LYON, France (VN) — The big news at the Tour de France this weekend is the decision by French health authorities to limit fans at the finish lines and mountaintop finales in upcoming stages that are within a COVID-19 “red zone.”
With a growing spike in infections across France, it’s somewhat surprising that this new rule won’t be applied to all of the remaining stages. Right now, those restrictions won’t impact every stage between here and Paris. Sunday’s climbing finale up Grand Colombier is the first “hors-categorie” summit in the 2020 Tour, and it will be raced behind closed doors due to the new measures.
I spoke to a few riders at the start on Saturday in Clermont-Ferrand, and asked them about the new safety measure. While it will seem odd to race without the Tour’s trademark fans, they said, the absence of fans won’t have any impact on how the race plays out.
“The crowds are part of the Tour de France, but it doesn’t change the race,” said Nicolas Roche (Sunweb). “It gives you goose bumps, it gives you adrenaline. It’s not going to change anything in terms of performance. It’s not like in football, where you have your home and away fans. It will take away from the atmosphere, but we’re not looking for atmosphere. We’re looking to get to Paris.”
The riders are accustomed to performing without fanfare, as there are plenty of pro races that simply do not attract fans. Those races in the Middle East come to mind. I remember the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as well. Nobody showed up for the men’s race, and the empty roadsides drew bad press. The next day, the women’s race was lined four-deep with fans waving banners and flags. French president Emmanuel Macron is hoping for the opposite.
It will still seem very odd to have such an important summit finale denuded of the public.
“I think it will affect it a little bit. Whenever there are fans, there is like a tunnel, so you almost cannot not attack because they are so close to you,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Toms Skujins. “Especially in the gruppetto, it’s fun to interact with the fans. It’s going to be different — 2020 is a different year.”
Saturday’s finish into Lyon provided a preview of what we can expect in the coming week. There were fans along most of the route once it entered into one of France’s largest cities. The final few hundred meters, as part of the new health protocols, saw empty streets and vacant sidelines.
Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) said it went from loud to quiet as he came across the line.
“I realized it because on the last descent, it was full of people and nice crowds, screaming loud,” he said. “When I came to the finish line and I had to celebrate myself , I had to do it alone. It doesn’t matter. It’s good they do it. It’s for our safety and for the people around the race.”
That sums it up perfectly.
Bernal staying positive
The Ineos Grenadiers captain was chatting to the media at the start Saturday, insisting that the Tour is far from over. And rightly so. The explosive finale in the Massif Central was perfect for the Slovenian slayers Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar. Bernal should do better once he can open up his wings on the longer, higher climbs in the Alps.
Despite the positive spin, there’s no denying it’s not looking great right now. Jumbo-Visma looks untouchable, and Roglič so far has been impeccable. The official GC says Bernal is currently 59 seconds back, but my personal calculus says he needs to double that if he wants to win. By my estimation, Bernal will lose around a minute to Roglič in the final time trial, so Bernal needs to claw back 59 seconds and then another minute to have a realistic chance to win the Tour for a second year. That’s my hot take.
So, how did Bernal react Saturday in the race? He attacked. It was more like a burst of speed at the end to stay out of trouble in the fast run-in to Lyon, but he was pretty happy about that.
“Everyone was on the limit. Yeah, it was not the plan [to attack] but the last climb I felt good and I tried,” Bernal said. “To be honest, I don’t think too much about the attack, I just went. And I have enjoyed. And I think I need to. I need to enjoy the race. I think we need to stay focused, we need to fight until Paris. It’s one stage less.”
Stage 15 and Grand Colombier
Everyone’s been saying there hasn’t been an easy day in this year’s Tour de France. Even the “no break” stage into Privas ended with a flurry of surges to put a sting in the legs. Three hard days of racing in and around the Massif Central lead toward Sunday’s finish up the Grand Colombier in the Alps. Pain is in the forecast.
It’s this year’s first “hors-categorie” summit finale, and it should serve to separate the wheat from the chafe. It’s a brutally steep climb that’s featured in the Tour a few times since its official debut in the 2012 edition. This year is also the first time a stage will end atop the sinewy climb. I fully expect it to act like a thresher on the GC.
Everyone also keeps talking about how the third week will see a lot of riders blowing up, but I fear the GC could largely be sewn up on Sunday if Roglič the King Slayer shows up. Let’s hope I am wrong.
Also on Sunday, it’s Sepp Kuss’s 26th birthday. Just imagine him riding into a break, marking moves, and then having freedom to race for the win? It’s a doubtful scenario, but maybe Sepp will find another way to celebrate his special day.