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Riders at Paris-Nice face ‘surreal’ conditions, racing without fans

French health authorities banned large public gatherings of more than 1,000 people, forcing Paris-Nice race officials to close off start and finish areas to the public.

CHALETTE-SUR-LOING, France (VN) — Is a bike race still a bike race if there is no one watching it?

Paris-Nice is turning into an experiment of sorts this week as French health authorities have banned large public gatherings. With coronavirus casting a pall over the racing calendar, Paris-Nice rolls on Tuesday without fans lining its outdoor stadium.

“During the race, I don’t notice it, but on the start and finish, it’s a little bit sad,” Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) told VeloNews at the start line Tuesday. “Oh well, we do what you have to do.”

Teams and riders across the peloton are dealing with the ever-changing landscape as coronavirus continues to throw the racing calendar into disarray.

Last week, RCS Sport was forced to cancel its marquee races in Italy, with Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo all removed from the calendar. Officials hope to reschedule them, but Italy was placed under a nationwide quarantine over the weekend that continues at least until early April.

That decision sent many top stars like Sagan and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), who had Tirreno-Adriatico on their respective calendars, to race at Paris-Nice instead. The race started Sunday with a series of measures meant to lower the risk of infection among the race caravan and the larger public. The opening two stages unfolded without mishap, and delivered two scintillating days of racing.

On Monday, however, French health authorities banned large public gatherings of more than 1,000 people. A string of concerts and conventions have been canceled, and upcoming soccer games might be held in empty stadiums. With the decree coming down Monday afternoon, Paris-Nice race officials moved quickly to close off start and finish areas to the racing public.

The measures will remain in place this week against a backdrop of a growing health crisis that threatens to engulf Europe. Paris-Nice race officials are hoping to thread the needle, and push the race all the way to the finish line on the Cote d’Azur on Sunday.

“We are taking seriously the recommendations and have kept the public away from the start and finish areas,” Paris-Nice race director François Lemarchand told CyclingProNet. “It’s against the spirit of what cycling is, but that’s the situation now, and that’s what we are going to do to make sure that the race can continue.”

Local police were posted near Tuesday’s start to make sure curious fans did not try to pack in around the depart area. Still, a few sturdy fans lined up along the barriers anyway.

Much like a soccer stadium without fans, riders dashed to the finish line Monday with race barriers and the finish line infrastructure fully intact, but there was no one there to witness it.

Social distancing measures are being enforced in France, where gatherings of more than 1,000 are temporarily banned.
Social distancing measures are being enforced in France, where gatherings of more than 1,000 are temporarily prohibited. Photo: James Startt

“It is very, very surreal,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Merijn Zeeman told VeloNews in a telephone interview. Zeeman’s team was one of seven WorldTour teams that opted out of racing Paris-Nice.

“If it’s necessary, it’s necessary,” Zeeman said. “I am not an expert, but I can understand if it has to be done, there’s no discussion. For all of us in cycling, this is a very new situation. We have to trust the experts to make the right decisions.”

Racers at Paris-Nice are also trying to stay focused on each day of racing, and not think about the larger implications on their racing calendar. Riders and teams are trying to perform under fast-changing conditions as governments across Europe consider their next step.

“We’ll have to figure out what the rest of the season will be like,” Nibali said Monday on the team website. “With the problems that the coronavirus is bringing to Europe, it’s complicated to make predictions — you have to live this situation week by week. It is difficult to think too much about the future. I hope that we can return to normal as soon as possible. I want to say to all the fans to kindly please be responsible for the well-being of all and keep a safe distance.”

“It’s better to be here,” Sagan echoed. “It’s the only race we can do because Tirreno-Adriatico and all the races were canceled. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the rest of Europe.”

The absence of fans could be the toll that cycling will pay if road racing hopes to be able to continue under the coronavirus scare. For riders in the race, once the flag drops, their focus is on the wheel in front of them.

“Of course it’s a little bit sad, but I understand the circumstances,” race leader Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) told VeloNews on Tuesday morning. “We have to do what secures public health. Once we are on the road, it’s just bike racing.”