The Tour de France is many things. But one of its defining features is its unique relationship with the fans. The race, in fact, is often considered a sort of communion between the cyclists and its fans, as they pack the roads year in and year out to cheer the Tour.
But this year is a very different Tour de France as a result of the coronavirus crisis. And one of the primary questions at the start of the race in Nice this year was just how many fans would actually make it to the race this year.
Traditionally, the Tour de France is held in July, the month of the annual French vacations, a moment when much of the country participates what is greatly known as the annual “transhumance,” a name given to the national migration to vacation spots around the country. First introduced by Leon Blum, the head of state, in 1936, the lengthy paid vacations have long been a key to the Tour’s popularity.
But this year, with the race, moved to September, the number of vacationers is greatly reduced, as people have returned to work and children to school. There simply are fewer and fewer people in a position to come to the Tour.
In addition, the race organizers have done little to encourage the fan attendance. “This will not be a great Tour to get autographs,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme has said repeatedly. Fans are discouraged even further by the fact than many of the mountain passes are simply closed off to cars and campers as the race organizers are simply trying to reduce the potential for mass gatherings.
At the start in Nice, the lack of crowds was flagrant. Under normal circumstances, the historic Promenade des Anglais, home to the finish of both stage one and stage two, would have been transformed into a sea of people. Instead, there was just a sprinkling.
And the trend continued in the following stages to Sisteron and on the first climbing stage up to Orcières Merlette.
But on stage five from Gap to Privas, crowds were considerably more festive, and the tendency only continued on the following stage to Mont Aigoual, where crowds packed the switchback turns on the Col de la Lusette in what can only be described as true Tour spirit.
But on today’s stage from Millau to Lavaur, a picturesque stage through the French midi, crowds were once again modest, underlining the idea that crowds would be inconsistent at best throughout the Tour.
Dominique Droveon, who came down on his vacation, had little problem finding a spot in downtown Millau to watch the riders roll out. “We came down from Brittany. We arrived just last night and figured that it was a good opportunity to see the Tour. We got here early, about three hours before, but we had no problem getting a good spot,” he said. It is a bit empty here in Millau, to be honest. But it is also really relaxed.”
Several kilometers into the race Jojo the Clown, a familiar roadside figure on the Tour, could be seen standing next to his camper van. Jojo, who has dressed up daily in his clown costume for the past 13 years, admits that this year’s race is a bit underwhelming from a fan’s perspective.
“There is no ambiance,” he says. Everything is different. The caravan is really scaled back. There are no crowds. The mountain passes are closed. What has changed is that we have had COVID and everything is different.”
Jojo added that he chose to be a clown to add to the festive spirit of the Tour. “Kids always love a clown and I always have balloons and some tricks for them. But this year the balloons have remained packed away.”
Much later in the race, three elderly women sat on the sidewalk in the village of Montredon wearing their newly acquired polka-dot tee shirts, thanks to the supermarket chain Leclerc, sponsor of the best-climber competition. Germaine, Josette, and Marie-José are all Tour veterans. And they agree that things are different. “I’ve seen the Tour pass by in Albi, in the Pyreenées and in the Alps,” said Marie-José. “This is very different.”
“Really the biggest difference is that we are all sitting here wearing masks,” adds Germaine.
“It’s very quiet,” Marie-José says. But she insists, “It’s always nice to see the Tour de France go by.”
And even Jojo the Clown agrees. “Everything is different since COVID. But life goes on. And the Tour goes on.”