The Tour stops for no one

by Peter Cossins

Where were you on the day that the Tour de France director tested positive? I think I’ve got to type that again just to get it to sink in a little.

Where were you on the day that the Tour de France director tested positive? It’s a question that shouldn’t have an answer.

However, such is the world that we live in now that every cycling fan has an answer to this. Mine is that I was in the mixed zone area where the media can speak to the riders prior to the start of the Tour’s 10th stage on the Île d’Oléron. I was in there hoping that I’d be able to chat with Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss for a couple of minutes, but suspected events might take the early afternoon in a quite different direction.

Following Tadej Pogacar’s victory at Laruns on Sunday night, almost the only topic of conversation at the Tour had been the Coronavirus testing that had been undertaken on every person within the Tour’s “race bubble”, essentially the riders and team staff. Most of those conversations were of the ‘What if…?’ kind. What if, for instance, numerous riders tested positive for the virus? Would the Tour come to an immediate halt? Would Primoz Roglic be declared the winner.

As we journalists waited in our pens near the sign-on podium, like livestock at a country show waiting for someone to pin a rosette us, news began to filter through about the results of the Coronavirus testing. When I say news, at this point we were getting no more than rumours and conjecture on Twitter.

The first flurries suggested a positive test within on the Deceuninck-QuickStep team. Within minutes, pictures were posted of an ambulance arriving at the team hotel. “What do you think’s going on?” a colleague asked. “Why’s there an ambulance there?” I had no idea. No one did. “It could be a paramedic picking up a friend or their partner from work,” I suggested. “I don’t think they send an ambulance if you’ve just tested positive for Covid.” We got the answer to that question when Deceuninck boss Patrick Lefevere offered “huge congrats to the gossip journalists… with their premature news about the positive case in our team… really classe [sic]”.

Soon after, information started to come through from some teams about their test results. Ineos and Astana riders were all clear, and the steady drip of news continued. Movistar OK. Trek OK. Bora OK. Groupama OK. Then, another colleague told me that L’Équipe had tweeted that all of the riders left on the race had recorded negative tests for the virus.

Yet, moments later, new posts were pointing out that Bahrain-McLaren and Lotto-Soudal hadn’t posted any information and their buses hadn’t yet appeared in the team paddock just behind the sign-on podium. I strained to see the logos on the Pullmans in the paddock, but couldn’t pick out either. Not too long passed, though, before Lotto’s half a dozen riders made their way up onto the podium and then continued on to speak to the press.

I asked the Belgian team’s press officer if there’d been any issues that morning, whether any staff had been affected as was being rumoured. No, he told me, adding that he’d seen some posts about the team bus not being at the start. “We were actually the first ones here,” he said. “We were told during the testing process not to give details of the results on social media, to leave any announcements to the race organisation and the UCI, so that’s what I did. I was just doing what I was told.”

I wasn’t inclined to give much credence to the next piece of breaking news, that four staff members spread across four different teams had tested positive and, far more sensationally, so too had Tour boss Christian Prudhomme.

Having been informed of this, I wasn’t inclined to give much credence to the next piece of breaking news, that four staff members spread across four different teams had tested positive and, far more sensationally, so too had Tour boss Christian Prudhomme.

Colleagues were constantly refreshing the UCI website and checking their email, hoping for some official confirmation. A French news agency journalist who is well connected to ASO said he’d been told that the news on Prudhomme was correct. “You can write the story,” he said.

This was the first solid piece of information I’d had all morning, and was soon supported by a joint statement from the Tour organisation and the UCI. This named Cofidis, Ag2r, Ineos and Mitchelton as the four teams where a single positive test had been recorded. It added that a “technical service provider” had also tested positive, which seemed a little disrespectful to Christian Prudhomme’s role as the Tour’s standard-bearer.

Was it really him? We’d already heard that he’d cancelled a media interview that morning, but there could give endless reasons for that. Finally, though, confirmation came. Prudhomme had tested positive but was asymptomatic. He would be absent from the race for seven days and return on the second rest day assuming a negative test. His place in the race director’s car would be taken by his deputy, François Lemarchand.

The mixed zone emptied as journalists rushed off to find someone from the organisation who could comment on this incredible news, leaving just a couple of dozen of us to speak to the riders as they rolled through. It had been an astonishing ninety minutes, during which a number of things had been reconfirmed: don’t give too much credence to chat and supposition on social media; patience is undoubtedly a journalistic virtue in moments of high drama; never underestimate the Tour’s ability to surprise; and the Tour stops for no one, not even its race director.

Photo: © Jonathan Biche / A.S.O

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