On the ground at Paris-Nice as COVID-19 spread across the globe

While the world grappled with the spread of COVID-19, Paris-Nice was held on empty roads.

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It’s noon on Tuesday, March 17, and France is officially on lockdown.

Just two days ago I was walking along the Mediterranean coastline after the conclusion of Paris-Nice’s 78th edition. To say that it was one of the most curious bike races I have covered in my 30 years in the sport would be an understatement. As a professional cycling photographer, I spend much of a race in the same vacuum as the cyclists, zipping along the peloton on a motorbike. And over the past few days, I watched the bike racing calendar grind to halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic from inside the peloton.

Like everyone else, I was aware of the possibility that the race could be shuttered or locked down before it started. But at the start, there was still a certain optimism that perhaps France would not be hit as hard with the spread of the virus, and perhaps something as simple as a bike race would still manage to exist.

When I arrived in the Plaisir, a suburban town due east of Paris before the race, it was clear that things were different. At the photographers’ meeting, we were greeted by Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, instead of the usual media liaisons. Prudhomme said the French government had authorized the race because this year’s route was far from regions most hit with the epidemic and because organizer ASO had taken numerous measures to assure authorities that any health risks would be limited.

Fans were discouraged, even prohibited, from coming to the start and finish areas, while local dignitaries that participated would have no physical contact with the riders during pre- and post-race podium ceremonies. The race had hand sanitizer in all of the official vehicles. And all those accredited on the race were prohibited from shaking hands, or most strangely giving the French bisou or kiss on the cheek. Such measures were needed, Prudhomme insisted, as he spoke hopefully about setting new health standards so that bicycle racing might somehow coexist with COVID-19.

The absence of the conviviality so commonly found at a bike race was odd in itself. But in many ways, this Paris-Nice seemed like any other edition.

From the first stage I noticed a tepid sprinkling of fans at the start. But Paris-Nice is no Paris-Roubaix, and fans are often thin at the race. Also, the wet weather was likely to blame for the thin crowds.

While it may sound odd, even uncanny to imagine, Paris-Nice took off in a familiar fashion. Crowds did pack the Côte de Neauphle-le-Château, a two-kilometer cobbled climb that the peloton tackled twice just before the finish of stage one. And on stage two, I ran into several old amateur teammates at the start in Chevreuse, a quaint village 20 kilometers south of Paris where I still often ride.

So far, so good, I thought.

Landscape shot of the peloton riding along an avenue of tall, barren trees
Riders battled crosswinds and rain across the French countryside. Eventually, the race was called off a day early. Photo: James Startt

As a cycling photographer I divide my day into several parts. In the early kilometers of a race I look for landscape shots, or postcards as we sometimes call them. During these kilometers it is relatively easy to pass the peloton on a motorcycle. Then, as the race intensifies, I focus more and more on the action.

For the first few stages at Paris-Nice, I followed this game plan. For my landscape shots I often search for locations devoid of fans to better accentuate the beauty of a professional peloton against a distinctive landscape. Meanwhile, the final kilometers of the opening stages produced brutal racing as driving winds and rains often splintered the pack into small echelons with only the strongest surviving. Getting shots of world champions Peter Sagan and Mads Pedersen driving the pace at the front is nothing short of a cycling photographer’s dream at this point in the season.

The situation changed as we approached the midway point in the race. News of the virus spreading in France continued to make headlines. And major races, starting with Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico were canceled. Still, I focused on the action of the race, as did everyone within the entourage. In the hometown of French hero Julian Alaphilippe in Saint-Amand-Montrond on stage four, it became clear that German sensation Maximilian Schachman would be the rider to beat.

I stayed at the same hotel in the town center as Canadian rider Guillaume Boivin. At breakfast, Boivin showed no sign of panic. “For us health is always a major issue,” he said. “And we try to make sure everyone is healthy.”

For Boivin, many of the sanitary measures were simply common sense as a professional cyclist. “We’ve always taken those measures. We are already so vulnerable, so for us, staying healthy is always a challenge, especially this time of year.”

The greatest sense of disconnect came on stage five from Gannat to La Côte-Saint-André, a 227-kilometer route across six French regions. I enjoyed timeless postcard shots of towns in remote areas like Allier. But when we arrived at the finish, it was clear that events were moving much quicker than I was in the middle of this bike race.

We learned that Gent-Wevelgem was canceled, and Belgian journalists were being called home. Meanwhile, the day’s winner, Leonardo Bonifazio, spoke of his concerns for his family in Italy who were under confinement. Suddenly, my own bubble, built out of habit from decades covering the sport, shattered. And just as suddenly it seemed, a certain fatality fell over the race. Just hours before, I thought that finishing in Nice was a given. Now nothing was certain.

I drove to my hotel in Avignon that night with a journalist from the Dauphiné-Libéré, a daily newspaper, and we listened to French President Macron’s address to the nation about increased safety and sanitary measures. Would there be a race tomorrow? And what was the sense of continuing a bike race anyway?

Group of cyclists on a road riding towards the camera
World champions Pedersen and Sagan in a bunch early on at Paris-Nice. Photo: James Startt

In the final days at Paris-Nice my mind kept coming back to two things: the 1998 Festina Affair and the film Casablanca. This is probably the first time that the Tour de France’s biggest doping scandal has ever been mentioned in the same sentence as this classic film. And no, I did not somehow envision Richard Virenque playing Humphrey Bogart alongside Ingrid Bergman.

But memories from both resonated. Firstly, while the COVID-19 crisis was much different than that of the Festina Affair, this was the first time where I seriously questioned whether a bike race would make it to the finish. And even if it did, I knew that once we finished in Nice, the world would be a very different place, not unlike when the Germans would march into Paris for Bogart and Bergman.

We awoke to speculation that teams would not take the start, perhaps inciting an all-out boycott. Just Bahrain-McLaren team pulled out that morning. But race organizers, in an effort to find some compromise, announced that the race would cancel the final mountain stage in Nice and thus finish a day early. For ASO, this appeared to be the best compromise. Paris-Nice is always won by the rider best capable of withstanding the winds of the north, the mid-week time trial, and then the climbs of the Mediterranean coast. So, Saturday’s finish on top of La Colmiane offered at least one serious climb.

There was still some great racing from Tiejs Benoot and his Sunweb team, who blew the race open over the hills of Provence on stage six to challenge Schachmann. And there was Nairo Quintana’s spectacular win on the final day. But by the last day, it was clear that this year’s Paris-Nice would in fact be the last race in the foreseeable future. And there was a clear disconnect as we prepared for the final stage. Because, for the first time in modern cycling, there would be no follow-up.

I ran into Australian sprinter Michael Matthews barely 10 minutes before the start. We chatted quickly, and he summed up the mood of everyone who had spent the week inside the race.

“We’re so focused on our little world in professional cycling,” Matthews said “All day is cycling. In that moment, in that race, you feel like you are the only 200 guys on the planet. But then you finish the race and get back to reality and you realize how small cycling is compared to the rest of the world.”

I’ll always remember what Matthews said on that morning in southern France, and the message still resonates with me, now that I’m back home in Paris. Everyone has families and friends back home — people they want to stay safe, he said. Yet, it’s almost impossible to focus on the outside world during the middle of a big bike race.

“I guess while we are racing here today, we still have another day, another chance, another shot,” Matthews said. “We just have to take this one. It’s going to be the last one for a while. I think a lot of the guys have mixed feelings about what is coming next. No one knows for sure. Tomorrow we just have to take it as it is.”