One rider said he worried cycling fans would ignore edicts about masks. A small-town mayor said he would do his best to abide by limits on crowd sizes. A team official expressed concerns about sweat, and spit, and at least one mechanic said he had stopped sharing his tools.
The coronavirus-delayed Tour de France plans to start its serpentine, 2,156-mile journey around France on Saturday, two months later than its traditional July window but still uncomfortably in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. It will be the 107th edition of the cycling race, and unlike any before it.
In any year, the Tour is equal parts cycling race and traveling carnival, the open-air street fair of European sports where millions of fans converge on the route and pinch the course’s narrow roads like fat molecules clogging a body’s arteries.
But this is not any year. As France works to prevent new virus cases, riders, teams and fans who plan to be part of the race’s 21 stages will be subject to new rules involving testing and contact tracing; about what constitutes an outbreak and who will be allowed to continue in the race if there is one; and about crowd sizes and guest limits in a race that is about community and connectivity, not isolation and social distancing.
“It will still be the Tour,” said Benoît Cosnefroy, 24, a rider for AG2R La Mondiale who rode his first Tour last year, “but without the euphoria that the public brings.”
The first stage on Saturday will depart from the sunny southern city of Nice, where a rise in infections this month prompted the city’s mayor to make mask wearing mandatory in all outdoor areas. The race is set to end in Paris on Sept. 20, though that, like everything else in the pandemic era, is subject to change.
To give the race its best chance of success, Amaury Sport Organisation, which runs the Tour, has instituted stringent protocols to the 22 teams. Every team member — eight riders and a maximum of 22 support staff members — first had to pass two coronavirus tests. Everyone will be tested again on both rest days, on Sept. 7 and 14.
In addition, team doctors will be required to complete a daily health checklist for every rider and staff member to identify any symptoms of possible infection, including fever, fatigue, shortness of breath or coughing.
But how can a sprawling, snaking race that carries the whole country along for the ride be contained in a bubble? The short answer is it can’t.
Throughout France, those who participate in or follow “le Tour” see it as a nationwide celebration, highlighting not only a beloved sport but also the country’s landscapes and small towns for weeks before it arrives, with much fanfare, for a final sprint on France’s most famous avenue, the Champs-Élysées.
In Europe, this year’s Tour carries added significance because it is one of the few crown jewels left — along with next month’s French Open tennis championships — on a sports calendar already stripped of many of its biggest moments.
But it is also because the Tour is distinctive in an era of globalized sports, a major event treasured and celebrated for its accessibility. It is a race where the public can approach their heroes, where they can see them every day for weeks if they wish to follow them, where they come close enough to touch them as they muscle their way up mountain passes.
And unlike most other sports in France, fans don’t come to the Tour. Often, it comes to them.
“There is something epic about the Tour, and accessible to all at the same time, which makes it so unique,” said Philippe Gaboriau, a sociologist who has written a book about the race. “Anyone can go.”
Some villages and cities wait years, if not decades, before seeing the peloton roll past.
“We will never host the Olympics, or the World Cup, but we are about to host the Tour de France, whether there’s a pandemic or not,” said Guy Saillard, the mayor of Champagnole, a village of fewer than 8,000 people where riders are scheduled to arrive for the 19th stage. Saillard said he had invested several hundred thousand euros in renovating the town’s main road ahead of the race.
Many mayors said they expected fewer visitors than if the Tour had held to its regular dates in July because children will be back in school, vacationers will be back at work and international travel is extremely difficult. Crowds at the departure and arrival areas have been limited this year to 5,000, a figure that will be reduced even more since the cap includes the riders, team staff members and guests of the Tour and the individual teams.
“We will still try to celebrate it, even though the resurgence of the pandemic remains a threat,” said Eric Houlley, the mayor of Lure, the tiny eastern town where the race’s penultimate stage — if it gets that far — will see riders depart from the main plaza, between the high school and the local movie theater.
“We are at the mercy of the authorities and we will do what we will be told to do,” Houlley added.
The same will be true inside the race bubble. Christian Prudhomme, the Tour’s general director, said the teams would remain isolated, along with some security officials and the organization’s staff members, for the duration of the race. If a rider tests positive, he will have to drop out, Prudhomme said, and so will everyone who may be at risk after coming in close contact with him.
“It’s a bit of a headache,” said Frédéric Grappe, the head of performance at the Groupama-FDJ team. “If a rider has some symptoms and is tested in the morning but doesn’t have the results right away, should he ride that day?”
But Grappe warned of competitive concerns, too. A rider, or a team, in contention for the leader’s yellow jersey would have a strong incentive to keep any virus concerns secret.
“If, two days before the end of the Tour, the yellow jersey is at risk, is he going to fill in the form in honesty and run the risk of being disqualified?” Grappe asked.
Prudhomme dismissed such concerns, arguing that it was “everyone’s responsibility” to respect the protocols. “I don’t see how people wouldn’t respect the rules,” he said.
To mitigate infection risks, everyone inside the Tour bubble will be required to wear face masks before and after each stage, including while inside team vehicles and during news conferences, all of which will be held online.
Aaron Fairley, a team mechanic for Trek-Segafredo, said he worried that not being able to move freely would affect his ability to do his job. “Borrowing a piece of equipment or asking for friendly advice can be critical in a race, and this is now impossible,” he said in an email.
Yet an event that traverses more than 2,000 miles of public roads and passes by the homes of millions of fans simply cannot be held behind closed doors.
Nicolas Roche, a member of the Sunweb team, said, “The stadium at the Tour de France is out your front door, so I think it is complicated to tell people not to go outside.”
Roche said he was worried that policing behavior outside the bubble will be impossible. At the Critérium du Dauphiné, a short Tour tuneup held this month, a local mandate had required fans to wear masks to be on the side of the road, but Roche said many people ignored it.
“But how can you control it?” he said. “You can’t have a policeman in front of every house.”
Some saw victory in the fact that this year’s Tour was taking place at all. More than 30,000 people in France have died after contracting the coronavirus, making the country one of the hardest-hit in Europe. A resurgence of cases in recent weeks has renewed fears that large gatherings like the ones expected at the Tour will lead to new outbreaks.
That was why, two weeks before the scheduled start of this year’s race, the former champion Stephen Roche picked up the phone and called his son.
Roche knows well the physical toll that cycling’s supreme spectacle inflicts on its participants. In 1987, on his way to becoming Ireland’s only Tour de France champion, he fell off his bike at the end of a grueling Stage 21 climb, temporarily lost movement in his arms and legs, and left the finish area in an ambulance.
Nicolas Roche is Stephen’s son, and he is competing in his 10th Tour this year. He said his father owned a home in tourist-friendly Nice, where the race will begin, and had seen how quickly the virus can spread when outsiders converge in one place.
Stephen Roche worried what that could mean for the packs of riders and their teams as they flock together like migrating birds, and he told his son about the rugby players at a Paris club who developed lung damage after they were infected.
“The last thing he wants is for me to be sick because he also knows it could permanently damage your body,” Nicolas Roche said.
What is certain is there will not be a repeat of the 1987 trophy ceremony. That day, television footage captured a 3-year-old Nicolas being handed to his father in the middle of an interview after his victory. Still in the winner’s yellow jersey, Stephen Roche kissed Nicolas on the cheek while his smiling son chewed on a finger.
No such scene will be possible this year. Family members have been excluded from the team bubbles. Nicolas Roche, the father of a young daughter, said he did not expect anyone to have any problem with the rule.