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The man who made the 2020 Tour de France happen: Pierre-Yves Thouault Q&A

18 Jun 2021

The 2020 Tour de France was the most exciting since LeMond-Fignon. ASO deputy director of cycling Pierre-Yves Thouault made it happen

Words: Maria David Photography: Caroline Pauleau

Cyclist: When did you first realise that Covid-19 would affect the 2020 Tour?

Pierre-Yves Thouault: The ASO [Amaury Sport Organisation] runs many races including Paris-Nice, so we realised in early March. The authorities updated us on the situation and we had to impose more restrictions during the race, and by the end we had no choice but to cancel the final stage. Shortly after that France went into total lockdown.

Cyc: What did you do during lockdown?

PYT: We worked flat out to establish a revised calendar. We organised ourselves into working groups – I dealt with the sport aspect, working with Professor Xavier Bigard, UCI medical director, plus the cycling federation, team doctors, sports directors and riders.

[Tour director] Christian Prudhomme worked with the politicians from the stage towns, central and local government and public health officials. We had countless meetings with the authorities and stakeholders to agree on new dates. Postponing the Tour de France by two months can’t be done at the snap of a finger!

We also had to reschedule other races including the Dauphiné, Tour de l’Ain, Route d’Occitanie... it was a mammoth task. I also attended an international working group comprising representatives from other sports such as athletics, football and tennis. We shared best practice on aspects such as bulk buying masks and hand sanitiser. There was a real solidarity.

Cyc: With different countries at different stages of the pandemic, how did you go about rescheduling races?

PYT: Professor Bigard had a global view that helped us understand how the spread of the virus was impacting riders from different countries. For example, Belgians had trained outdoors during lockdown while in France riders could not, so we allowed time for people to train and race before doing the Tour. 

Experts advised that racers would need at least four weeks of training and four weeks of competition before the Tour. We decided with the UCI – who I must thank for their help – that riders must arrive in France early enough to self-isolate if necessary and stay in their team bubble. I must say the behaviour of the cyclists was exemplary.

Cyc: What extra safety measures did the ASO have to implement at the Tour?

PYT: In accordance with government rules we had strict bubbles for riders and their teams, a bubble for organisers and a bubble for sponsors, media and dignitaries. Hotels accommodated one team per floor with designated restaurant areas for each.

Covid tests were done every six days, as well as three days before the race. On each rest day we did 700 tests on all the teams and staff, with around 20 nurses and doctors in a mobile unit supporting us.

Teams signed on for the stages as a group, and for the jersey presentations a teammate would put the jersey on the rider before he mounted the podium, as opposed to one of our staff. There were no handshakes, and press conferences took place remotely or socially distanced in the ‘mixed zone’.

A media campaign informed people of the measures, while on site a Covid team made public announcements and distributed masks and gel. The public was banned from going to team hotels, entering feed zones or intermediate sprint areas, and picking up discarded bidons was strictly forbidden.

Cyc: Was that as much pressure on you as it sounds?

PYT: Absolutely yes, particularly during the Covid tests. Knowing a team would have to leave the Tour if two members tested positive was a very stressful prospect. And then Christian Prudhomme tested positive at La Rochelle and had to self-isolate!

Cyc: How did you react to the news, and how did you cope?

PYT: When I found out that morning it was a real hammer blow to the head. The Prime Minister [Jean Castex] had visited the Tour a couple of days earlier, so he had to self-isolate too. We always have contingency plans but it was still tough.

Luckily we have experienced people around such as Thierry Gouvenou, the Tour’s course designer and experienced race manager and commissaire. We kept in touch with Christian, discussing arrangements many times a day, but when he returned a week later we were really happy to see him.

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Cyc: Do you get to follow the Tour as well as oversee it?

PYT: Usually during the Tour I am focussed on every aspect of logistics and safety. The Tour is a travelling party of 5,000 people so there is always something to deal with – timings of the caravan, attendance by VIPs, ad hoc incidents. With the added complication of coronavirus I was so focussed I didn’t see the race.

Sometimes people would say to me after a stage, ‘What a win – brilliant race!’ And I would have no idea what they were talking about. I wasn’t working 24 hours a day, but my nights were very short. In the past 30 years I have organised 24 Tours, and 2020 was the most difficult. Even now we are not sure how we solved the issues around it.

Cyc: It must have been a relief when the Tour reached Paris. How did that feel?

PYT: Our goal was to arrive in Paris on 20th September, so doing that was a massive relief. Christian Prudhomme says, ‘Behind a mask there is a smile,’ and we brought some joy during a bleak period, and that, plus the achievement of managing to put on the race, was immensely satisfying.

Cyc: Even though you didn’t see much racing, what will be your most treasured memories of the 2020 Tour?

PYT: There are many. One is when the Tour set off on the first stage from Nice and the director said, ‘Départ réel donné – enfin Le Tour a commencé!’ which means, ‘They’re off – finally the Tour has begun!’

Another was when we drove into the courtyard of the Louvre on the final stage. I was in the front car and it was incredible when we stopped in front of the Pyramid. I said to myself, ‘Finally we’ve done it. We’ve made it to Paris!’

Cyc: And so to the future. How do you think the 2021 Tour will pan out?

PYT: Again we will be led by the authorities and we are working on special measures with Professor Bigard and UCI president Lappartient, which we will implement as and when necessary. This year will be special for me as the race will start from my home region, Brittany. I don’t know how things will evolve, but I am motivated and looking forward to it.