, torrential rain fell and the roads became a skidpan. The day was defined by nasty crashes until the riders said enough was enough and, led by Tony Martin of Jumbo-Visma, called a truce.

That the Tour had started felt hugely significant, for it would surely have been easier to cancel it beforehand than to stop it once it was underway. But the carnage felt ominous.

Just that morning one major news agency ran a story featuring an interview with a nurse who worked at the local hospital in Nice. She felt conflicted about the Tour de France coming to her city when memories were so fresh of a hospital overrun with Covid patients.

This played on the mind as we watched so many riders – Pavel Sivakov, Thibaut Pinot, Wout Poels, George Bennett and many more – come to grief.

Only a few of them needed hospital treatment, but you had to wonder at the optics of bruised, battered and bloodied riders struggling to the finish in the time of a global pandemic.

You also had to wonder at the huge crowds that lined the Promenade: all, or most, wearing masks, but in every other way acting just as a Tour de France crowd acts in normal times.

This was one of the contradictions in evidence over the three weeks. Facemasks were mandatory for everyone inside the Tour ‘bubble’ and also for those who were not, including journalists. We had to keep our distance, with interviews conducted at least a metre apart.

Ordinarily cycling, even the Tour, is the most accessible professional sport in the world. We wander freely around the buses in the teams’ paddock at the stage starts and finishes, stopping riders as they pass for an interview or talking to sports directors as they wait by their team cars.

This year the paddock was fenced off. We could stalk the buses and talk over the fence, although one colleague was warned early in the race that if he was caught interviewing a rider that way then both he and the rider would have their accreditation removed.

Minutes earlier he had in fact been interviewing a prominent rider. It was intriguing, and terrifying for our colleague, to imagine the headlines had the rider been kicked off the race as a result.

We were only supposed to interview riders in a new zone: the mixed zone. This was a series of pens close to the signing-on stage. It was one journalist per pen but there weren’t enough pens, which caused daily chaos, confusion and some cross words.

The riders loved it, naturally. ‘I think it’s great,’ said Charly Wegelius, the EF Pro Cycling sports director, across the fence one morning.

‘This is what I’ve always dreamed about: to be left alone in the mornings and not be pestered by journalists. It’s wonderful. I hope it stays.’

He was only half joking.

Dave Brailsford, the Team Ineos Grenadiers principal, said that he thought ASO would keep something resembling the new system, even when the threat of Covid recedes.

The teams and riders generally seemed to prefer it to the usual free-for-all. Their only misgiving was that the advertising boards forming the backdrop for rider interviews now belonged to ASO, and featured their commercial partners, rather than the team’s.

Symbiotic relationships

Why should anyone care? Because some of the changes introduced this year, if they become permanent, would represent a rupture with the founding principles of the race. It was created by a newspaper, after all, and brought to life by journalists. The closer their access to the riders, the better they were able to bring it to life.

That role is perhaps not so vital today. In the 1950s Antoine Blondin would sit on Louison Bobet’s bed in his hotel room interviewing him about the stage and taking down notes to relay to his readers.

The relationship between journalist and rider became a bit less close over the years – probably for the best – but now traditional media can be bypassed completely. Social media allows teams to let the fans in, albeit on their terms.

Most fans consume the Tour on TV, of course, and to them, as the race left Nice and settled into a rhythm, it seemed to more or less resemble any Tour de France, but with some subtle changes, many relating to the time of year. The light was different, as if a slightly muted filter had been applied. The shadows were longer (stages also finished later). There were fewer people by the side of the road, and most wore a mask.

As the race entered its second weekend and the battleground of the Pyrenees, the atmosphere changed.

The sense of risk that some of us felt in Nice, where the large crowds pressed up against the barriers, returned as we watched riders slog and sweat up mountain passes in close proximity to mask-less fans.

These fans were in the minority, but that didn’t matter. It only needed one to be infected with the virus to possibly pass it on to a rider and destroy the ‘bubble’ that ASO, the teams and riders had been so carefully trying to protect.

Testing times

Two days later came the first mid-race round of coronavirus tests, with the results made public before racing resumed with Stage 10.

There were four positive cases, all staff members, on four different teams: Ineos Grenadiers, AG2R, Cofidis and Mitchelton-Scott.

There was also a positive case among the ‘technical staff’: none other than the race director himself, Prudhomme, who spent the next seven days in self-isolation (he was back a week later after a negative test).

Jeroen Swart, the head doctor at UAE-Team Emirates, was not complacent. He warned that on the second rest day there could be multiple cases. ‘That’s what happened at the UAE Tour in February,’ he said. ‘As soon as there was one case, it spread like wildfire.’

He might have quoted Melinda Gates: ‘Covid-19 anywhere is Covid-19 everywhere.’

That the tests on the second rest day all came back negative was surprising. No doubt there was some luck in this, but it’s worth commending the race, the teams and riders.

They achieved something no one else managed in 2020: running their flagship event as close to ‘normal’ as possible, without the compromises that, while necessary, diminished other sports.

When coronavirus brought racing to a halt in March we were warned that a season without the Tour de France would be devastating for the sport, with several teams not surviving. The revised dates offered a lifeline, but as they approached, the risks seemed to rise inexorably.

In the end, holding the Tour was an enormous gamble. The stakes were high and there is much we still don’t know – about whether, for example, the larger than expected number of fans might have helped spread the virus.

If riders and teams had tested positive and been excluded the integrity of the race would have been harmed. If the Tour helped spread the virus, its reputation would be badly damaged.

We might learn more about that in the weeks to come but, as the race reached the Alps, with Prudhomme poking out the sunroof of the lead car and waving the flag to start the stage, the final round of Covid tests behind them and Paris on the distant horizon, the signs were encouraging.

The sunflowers were dead, but the Tour was alive.