Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo: CorVos/SWpix.com
Britain is speeding ahead in terms of Covid-19 vaccination levels, but the road racing scene remains dormant, while in France and Belgium, the spring programme is gathering pace, despite fears of the virus.
If you’re British-based, there is a tentative glimpse of light at the end of the long, dark tunnel, as Covid-19 infection rates decline, vaccination levels rise and talk of pub gardens and picnics, family get-togethers and even holidays, steadily increases.
It’s a different picture elsewhere in Europe, however, with infection rates refusing to drop and the vaccine roll-out considerably slower. In France, Nice and the surrounding area has this week been identified as a Covid hot spot, just ten days before the 2021 Paris-Nice begins its week-long journey south towards the Cote d’Azur.
Public health officials have described the spread of the virus in the Alpes-Maritimes region as “out of control” and the situation in a dozen French regions has also been pinpointed as “very worrying.” The city of Nice is heading into local lockdown. Meanwhile the six pm curfew remains in place and a further statement from the French government is expected this Thursday.
But for now at least, bike racing goes on.
When La Course En Tete spoke on Wednesday to ASO, promoters of Paris-Nice, there were not expected to be any changes to the race route, even if that led to no fans at the roadside or on the barriers on the Promenade des Anglais. At the moment, ASO told La Course En Tete, “there is no plan to change the route of the final stages but of course we are in contact with the local authorities to get an update of the situation.”
In Belgium, where the Classics season gathers pace this weekend, there is tentative optimism. “We are reaching the point where we will start lifting the lockdown, but we must act with caution over the next few weeks,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said earlier this week.
Ironically though, the sole promoter to postpone their race months in advance of its scheduled date, is based in Britain, where first-dose vaccinations of the adult population are nearing the 20 million mark. The SweetSpot Group, organisers of the men’s and women’s Tours of Britain, moved early to cancel their races last year and have acted just as swiftly this year, with further postponements.
The women’s race was scheduled for 7 to 12 June, just a few days before the British government hopes to remove most of the ongoing restrictions on social activity. Now, the race is expected to take place in early October instead. “The health and wellbeing of participants, spectators and – of course – people in general remains the number one priority,” said Letitia Smith of East Suffolk Council.
Why then — given the numbers vaccinated and the tide of optimism in Britain — have SweetSpot been so cautious, while other race organisers, even with the virus apparently on the rampage, have been so gung-ho?
“There were three reasons,” explained Hugh Roberts, the chief executive of the Tour of Britain.
“The first because we have a close relationship with stakeholders and listen to them, perhaps unlike other race organisers, and they were nervous about putting the women’s Tour on on those dates in June when the circumstances were as they were. But then the decision to postpone was proved right anyway, as the government road map specifies that the further relaxations come only later in June.”
“The second issue was that a lot of people that we deal with at a local level have been drawn away to run vaccination centres and to support that effort and we couldn’t really work as closely with them as we’d like to.
The third was that we didn’t think that in June we’d get the level of crowds that we’d usually hope to get so because of that, those didn’t feel like appropriate dates to justify using those roads, and infrastructure.”
Now he is waiting for the rescheduled dates to be confirmed by the UCI, but fully expects the women’s Tour of Britain to move to October 5-9.
“We wouldn’t have done it without consulting with all our sponsors and our TV partners,” he added. “ITV can still take it and we’re still aspiring to go live. In some ways it might be better. It will be the first big women’s event after the Olympics and World Championships, so maybe we will have an Olympic gold medallist in the field, and who knows, a world champion too.”
Roberts was scathing of promoters who are leaving their ‘go-no go’ decision until the eleventh hour and argued that SweetSpot’s long-term thinking was more appropriate. “You can’t do that,” he said. “You’re jeopardising people’s safety — the public, the athletes, your own people. It’s verging on irresponsible and a bit too carefree for my tastes.”
Photo: Racing continues at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes, earlier this week – CorVos/SWpix.com
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