In normal times, the Tour de France is a brutal and boisterous cycling marathon marked out from rival bike races by the huge crowds that line the roads to catch a glimpse of the riders and spur them on to the finish line on the Champs-Elysées.
But the 2020 version of the world’s greatest cycling race will be anything but normal, with the spectators who traditionally gather in towns and villages up and down France forced to stay away, or to keep their distance and wear face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“It’s not at all a normal Tour de France, because we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Laurent-Eric Le Lay, director of sport at France Télévisions, which as every year will provide live worldwide coverage of the event.
Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice in southern France where the 3,470km race begins on Saturday, said it was a “miracle” that the Tour — already postponed from earlier in the summer — was even on the calendar given the cancellation of so many other events.
Yet organisers were determined to press ahead. “I’ve said before that only two world wars have previously stopped the Tour,” Christian Prudhomme, race director, told Le Monde newspaper in June. “Things would be really bad if the Tour de France did not take place.”
Yet it is one thing to start a race in a pandemic, and quite another to hope to complete it with the number of virus infections rising by the day across western Europe, including France.
Once the likes of Egan Bernal, the Colombian who won the Tour last year, and French hopefuls Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe have finished the first stage, they still have nearly three weeks of riding during which they and their teams must stay infection-free.
The joke doing the rounds in Paris is that cycling has been so tainted by doping scandals in the past that the strict testing imposed for Covid-19 will be no great trial for the 22 teams and 176 riders.
Yet one rule announced by Amaury Sport Organisation, the body that runs the Tour, has competitors, sponsors and fans in a cold sweat: if two or more people in a team, including support staff, are confirmed with the virus then the entire outfit must withdraw.
“Imagine there are two mechanics who test positive in the team which has the [leader’s] yellow jersey the day before the finish,” said Pascal Boniface, a Tour fanatic who heads the Iris think-tank in Paris. “That is a very heavy Sword of Damocles hanging over the competition and its credibility.”
On Friday, the Belgian Lotto-Soudal team said two of its squad had tested positive, but so far it has not been dropped from the race. L’Equipe, the French sports daily, said they were not riders but mechanics, who had been sent home along with two roommates.
Teams have taken precautions by keeping their riders in isolation bubbles away from possible sources of the virus, as well as monitoring how the riders could be infected while racing either by spectators or by each other.
Nevertheless, race organisers and fans seem to share the view of Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, that the country must learn to live with the virus while curbing the spread of infections. The Tour was a “signal that life continues, and continues strongly,” Mr Boniface said.
At least the 2020 Tour holds the potential for a genuine sporting contest after years in which the race was dominated by the Ineos team from the UK, formerly Team Sky.
Neither of Ineos’s out-of-form champion cyclists, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, who have between them won the Tour five times, will race this year. Meanwhile, the Jumbo-Visma team, which could be a main challenger, has lost the Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk, who came third last year, to an injured shoulder. Ineos’s Bernal will be the only previous Tour winner in the race.
The towns and villages that show themselves off to the world through television coverage of the Tour are putting on a brave face, despite having to limit the number of spectators and impose strict social distancing.
Raphael Cognet, mayor of Mantes-la-Jolie, the town north-west of Paris that will be the starting point for the final stage of the race into the capital, said he hoped to be able to put on a “great popular party”.
“We’re very happy to host the Tour . . . we were fearful it wouldn’t happen,” he said.
Yet the omens are not good: the préfet of Nice said on Thursday that the start of the Tour on Saturday would be “almost behind closed doors”, with only a few dozen fans allowed to attend.
Television audiences, on the other hand, are expected to remain strong for as long as the Tour continues. Mr Le Lay said that 35m French people, more than half the population, watched at least some of the 2019 race. “I think we’ll have even more viewers . . . It’s really a special event,” he said.
After months in which ordinary life was put on hold, staging the Tour was part of a process by which sport was “beginning to retake its rightful place,” he added. “The challenge now is to live with the virus, and playing sport in an epidemic is part of that.”