Road

French minister acknowledges need for preparatory races before Tour

Sports minister suggests a phased return to racing in France would be needed before Tour, though social distancing measures are still in place.

The cycling world is waiting with bated breath for the UCI’s revised WorldTour calendar, due to be published next week.

Much attention has been deservedly been heaped on the start dates and format of the Tour de France, set for August 29. With the race seemingly a 99 percent certainty, the next puzzle is around what may come before it.

Traditional Tour de France warm-up races the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse would be the obvious first place to turn, however, with the Swiss race canceled and not to return until 2021, and mass gatherings in France banned through September, the situation complexifies.

French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu is aware of the problem. Much of the peloton living in Europe is due to come out of confinement in the coming weeks, with riders in France able to train outdoors after May 11, provided distancing measures are respected. The minister has proposed a phased return to group riding and races before the Grand Depart.

“The riders must be able to resume training on their own, then in a group, then be able to align themselves to preparatory competitions for the Tour de France,” Maracineanu told L’Équipe this week. “I am aware that this is essential for the survival of many professional teams.”

Reports have suggested that French race the Critérium du Dauphiné may take place mid-August, just a few weeks before the Tour is due to start. With the current ban on mass gatherings in France in place through September, the week-long event would have to be held in a stripped back format without fans, and reportedly may be shortened.

Maracineanu’s acknowledgment of the need for races may suggest there is some hope for an August-start for the Dauphiné. However, the road to the Tour would not be straightforward, with restrictions in France likely to remain responsive to coronavirus conditions as the nation leaves lockdown.

“For the Tour de France to take place, there must be a certain number of conditions, that there can be preparatory tests and that they can ride in a peloton. For now, this is not the case,” Maracineanu said. “Today, there are all these uncertainties to be lifted and which are due to the progression of the pandemic in society.”

The first phase of the easing of French restrictions requires riders to remain distant from one another, putting a stopper on the prospect of races on the near horizon. “The distance imposed on the rest of society is also imposed on riders,” Maracineanu said.

Thomas Voeckler, French cycling hero and current manager of the national team, questioned the level at which riders would be able to compete at the 3,500km Tour without prior racing.

“I couldn’t have done a Tour de France with just training,” Voeckler told L’Équipe du Soir, while recognizing that the sophistication of training since his heyday ten years ago has advanced significantly. “What it is especially necessary to see, it is that the riders today are not riders of my generation, with the old one. They have training plans,” he acknowledged.

Several voices in the peloton have already suggested that the Tour could be one of surprises and wacky racing, and whether there are races beforehand or not, all riders and teams will be in the same situation when they line up in Nice.

Maracineanu’s acknowledgment that racers need racing to be able to compete in the Tour will act as some salve to riders fretting over their pre-Tour racing sharpness — but they could get a shortened Dauphiné and handful of classics at best.

All eyes will be on the first lines of the UCI’s new calendar, set to be released Tuesday, May 5.