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PLAISIR, France (VN) — It was all elbow-bumps and distant waves to fans who braved a brisk Sunday morning as Paris-Nice started against the backdrop of a growing coronavirus scare gripping Europe.
Race organizers are taking extraordinary steps this week to try to assure that the eight-day stage race from the outskirts of Paris to the French Riviera can be raced as planned.
Just days after this weekend’s Strade Bianche and a slew of Italian races were scrapped, 17 teams defiantly took the start line Sunday in France.
Speaking to VeloNews before the start of Sunday’s first stage, ASO’s Christian Prudhomme said it was important for cycling to start Paris-Nice.
“I’m very satisfied to see the race underway under these challenging conditions,” Prudhomme told VeloNews’ James Startt. “We have been working hard, and we are doing everything with the agreement of the health authorities.”
After an intense week of planning, debate and negotiations, Paris-Nice race organizers are trying to defy the odds.
In a sport that prides itself on being close to its fans, Paris-Nice will be an experiment on how to race bikes against the growing reach of a highly contagious virus. Prudhomme insists that the Paris-Nice organizers have been telegraphing the message to fans and riders that health and safety come first.
“The affected areas are very far away from the route,” Prudhomme said. “We are least 100km from the closest cluster. We’ve been fortunate there.”
Whether or not Paris-Nice makes it to the French Riviera will be an important test for other upcoming races as the coronavirus widens its reach across Europe. Some fear the race could be stopped in its tracks, similar to what happened at the UAE Tour last month, and riders and staff could languish in hotel rooms under lockdown.
Last week, RCS Sport was forced to scrap its entire March calendar, canceling Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo and the Giro di Sicilia, with the hopes of rescheduling later in the season. The women’s calendar has been impacted as well, with organizers canceling or rescheduling events.
Worried about health risks and the fear of quarantine, seven WorldTour teams opted not to race Paris-Nice. With growing uncertainty over how regional and national governments are grappling with new cases, some teams decided the most prudent plan was to not put riders and staffers into fast-changing conditions. By Sunday morning, much of northern Italy was placed under emergency quarantine.
“Paris-Nice is in the hands of the gods,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “These are not normal circumstances. We made the decision, along with our medical staff, that the best thing to do was to take a step back and see how things develop.”
With the coronavirus scare casting a pall over the spring racing season, others insist it’s imperative for the sport to race if health authorities declare it is appropriate to do so.
On Sunday morning, riders bundled together against a cold wind at the start line in Plaisir about one hour west of Paris ready to race. A solid group of fans showed up to cheer on the peloton as if nothing strange had happened over the past week or so.
“I am not afraid to race,” said Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) on Saturday. “What’s happening on the ground and what’s being talked about in the media are different things. We do not see panic.”
Pinot is among a handful of big names lining up Sunday for Paris-Nice. After Tirreno-Adriatico was canceled, teams adjusted their rosters. The Paris-Nice peloton, though depleted of some of its top teams, sees an all-star start list considering the circumstances. Many riders, including Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), who were slated to race in Italy, added Paris-Nice to their calendars. With the spring classics looming, no one wants to miss the chance to race if they can.
“It’s very important to be here,” said Elia Viviani (Cofidis) told CyclingProNet at the start line. “It’s an important week for the classics. It’s bad that San Remo is not there, but we want to race.”
Once Paris-Nice organizers got the green light from French health officials to conduct the race, Prudhomme said ASO started to work behind the scenes.
Teams and organizers have taken a series of precautionary steps that everyone hopes will keep riders, staffers and fans safe during the race.
“We had to find more hotels so that no more than two teams are in each hotel,” Prudhomme said. “Normally, we have three or four teams in each hotel.”
On Saturday, organizers canceled press conferences, and said that there would be no perfunctory handshakes and hugs on the winner’s podium. More barriers will be added to keep the public and riders separated, and there will be no post-stage interviews.
Teams are also taking extra measures to disinfect rooms and other areas where riders are packed together, be it at the dinner table or inside the team bus.
Perhaps more than other sports, cycling’s moving roadshow is particularly susceptible to the larger threat posed by coronavirus. Many riders and staffers who showed up at Paris-Nice seemed determined to ply their trade. The recent death of popular Team Ineos sport director Nicolas Portal, who died last week at 40, seemed to bring the Paris-Nice entourage even closer together. Sport directors held a minute’s moment of silence for Portal during Saturday’s pre-race meeting.
“It’s been very challenging,” Prudhomme said. “There has been a real solidarity between all the stakeholders to make this happen. Everyone wants to cooperate because everyone wants to see bike racing.”