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Tour de France Clings to Summer With New Dates
Although the country remains on lockdown, the stakes for cycling’s most prestigious event is crucial for the survival of many teams
By Joshua Robinson
April 15, 2020 12:19 pm ET
PARIS—The rest of the global sports calendar may have collapsed, but one sporting event is stubbornly clinging to the summer. The Tour de France on Wednesday announced that it would delay its start by two months, aiming to run from Aug. 29 to Sept. 20.
The dates are more aspirational than etched in stone. Holding the race in August assumes the absence of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and that the French government will still be on board by then.
But the Tour insisted that it could not imagine outright cancellation. In the race’s 117-year history, only the two World Wars have prevented it.
“It will certainly be the first major event back, a lighthouse that allows us to see what’s ahead,” said race director Christian Prudhomme.
Imagining a three-week bike race that draws 10 to 12 million fans to the roadsides is harder for France right now than picturing bread without a crust. The entire country is under lockdown until May 11 and cycling more than a kilometer from your apartment is banned. Travel from abroad is suspended until further notice. And the peloton itself, with more than a hundred cyclists riding, breathing and spitting in close quarters, could be considered a germ-laden mass gathering.
That’s why Prudhomme said the race, which starts in Nice on the French Riviera, needed to be as late as possible while still landing in the summer.
“I know this period has been tough on all of us, and bike racing is not important in the greater scheme of things,” four-time champion Chris Froome tweeted. “But let’s take hope in that we may return to some sort of normality in the near future.”
For bike racing to look normal at the rescheduled Tour, plenty has to happen for the riders first—namely, getting in shape.
Right now, most of the would-be peloton is stuck working out on indoor setups. Using racing bikes on turbo trainers, which simulate road resistance, most have been able to maintain a high-level of fitness. But the stationary experience is about as realistic as practicing rowing in a bathtub. Team managers agree that they would need to be back on the road by the end of May at the latest to have a chance.
Then riders also need to have some racing in their legs before attacking the most prestigious event in the sport. The Tour’s operator, Amaury Sport Organisation, hopes to put on a short version of the Critérium du Dauphiné in the French Alps in the buildup.
“It’s great news,” cyclist Julian Alaphilippe, who wore the leader’s yellow jersey for two weeks in last year’s race, told French television. “I was starting to lose hope.”
This is not the first time the Tour organizers have tried to be the pandemic’s longest holdouts. In early March, they launched the weeklong Paris-Nice race despite near certainty that France would be shut down before the peloton reached the finish. New restrictions were imposed on a daily basis—from canceling news conferences to banning spectators—until finally ASO gave up and ended the race a day early.
But one reason for the Tour’s unwillingness to consider cancellation is that the stakes for the sport are impossibly high. Unlike Wimbledon or the British Open, which are both canceled this year, the Tour doesn’t have pandemic insurance. More seriously still, the entire sport of professional cycling runs on paper-thin margins. Sponsors sign up mainly for the exposure they receive during the Tour. And even in times without a pandemic many teams exist only season to season.
A year without a Tour could be catastrophic—or rather, more catastrophic. Plenty of senior figures in cycling recognize that saving the 2020 Tour may not be enough to rescue the sport as a whole.
“I’m worried for teams, for organizers,” Marc Madiot, manager of the Groupama-FDJ team, told L’Equipe. “The big races and teams will get out of this without too much damage, but we need all the rest…Several teams risk disappearing, even with the Tour happening.”
The discussion could yet prove academic. All the Tour has done is set new dates, like many other events rescheduled for the fall. Though he had the unequivocal support of local officials along the projected route, Prudhomme admitted that the situation could change and his bike race would have to take a back seat to public health.
“The most important part of Tour de France is France,” he said.
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