SISTERON, France (VN) — Navigating the Tour de France is never easy. But after all these years, you’d think we’d have it figured out.
Monday’s third stage was a preview of what the 2020 Tour de France will be throwing at us in this COVID-19 edition. Road blocks, both literally and figuratively, were impeding our frantic daily start-to-finish quest that typically chews up a large part of any hack’s day on the Tour.
It started off badly enough, getting lost driving out of the nest of alleyways in Nice’s Vieux-Port. Then came a comical arrival at the Nice football stadium, where ASO underlings had journalists lost in a maze of stairwells, fencing, barriers, security checks, hand-sanitizing stations, and finger-wagging security guards. The morning’s refrain? You can’t there from here.
Almost as soon as we finally “got there,” we heard the pre-stage bell — kind of a like a bell lap in a critérium race — except instead of racing for primes, you need to move your butt. Then came a panic moment of trying to find the car in the dungeon-like underground parking garage in the bowels of the soccer stadium (remember, kids, to always take note of the parking spot if they’re numbered).
Once out on the racecourse — whew! — things returned to normal. Fans lined the road, the villages above Nice glittered in the late-summer sun. We stopped in Tourrettes-sur-Loup, chatted with some fans, hit a boulangerie, snapped some shots, and watched the peloton roll past. It almost seemed like the Tour de France, except everyone was wearing face masks.
We tucked in behind the broom wagon just as the heavens opened up. With heightened security and health measures, police were telling us there was no way we could jump off course. And without limited-access press credentials, there was no way we can pass the peloton.
We were stuck behind the peloton, the absolute worst place to be in a bike race.
In simpler times — before world pandemics and terrorist attacks — photographers and scribes could leap-frog ahead of the course each stage, using back roads and a keen sense of direction to catch the peloton two to three times, and still arrive for the finish in time for a tidy sprint.
Not anymore. We snapped our photographs early, in the opening 25km, but it was still down to the wire for us to arrive in Sisteron.
After some creative cajoling and pleading with a local police officer got us through the barriers, we plunged back down to the Riviera, just in time for what turned out to be two big “bouchons” — a special kind of French traffic jam — on the main toll road.
Luckily for us, the peloton was on slow-go mode, and we arrived in Sisteron some 30 minutes before the pack. Tout va bien.
A Tour like no other
The above line has been the refrain so far of the 2020 Tour. Exceptional conditions require exceptional measures.
Everyone will see that play out in Tuesday’s first mountaintop finale. According to Tour race director Thierry Gouvenou, cars and campers will not be allowed on 27 summits and climbs throughout this year’s edition.
That will mean the climbs in this year’s Tour could be all but denuded of some of the most colorful and dynamic aspects of what makes the Tour so unique in the world of sport.
Cycling fans’ ability to get so close to their sporting heroes — too close in some cases — is an essential part of the Tour’s story. With the coronavirus threatening the Tour, race organizers felt like they had no other option.
The last thing anyone wants is that the Tour becomes a spreader event of COVID-19, and the rationale is if there are fewer people on the usually packed summits, the lower the risk.
Insiders tell us that it’s been a gut-wrenching decision for ASO to cut off access to fans on the Tour’s most famous climbs. Fans are the lifeblood of a sport that does not charge admission and does not have stadium seating.
It’s important to point out the climbs are not off-limits entirely — fans can still go up by foot or on bikes.
Cheering on the peloton’s stars will simply require some more sweat energy this year.
Time to plug in that e-bike.
Tuesday’s stage to thin the herd
I’m quite looking forward to Tuesday’s 160km fourth stage to Orcières-Merlette in the southern French Alps. Why? Because I have no idea what will happen.
The final climb isn’t that hard by WorldTour standards — 7.1km at 6.7 percent — but the fact that it comes so early in this Tour in a truncated season where everyone’s form is all over the map, well, how can we predict what will happen?
One thing that will happen is that a few GC hopes will be torpedoed. We’ve already seen a couple of big names cede time. Tuesday should see a few more.
It’s the classic “you-can’t-win-the-Tour-but-you-can-lose-it” kind of climb.
I expect a few things: first, Jumbo-Visma will try to bludgeon Ineos Grenadiers again. The Dutch team is coming strong out of the gate, so let’s see if they keep piling on the pressure. This Tour is so long and hard, however, I wonder if that could backfire later in the race. Egan Bernal has played it cool so far, so I expect Ineos’s DS’s to keep whispering in his ear not to rise to the bait.
I also fully hope to see Tadej Pogačar to go on a flier. He’s only 17 seconds out of the yellow jersey, and he’s only 21 years old — of course he will attack! I just hope UAE-Emirates doesn’t try to hold him back. Youth exuberance only lasts so long. If he has the legs, let him run.
My pick: Pogačar for the win, and Julian Alaphilippe defends yellow by a whisker.