Events

Commentary: A return to Les Champs-Élysées amid the coronavirus shutdown

James Startt visited a desolate Champs-Élysées to revisit the scene of the heralding of yellow jerseys past, while Paris waits out its lockdown.

Photographs: James Startt

We are barely a week into springtime here in Paris, a time of year when as Henry Miller once wrote, “the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.” At this time of year, as the daylight increases and the trees start blooming, the city comes alive. And no street is more magnificent than Les Champs-Élysées. Over the past 20 years, mayor after mayor has made an effort to make Les Champs increasingly pedestrian-friendly. It is the perfect place for a Sunday stroll. And come summer, it is the perfect place for a bike race, as the Tour de France comes to a close with its traditional laps up and down what is sometimes called “the most beautiful avenue in the world.”

We are in very different times, however, as the coronavirus crisis grips much of the world. Paris is in virtual lockdown. But with the Tour de France now less than 100 days away, I decided to ride my bike over to Les Champs. I visited my favorite vantage points for the final stage of the Tour, reflected on races in the past, and tried to image ones in the future.

In some ways it was stunning to see this avenue, known for its non-stop activity, so utterly peaceful. But it was also a somewhat haunting ride through the city in hibernation.

I arrived first on the Place de Concorde where I often take a long shot of the peloton racing down Les Champs, with the Arc de Triomphe in its shadows, before making a sweeping right-hand turn around Concorde. There was barely a sprinkling of cars, yet a convoy of police vans that passed across while I was photographing served as a distinct reminder that these were no ordinary times.

Peter Sagan safely seeing his way to a sixth green jersey in 2018.

I then turned my lens toward the magnificent neo-classical facades that line the northern edges of the place. It is here where, year in and year out, I frame what I consider to be a timeless shot of the peloton racing under the rhythm imposed by the repetition of Corinthian columns found on the buildings here. Often I try to capture the yellow jersey of the winner in waiting of each year’s Tour, but really it is the power of the peloton that makes the shot.

But on this day there was little sign of life, and of course no sign of the Tour. Rolling up Les Champs on my old Eddy Merckx Strava that I have transformed into my class A city bike, I then stopped before the mid-way point, not so far from where the finish line is situated, and turned around to photograph la Place de la Concorde. Void of virtually all activity, the avenue’s undeniable sense of symmetry came alive like it rarely does. Unfortunately, it is only because of my press card and a letter from my editors that I was even able to be there myself. It was a special moment, but not one readily replicated.

I then made my way up the long false flat towards l’Arc de Triomphe that the peloton loops around before racing back down Les Champs. Once at the Place de l’Etoile where l’Arch sits, I rolled around the backside where Les Champs becomes the l’Avenue de la Grande Armee and makes its way down towards La Defense. It is here where I always enjoy framing another timeless shot, that of the peloton stretched out underneath l’Arc de Triomphe. Ironically this was the most familiar moment of the day, as the Tour’s finish each year. This is the only day when this place that serves as an axis to no less than 11 streets is void of cars.

And then finally I made my way to the corner of Les Champs that sits on the south side of l’Etoile. It is here where I camp out each year with my many photographer friends as we hope to get a classic closing shot of the yellow jersey making its way triumphantly under the arc.

Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) took the yellow jersey in 2019.

Every year I walk up Les Champs to position myself well before the riders arrive, as the photographers always arrive early to secure their position. It is not a short walk, about two kilometers, and it is never an easy venture, as I make my way along the barriers packed with bike racing fans from around the world and constantly must negotiate with the police lined up and down the avenue to finally make it into my position.

When I finally return to my position this weekend, it was a very different place. No fans were standing over my shoulders and no photographers were pushing with their elbows as I crouched down. But without the tension that is the Tour, l’Arc de Triomphe lost much of its splendor. In some ways, it is simply no more than a concrete monument atop a cobbled road.

It is impossible to say whether I will be back here for the Tour this summer, as its very existence is threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Numerous scenarios abound and French authorities, as well as the Tour de France organization, is holding out. Many are talking about a Tour de France without fans. Perhaps it is the only possible scenario for saving the Tour this year. But as I sit alone on my corner on Les Champs-Élysées on this Sunday afternoon in March, it is strangely quiet, almost eery. And at this moment it is very difficult indeed, to imagine the Tour without its fans. L’Arc de Triomphe, like Les Champs-Élysées, after all, are made for sharing.