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COVID-19 reshaping cycling’s media circus

New rules could see strict limitations on journalists at upcoming races.

Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme is already warning fans that this year’s race won’t be a good one to snap selfies with riders.

With strict social distancing and other health measures expected to be introduced at races, it appears that the same will ring true as well for journalists hoping to get that post-stage exclusive.

Final rules for the Tour de France and other upcoming WorldTour races concerning media access are still being hammered out, but special rules outlining access for journalists and photographers at the Vuelta a Burgos later this month provide a clue of what’s likely to be applied across the new-look calendar.

The takeaway? Journalists long-used to chatting with riders and sport directors at their whim could be in for a shock.

First, among the new rules, all media will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test in order to receive a credential, and facemasks will be required in all working areas.

With organizers and teams aiming to reduce risks and limit exposure as much as possible, not only are fans being held back in cycling’s new coronavirus reality, so, too, are journalists.

The UCI already rolled out rules last month that will divide the race and its many working spaces into “bubbles.” Teams, UCI personnel, race staffers, and riders will work and move within smaller groups in an effort to limit exposure to anyone outside these controlled spaces. Though media guidelines are still a work in progress for the Tour and other major races, it appears that officials want to keep the media away from these “bubbles” as much as possible.

Gone will be the infamous finish line “scrums,” when TV crews, photographers and reporters crush in around winners. In fact, with social distancing rules, no reporters will be allowed into the finish line area at all.

Not only will sign-on areas and finish-line podium ceremonies be stripped down, the traditional “mixed zone,” which allows access to TV crews and reporters before and after a stage, will also be reduced as well. Any TV interviews will be conducted using microphone booms covered in plastic wrap from a distance of two meters.

Media access will be strictly controlled when racing resumes this month. Photo: KT/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Journalists or TV crews also won’t be allowed into the bus parking staging area, typically an important working space for scribes to get reactions from riders and sport directors before and after races.

Credentialed press vehicles, which are allowed to drive alongside the peloton, will not be allowed anywhere inside the race “bubble.” Finish-line workspaces and media centers will be set up far away from the racing compound.

The above rules are what is being introduced for the Vuelta a Burgos (July 28-August 1), but it’s likely that a similar blueprint will be introduced at most upcoming races.

Race organizers are allowing teams to expand on how they might want to handle media requests, but sources close to several top squads say that team owners and managers are wary of heightening risks of a possible exposure that could imperil their team just so that a reporter might have one-on-one access to one of their riders.

Instead, many teams are working on creating online working groups that will allow journalists to receive rider reactions as well as interview staffers and racers via telephone or video chat.

Considering these limitations and other possible health risks, some media groups are wondering if it’s even worth sending journalists at all. For VeloNews and other U.S. media outlets, a current travel ban between Europe and the United States is serving up another layer of complication.

Major broadcasters are also mulling their options about coverage plans. Especially during the Tour de France, TV rights-holders, ranging from SBS in Australia to NBC in the United States and Eurosport, bring hundreds of reporters, producers, camera operators, technicians, and other specialists. That could change in the COVID-19 reality.

Since live television images are provided by French TV, many broadcasters that usually would have their reporters and commentators on the ground at the Tour might leave them at home, and call the race from a studio. Sources say that the Tour’s major broadcasters are considering scaling back dramatically on the number of people on the ground for the upcoming races.

Media representatives, via the cycling journalists association AIJC, have been working closely with race organizers to try to assure safe and equitable work conditions for reporters and photographers.

Everyone knows racing in the middle of a world pandemic will look different. It appears that no one wants to take unnecessary risks with the media horde, at least not this year.