Is pushing on with a three-week Tour de France in 2020 irresponsible?

by Sophie Smith

Days out from the 107th Tour de France I’m starting to really wonder if staging the race in its entirety, amid a pandemic is a responsible thing to do.

That’s not just because of the risk of COVID-19 contamination either. 

The mountainous course has been described as one of the toughest in modern cycling history, which the peloton will enter on the back of only 28 days of race conditioning, following a competition shutdown that spanned almost five months.

The riders I’ve spoken to over the course of the shutdown and in the lead-up to the Grand Depart in Nice on Saturday believe the Tour will start, but the majority don’t think it will reach Paris. 

Personally, I’ll breathe easier if the bunch just clears the first week without serious incident. 

The first week of the Tour is usually marred with crashes. Even on the back of up to six months race conditioning, the peloton is nervous because of the enormity of the event, which is part race, part tourist attraction. The Tour represents, in a sporting context, career-defining opportunity, as well as cold, hard business. It’s contracts and sponsorships, the cash cow of the industry that is built upon a house of cards, dependent on the whims of the mega rich and divided by in-fighting.

Champions when they win a stage often describe it first and foremost as a “relief”.

People’s livelihoods can be determined at the Tour and no less this year when riders and teams now have only three months to prove themselves in a COVID-19 affected market.

So, imagine what the atmosphere may be like in Nice, where overly eager, fresh riders don’t have the race conditioning and consequent fatigue that helps everyone settle down faster, when the stakes are arguably higher, and perhaps more desperate, than ever. 

As Philippa York wrote in a Cyclingnews column last week, the number of crashes that have interrupted key stage races held since competition resumed on August 1 is testament to how nervous the bunch is.  

Rider safety as a consequence has been brought into sharp focus.

A CPA spokeswoman in the wake of incidents at the Tour of Poland, Lombardia and the Criterium du Dauphine told me the riders’ union would hold a meeting “between stakeholders at the start of the Tour de France to discuss the changes to be proposed for the safety measures”.

When asked to clarify what that meant, the CPA wouldn’t say.

“Unfortunately, we cannot go into details yet. We will communicate them after the meeting.”

It comes after some riders questioned what the CPA does and the union in turn labelled such criticism as “unacceptable”. 

The industry isn’t doing a great job of even putting on a united front let alone standing together as it approaches the frontline. 

From a practical standpoint, professional sport is a business and ASO and its pinnacle event underline cycling. The Tour going ahead financially benefits everyone in the game, myself included.

However, from an ethical standpoint, to me, the closer we get, it would have made more sense, hell, even been more humane, to condense the Tour to two weeks, similar to how the Dauphine was shortened.

The truth is, the Tour won’t be the Tour as anyone on the circuit knows it this year, so why try to push on with a three-week race that traverses one of the hardest parcours we’ve seen, on the back of no racing? It just seems irresponsible, especially given how topical rider safety is right now. And that’s before you factor in COVID-19 and the thousands of people involved in the race, from all different parts of the world, converging and then travelling together around France where you simply can’t patrol every part of every stage to ensure crowds honour social distancing.

Yes, ASO will enforce strict protocols and teams equally have their own procedures in place. 

At the Tour in a normal year a rider’s health is keenly protected because it’s on a knife’s edge. The difference between being lean enough to compete and lean enough to get sick is minuscule. I had pneumonia covering the Tour two years ago and there was more than two metres put between me and riders during interviews in the teams’ paddock. 

Looking at the history of the race, there are only three blank spaces on the more than century-long honour roll. They account for the two World Wars and the titles Lance Armstrong was stripped of. Clearly, making any changes to La Grande Boucle is a big call.

Ask anyone who has done a few laps or more around France and they’ll tell you they hate the Tour, but the day it’s over we all vow to return in 12 months. It casts a spell that invigorates and sucks the life out of you at the same time. From where I sit in my Melbourne hometown during a grey winter, living under stage four restrictions and a curfew, any race has served as a happy escape, a return to some form of my normality. And maybe it’s where I’m sitting, not reporting under a hot European sun with an element of freedom, that is more so than anything influencing my subjective sentiment. I’m constantly talking to my sources and learned colleagues on the phone, WhatsApp, on Zoom, though in fairness, I’m not on the ground so not able to read people’s faces, body language, the room – at least as well.

But from here, right now, the risk, the potential expense of running the whole three weeks of the Tour, to me, may gravely outweigh profits made. 

More about Sophie Smith >

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