The world’s greatest bike race begins on Saturday. Whether it will actually finish remains the great unknown.
Riders and staff from all over the globe have bubbled together in Nice for the Grand Depart of the 107th Tour de France.
But the rearranged race is taking place in surreal circumstances, with coronavirus cases rising sharply again in France, and even Ineos boss Sir Dave Brailsford said: ‘We don’t know, nobody knows, if we’re going to reach Paris.’
Le Tour was scheduled to start on June 27. At the height of the pandemic in April, it was feared the race might be scrapped for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Instead, organisers postponed it by two months — a decision which at the time looked hugely optimistic.
Cycling’s World Tour only resumed at the beginning of this month so teams have had little time to prepare for the sport’s blue riband event.
But despite Covid-19 cases in the country being at a post- lockdown high, and the starting city of Nice reclassified as a ‘red zone’ on Thursday, a full roster of 176 riders across 22 teams are ready for the three-week race.
Although the dates have changed, the treacherous 2,156-mile route has not.
All 21 stages are taking place entirely in France, with the race getting under way in Nice for the first time since 1981.
The peloton will visit all five of the country’s mountain ranges. There are six summit finishes and a total of 29 tough climbs, starting as soon as Sunday.
The only time trial — climbing La Planche des Belles Filles — comes on the penultimate stage before the race finishes in traditional style on Paris’s Champs-Elysees on September 20.
All riders and staff have already been tested twice for Covid-19. They were only allowed to enter the ‘race bubble’ if they produced a negative result.
Further tests will take place on the two rest days and there will be daily check-ups, with a mobile testing unit on hand for anyone showing symptoms.
If anyone tests positive, they will get a follow-up test as soon as possible to try to counter any ‘false positives’. If the positive is confirmed or there is no time for a second test, they will be removed from the race.
Anyone who is deemed to have come into close contact with an infected person could also be taken out.
On Thursday, Belgian team Lotto sent four of their staff home after two tested positive.
An entire team will be eliminated if two or more riders are confirmed positive in a seven-day span but the race will continue without them. At least that is the plan.
Masks must be worn by riders before and after stages, and staff must wear them at feed zones during racing.
Only team members will be allowed into the bus area, with media kept at bay. A mixed zone will be set up for interviews with riders but access will be limited and socially distanced.
The usual 5,000-strong throng of journalists and workers has been slashed by almost half and the number of vehicles following the riders is down by 40 per cent.
Presentation ceremonies will see stage riders pick up prizes and jerseys themselves, and podium girls have also been ditched — albeit more due to sexism complaints than Covid.
In hotels, teams will be grouped together on their own floor or wings to avoid bubbles mixing away from the road.
Only 100 spectators will be allowed on the start line in Nice, down from the 5,000 — the maximum gathering size under French government law — that had been hoped for earlier this week.
Masks will be mandatory at all start and finish areas, with fans distanced from riders and banned from asking for autographs and selfies. Supporters will also be limited on the mountains, with spectator camper vans and Tour ‘pop-up villages’ banned.
Organisers cannot contain gatherings on roadsides, but far fewer fans are expected given the Tour is taking place outside of its traditional summer slot, with children back at school.
Hand sanitiser — two tonnes of it — will be distributed over 60 points along the route.
Six of the last eight Tours have been won by a British rider but that golden era is over.
Former champions Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas have not even been selected in Brailsford’s Ineos squad, who will compete as the Ineos Grenadiers.
‘I’ve had to brush up on my Spanish,’ joked Ineos domestique Luke Rowe, the only Brit in a team with four native Spanish speakers. ‘It’s got a different feel to it. It’s a bit of a reshuffle and a changing of the guard.’
The eyes of British fans will be on Adam Yates, the Mitchelton-Scott rider who is joining Ineos at the end of the year.
Yates — whose twin brother Simon is racing in the Giro d’Italia instead — finished fourth at the Tour in 2016, although he has said he is only targeting stage wins this year.
With Bahrain-McLaren’s Mark Cavendish, the winner of 30 Tour stages, also missing, the only other Brits in action are Hugh Carthy of EF Pro Cycling and Arkea-Samsic’s Connor Swift.