ORCIÈRES-MERLETTE, France (VN) — The view was stunning as Tuesday’s Tour de France route plowed headlong into the French Alps. Yet something was missing.
In fact, a lot was missing — a lot of fans.
I’ve never seen a Tour de France mountaintop finale like this.
Police were blocking traffic 15km from the finish line Tuesday. That’s part of the COVID-19 protocol that VeloNews reported on this week, with Tour officials shutting off 27 of the Tour’s major climbs to cars and campers.
Tuesday was the first glimpse of what that will look like.
It was odd driving up the switchbacks to see literally just a few dozen of fans. There were no massive hoards of fans lining the road. No dancing devils, no one running along side the riders, no one wearing a pair of elk antlers. None of the color and excitement of what a normal Tour looks like.
We stopped to talk to some fans. A pair of cyclists had driven up from Gap, ditched their car at the bottom of the valley, and then ridden up. Another family came from a nearby village.
I’ve asked a few riders what it’s been like racing so far at the Tour. Inside the race, they say nothing’s changed, but they’re noticing the difference.
“It’s a shame that the fans aren’t out like they usually are,” said Mitchelton-Scott’s Jack Bauer. “That’s what makes the Tour so special. That’s just the way it is this year.”
“There is no interaction at all with the fans, and the Tour de France is all that,” said Sunweb’s Nicolas Roche. “In a way, you miss signing autographs, giving a handshake to a kid, that’s all part of cycling heritage, and that’s all taken away for very clear safety reasons. That’s the most difficult bit.”
There are some other factors, too. In September, it’s not vacation time like it is in July, and students are heading back to school this week in France. With flight restrictions, fans from the United States, Australia and other countries can’t get to France even if they wanted to.
It’s just one more element of what’s going to be a very different — and what everyone is hoping is a one-off — edition of the Tour de France.
Having so few fans does make it easier getting up and down these climbs for everyone inside the Tour bubble. I’ve burned out a few clutches over the years trying to negotiate the mobs on l’Alpe d’Huez. I remember years ago driving through the maddening crowds of the Col de Joux Plane, someone threw a plate of spaghetti onto my windshield.
That made for an exciting day at the office.
There will be no burned clutches, no flying pasta at this year’s Tour de France mountain stages. Just the strange — if necessary — sound of silence.
How long for Julian?
Julian Alaphilippe doesn’t seem to have the same legs as he did in 2019, but it was impressive how he fought to defend the yellow jersey Tuesday. He’s a crowd favorite in France for good reason. He’s a natural showman that is giving the home fans something to cheer about in this COVID-19 Tour.
How long will he last in yellow? That was the big question last year, wasn’t it? Everyone expected him to crack, and he ended up driving all the way into the Alps in yellow. Even he admits there won’t be any miracle repeats this year.
“My plan doesn’t change,” Alaphilippe said. “I am going to defend the jersey as long as possible. I could not prepare the same as last year. I’m in the yellow jersey and I will fight for it as long as I can.”
Tomorrow should see Alaphilippe get some help from the sprinter teams, but stage 6 sees another uphill finale. The “Alapanache” version of 2019 would be dreaming big. In 2020, Alaphilippe is firmly into taking it day-by-day mode.
Wednesday’s 183km fifth stage has Peter Sagan written all over it. It’s a rising finale that perfectly suits the flamboyant three-time world champion. Sagan isn’t looking his sharpest so far, and could see a challenge from the likes of Greg Van Avermaet or Sam Bennett. My pick? Golden Greg gets the win.