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Despite lockdowns across Europe, grand tour organizers are holding out hope their races will be contested before the year is out.
When and where remains to be seen, and everything depends on conditions of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The next four to five weeks is crucial, that the virus infections come down to a very low level in Europe,” said Matt White, sport director at Mitchelton-Scott. “At the moment we’re not seeing that, and I would think that as it stands at the moment, it would be pretty hard to run the Tour de France at the current dates starting at the end of June.”
Behind the scenes, organizers are mapping out blueprints for redesigned courses, new dates, and enhanced health and safety measures that would allow cycling’s most important stage races to be held during unprecedented conditions.
According to sources, officials are building blueprints for a variety of alternatives, with the idea of having a game plan in place if health authorities give the grand tours the green light.
Over the weekend, a memo confirmed that Tour de France organizers are looking at postponing the 2020 edition, and that cancellation is not on the table right now. With the Olympic Games delayed until 2021, teams and organizers are hopeful that many races can be salvaged by racing into the fall. As reported by VeloNews, officials are considering racing until the end of November to try to squeeze in as many race days as possible.
One scenario is to try to run the Tour from late July into mid-August, followed by the Vuelta a España during its scheduled dates. The Giro d’Italia would be held following the world championships in October. Foreign starts for the Giro, already canceled in Hungary, and the Vuelta, with the depart slated for Holland, would be scrapped, with racing limited to the respective host countries of the three grand tours.
Even those adjusted dates might be too ambitious. Other possibilities include delaying the Tour even later, perhaps into September, with the Giro and Vuelta held in October and November, respectively. There’s also talk of overlapping race dates, just to try to save as many races as possible.
“The organizers are looking for a definitive agreement,” Italian cycling federation president Renato Di Rocco told TuttoBici. “It would be ideal to return to racing in August, maybe late July, but not before that. The priority will be the grand tours and the classics, but we will try to save as many races as possible.”
With so many riders locked down, teams are insisting that athletes have a chance to train and race before tackling a grand tour. Riders living in Spain, Andorra, Italy and France have not been able to train outside since late March, while riders in Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries are still training at relatively high levels.
“We have to have some competition before the Tour de France,” White said. “You can’t have the Tour de France as the first race. That doesn’t work for the riders, simple as that.”
With lockdown conditions extended into mid-May for Italy and Spain, and likely for France as well, a lot would need to happen before any racing resumes.
First, health officials and government authorities would have to ease quarantine conditions, open up public spaces, allow travel, and permit people to return to their jobs. And for something as cumbersome and logistically challenging as a grand tour, hotels, gas stations and restaurants would all need to be operational on a national scale.
Then there’s the question of international travel. Would riders flying into Europe from overseas face a possible two-week quarantine before being allowed to race? Even travel between countries within Europe might not be allowed later this year.
Everyone agrees that health and safety come first. The fate of any resumption of racing remains in the hands of national authorities.
“Safety has to remain the priority,” White said. “We’re not talking about four or five venues, we are a traveling circus. We’re talking about 2,000 people; teams, media, logistics and movement between 20 hotels, for more than 25 days.”
Teams and race organizers alike admit the financial stakes are high to see a resumption of racing if health conditions allow. With several teams already reducing salaries and laying off workers, some fear professional cycling could take a permanent hit if some semblance of the Tour is not held in 2020. Several teams could fold this year due to the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the world economy.
“It is very simple,” Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot told AFP. “If the Tour does not take place, teams could disappear, and riders and staff would be left without a job.”
The damage isn’t limited to the teams. ASO, owners of the Tour, Vuelta and other races such as Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and Paris-Roubaix, would see its income drop dramatically.
According to a French study, 2019 brought in an estimated 130 million euros in revenue. About 40 to 50 percent of that came from race sponsors, another 50 to 55 percent from television rights, and another 5 to 10 percent from fees of hosting cities for starts and finishes, AFP reported, citing a report by Sporsora. The Tour total represents about half of all of ASO income, estimated at about 233.5 million euros, according to the AFP.
Riders are also feeling the pinch. Every year, hundreds of riders face contract extensions. Without racing days and an uncertain future, racers across the globe are hopeful there will be a chance to show their value before the year is out.
“It is a shame but hopefully it can go ahead,” 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas told BBC. “Obviously, there are bigger things that need to be sorted out first, but as soon as it’s safe and ready to go ahead, we’d love it to happen. I’m praying and hoping it goes ahead at some point. It’s the pinnacle of the sport, it’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure when, but hopefully it goes ahead this year.”