Those of us in the media are already seeing big changes at the 2020 Tour de France due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
Journalists typically complain just about everything, but this year, it’s not the stale carrot salad and couscous in the press buffet that will be the root of our collective misery.
I’ll admit it, cycling media, we’re spoiled. Anyone with a Tour press badge is long accustomed to having front-row access to the sport’s main players, be it crowding in around Peter Sagan moments after he wins a stage, or doing post-race breakdowns of tactics with the top sport directors. In fact, part of cycling’s allure is its close and intimate relationship with media and fans.
All that changes this year in France.
Just like fans, journalists are being kept at a distance. With teams facing possible expulsion if they produce two COVID-19 cases within a week on the Tour, no one is taking any chances.
The only opportunity the media has to ask questions to riders is at mixed zones at starts and finishes. Finish lines, sign-in areas and the team bus parking zones — the areas where journalists typically ply their trade — are firmly off-limits as part of the Tour’s health and safety regulations.
Mixed zones are mapped out with double lines of barriers to maintain at least a six-foot buffer between rider and journalists, with face masks required. Microphones are extended with selfie-sticks, as if we’re fishing for some trophy catch.
The good thing is that there is at least some access. Riders are required to ride through the mixed zones at the starts and finishes. The bad news is that no one is required to stop. Yesterday at La Course, for example, Lizzie Deignan was the only rider who stopped to chat with the written media despite frantic hand-waving and yelling from journalists inside the boxes.
So far in the Tour, riders have been doing a good job at stopping before the stage start and answering at least a few questions. Teams are also expediting things with WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups to share quotes among journalists both here on-site and those who stayed at home. So don’t be surprised if you start seeing the same quotes showing up in reports across different media.
This Tour de France is more like the Olympics. Journalists are being kept at arm’s length — quite literally — and it will be difficult to get those emotional and sometimes controversial takes and opinions that come with better access and more time to ask follow-up questions. Believe me, we’re not going to be getting much insight or detailed explanations of that tactical plan when you’re limited to two questions.
And during this Tour, it’s even harder trying to speak with coaches, sport directors, mechanics and other staffers that often share the juiciest tidbits and gossip. They typically hang around the team buses, which are completely off-limits to the public and media in 2020.
Working conditions are different in this year’s Tour de France. Everyone here on the ground accepts that, and the media wants to be part of the solution during these challenging times, not part of the problem. So we’re not complaining about it too much yet. Most journalists on the cycling beat are just happy to be out of the house, and be at a bike race again.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t stay this way once COVID-19 loses its pandemic status.
Tour’s first ever masque jaune?
Impressive planning on the part of UAE-Team Emirates. Stage 1 winner Alexander Kristoff showed up to the start Sunday resplendent in yellow, including a yellow mask, or masque jaune in French. Team sponsor Scicon had special yellow, green and polka-dot face masks printed up “just in case.” That scenario came true sooner than expected, and Kristoff raced through Norwegian-like weather Saturday to pull off the win and the yellow jersey double.
Kristoff started Sunday with the yellow jersey along with special bibs, helmet, sunglasses and gloves. No yellow socks or shoes, but there was some yellow bar tape, pedals and other touches. And the Colnago? It was team-issue Sunday because Kristoff knew his maillot jaune run was going to be limited to one glorious day.
Selfie takes out Pozzovivo
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme pleaded with fans to leave the selfie sticks at home in 2020. Someone in Nice didn’t get the message.
Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT Pro Cycling) had his elbows and knees wrapped in gauze Sunday morning after colliding with a selfie-taking fan along the Nice waterfront early in Saturday’s nasty stage. It made for a long and painful day in the saddle for the Italian climber.
“The crash happened right before the rain,” Pozzovivo said Sunday morning. “I had a bad accident and I tried to finish the stage. Today I will see how my body reacts. I had to survive the rest of the crashes due to the rain, so it was not so easy.”
Pozzovivo struck a fan reaching out with their mobile telephone to snag a shot, and the subsequent crash took out about another 20 riders. The latest blow came just over one year ago when Pozzovivo, 37, survived a horrific crash when a vehicle struck him head-on during a training ride last August.
Come on, folks, racing bikes is dangerous enough. Save the selfies for the cocktail parties.
Stage 3 expectations
On Monday, the Tour leaves behind the COVID-19 “red zone” along France’s Cote d’Azur, and heads into hill country famous for its raids and bunch sprints.
The 198km third stage across “Haute-Provence” between Nice and Sisteron tackles three Cat. 3 climbs — Pilon, Faye and les Lèques — in the opening 120km, before a Cat. 4 climb with 50km to go ahead of finishing in the Durance valley. Sisteron is a traditional stop on Paris-Nice, but is seeing only its second Tour stage. It’s a great region for bike touring. At race speed, pain will be in the forecast.
The undulating profile will see a tug-of-war between attackers and sprinters. Stage-hunters will move early as the course leaves the Mediterranean in the rearview mirror, and climbs along the “Route Napoleon.” With so few opportunities for the fast men in the bunch in the 2020 Tour, however, expect to see some cooperation among the sprinter teams to set up their aces. And with Julian Alaphilippe in yellow, a chance of a breakaway staying clear to perhaps snag the yellow jersey is even smaller.
The relatively clean approach and slightly rising finish should tip the odds toward the pure sprinters. Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) will have both their teams pulling for them. My pick? Ewan in a bike-throw.