In a much-anticipated speech to the National Assembly on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe laid out new guidelines for what France would look like after the country officially begins to reopen on May 11. He outlined what businesses could reopen (most retail stores), or could not (bars and restaurants). And in one phrase he essentially announced which professional sports could continue. “I would like to specify that large sporting events…all events that bring together more than 5,000 participants, cannot take place before the month of September.”
Philippe’s announcement essentially brought an end to the French football season, but it also raised questions about the Tour de France, which was recently rescheduled to begin on August 29, after the COVID-19 crisis made it impossible to maintain its original start date on June 27.
Could the Tour somehow be salvaged? Could there be a way to keep the Grand Depart in the Mediterranean city of Nice under 5,000 participants — an event that often draws some of the biggest crowds? And what about key warm-up races like the Critérium du Dauphiné, which is still hoping to find a date in August?
Later in the evening, French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineau clarified the situation, at least somewhat, by saying, “The Tour de France is not called being called into question. There will be no large-scale events before September, but the Tour starting on August 29 could have some modifications.” Maracineau then added, “It’s up to ASO (i.e., the Tour de France organizers) to make some propositions.”
While ASO has yet to respond, barring an exemption from the government, they clearly must come up with a solution in the hope to maintain the new dates, but currently they have limited options.
They could look for a solution to hold the grand depart in a privatized setting without the public. To date, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has clearly been opposed to such an option, but for the start at least, he may have not other option.
The Tour could simply erase the opening days of the much-celebrated grand depart in Nice. Such an option would also need to be considered with the local authorities in Nice. The city’s mayor Christian Estrosi is a big cycling fan and has been building the city up for the Tour for the past several years. But the city pressured ASO to cancel the last day of Paris-Nice in March due to COVID-19. Certainly, the Tour de France is much bigger than Paris-Nice, but city authorities may still feel that maintaining the Tour de France start is not worth the health and sanitary risks, and without the crowds that pack the start of the Tour, the city may simply not feel that it is worth the logistical and financial investment.
Another option would be to push the grand depart back until September 1, but then eliminate several stages scheduled later in the race, that from a visibility and commercial standpoint, are less significant.
And a final option, but one that is even less likely, would be to attempt to push the Tour start back even further. But with the UCI already scrambling to establish a new calendar, it is unlikely that they will make such amends, especially since a later Tour start would mean that the Tour finish would then conflict with their own world championships that start on September 20 and run until September 27.
Furthermore, while the Prime Minister set September as the new date for allowing large-scale events, he made it clear that it was dependent on the evolution of the coronavirus. And while such large-scale events could well resume at the beginning of September, they well could not.
But for the moment at least, the sport of cycling still has the chance to fare better than other sports here in France. And the Tour de France start, while complicated, has not been canceled.