CARCASSONNE, France (VN) — The start of stage 14 looked like a typical mid-race transition day in the Tour de France.
Riders stepped off the team bus, fans cheered them as they pedaled toward the sign-in ceremony, and fans cheered them as they rode back.
While things might appear as a normal Tour this year, especially with fans allowed back at the starts and finishes and along the roadside, this is still very much a COVID Tour.
Riders are masked up, COVID-19 controls are still being carried out, and social distancing measures are vigorously enforced.
The 2021 Tour de France might look the same as in the pre-pandemic days, with cheering fans lining the roadways and leaning across the barriers, the race remains firmly behind closed doors for one key player: the media.
No one likes to hear about the media complaining about things on the Tour de France.
After all, anyone with one of the prized reporter’s credentials enjoys a front-row seat to one of sport’s most dramatic spectacles.
Yet the very nature of the media and how it works and operates changed dramatically last year, and all of those restrictions stay in place in 2021.
And many are worried it will stay this way, and never go back to how it was.
Tour de France media in the COVID era
Since its founding, the Tour and the media have been joined at the hip.
In fact, the race was largely born as a publicity stunt to drive newspaper sales more than a century ago. Journalists at a bike race typically enjoy much more access and contact with the main players than in any other sport.
Imagine running onto the pitch to interview Pélé after he scored the winning goal, and that’s what reporters grew accustomed to doing just moments after Chris Froome would secure the yellow jersey.
Before COVID, media had pretty much free rein at the Tour de France.
Journalists could wander around the team buses in the paddock area, loiter around the sign-in area, grab coffee in the start village, and even hold last-minute chats with a rider or sport directors as they’re lined up for a stage.
At the finish line, media would form a frothing mob scene to grab that raw, uncensored emotion that comes with victory and defeat. Team buses were post-stage magnets to speak with riders, sport directors, team managers, coaches, doctors, soigneurs, mechanics, and even bus drivers.
Journalists could even go to team hotels to follow up on gossip or arrange a longer interview after dinner with a star.
How is the media working now?
Under the guise of COVID rules, everything is strictly off-limits, except a designated media mixed zone at the start and finish.
Journalists who clear health checks are allowed to stand in designated bins along a fenced-off media chute where riders are required to pass through — but not stop — at the start and finish of each stage.
Reporters can make requests with team PR staffers for a quick word before the start, but it’s increasingly difficult for media to get more than a few short comments with key riders. Sport directors and managers, so important to understanding the larger tactics and ambitions of a team, rarely head into the media zone.
The post-race press conferences are typically limited to about five questions via a video link-up from the finish line, where journalists are strictly off-limits, and only a few pool photographers and TV crews are allowed to enter.
So right now it’s very hard for media to do its job, or at least do its job like it’s been long accustomed to.
There are work-arounds, of course. Journalists work their sources in different ways via their smartphones or having WhatsApp conversations with riders or staffers.
But it simply isn’t the same. Why?
Sure, there are a few soundbites here and there, and occasionally a press conference will deliver some zingers, but the real work of journalists comes from being able to ask questions to managers and staffers around the team buses, to ask about tactics, equipment, or opinions on their rivals.
Keeping journalists penned up inside media mixed zones makes it more challenging to ask more pointed questions about doping or even broach the subject. It’s too easy for team PR staffers to steer riders and managers away from journalists or to limit access or pre-screen questions.
What will be lost?
Right now, Tour de France media largely accepted the restrictions because everyone knows this was the only way the Tour could happen in a pandemic. Everyone was willing to make their sacrifice for the larger good of the race.
After nearly two years of working under restrictions, however, many are starting to worry that the COVID media rules could become permanent.
If you ask teams or riders privately what they think of the media restrictions, many will tell you they prefer it. Staffers and riders can work and prepare for a stage at the start and recover after a race at the finish away from the prying eyes of media.
With the paddock area closed off, VIPs and fans are also kept at bay, meaning that teams can work in relative tranquility. Right now, only a select French TV crew is allowed into the teams’ area.
Some journalists will say the mixed zone isn’t that bad, with all the riders essentially coming to them instead of waiting outside of a team bus for 30 minutes only for a rider to say they’re late for sign-in, and don’t have time to talk.
In today’s ever-changing media landscape, it’s the teams and riders who are taking control of their own media messaging. With Instagram, Twitter and a host of other social media sites, they can communicate directly with their fans, and bypass the traditional media filter.
Most WorldTour teams have full media teams, with at least one media officer on the ground, plus photographers, video teams, and staffers manning social media in offices to craft and manage the team’s public image.
So keeping media out of the paddocks and finish lines, and boxed into a media mixed zone, is just fine by them.
With so much information already prevalent in the 24-7 news cycle, some might ask what’s lost if a few nosy journalists can’t ask their questions?
Well, it’s been thanks to a few journalists that at least a few doping-related questions have been asked during this Tour de France.
Many criticize the media for not being more aggressive enough against suspected performances, but with today’s restrictive media environment, it’s even more challenging to even ask questions.
Some look back at some of the high-profile doping scandals in the Tour’s past as an example of what will be missing if the media is continued to be kept at arm’s length.
The city of Pau, for example, has been the scene of many dramatic moments with the media taking it straight to the likes of Lance Armstrong and Michael Rasmussen.
One journalist suggested if it wasn’t for incessant prying by the media in 2007 that Rasmussen may well have been able to finish that year’s Tour de France, and would have won the yellow jersey.
Ultimately, it’s police action and the courts that finally untangled some of the worst of the doping scandals, but the media played a key role.
Right now, with the media corralled into its media boxes, limited to just one or two questions, journalists finding it hard to press the case.
Tour officials insist that the media will see a return to normal once the health situation changes.
Some are worried, however, that teams — which are trying to monetize access to their athletes — and the UCI won’t mind if the media are kept penned up in their boxes.