The 2020 Tour de France is under way!
Even the start of this year’s race is an almost unexpected triumph.
Questions have been hanging over the 2020 Tour ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the early abandonment of the regular professional cycling season, and the official postponement of the Tour de France in April. For a long time it wasn’t certain le Tour would be staged at all in 2020, and the race was still in doubt right up to the start.
Speculation and debate intensified as the region saw an alarming increase in new COVID cases in the last few days. Is it irresponsible and impractical to allow the race to proceed, or is it a reasonably well-controlled risk given the extraordinary precautions taken by the organizers?
Riders and politicians alike admit it could easily go either way – with luck, battling all the way to Paris, or without it, packing in after only a couple of days.
Neither outcome would be surprising, and that points to a most significant effect of the pandemic on the 2020 Tour de France: an enormous amount of uncertainty. Add Coronavirus outbreaks to the list of surprises that can unexpectedly change the fortunes of the race. Previous Tours already suffered cows on the road, terrorist attacks, mud slides, striking farmers, strong-arming gendarmes, interfering fans, and lots more.
How the 2020 Tour de France adapted to cope with Coronavirus
New rules and accommodations for the pandemic will change the experience for riders and fans alike. More people are expected to watch the race on television this year, with fewer along the route, so the stages include less time trialing and more locations for dramatic televised finishes.
The key tactics to deal with COVID are keeping the entire race in as tight a bubble as possible, and frequent fail-safe testing.
All hotels and transports along the way will be restricted to race personnel only.
If any 2 riders on a team are strongly symptomatic or a positive test result is confirmed, then the entire team is eliminated.
Routes that are normally lined with cheering fans will have restricted access, in villages, sprint zones and even mountains. No selfies and mingling before and after stages. Mandatory masks all round, though local authorities along the route are expected to have those requirements in place already.
It’s really not clear what will happen if the race must be abandoned before reaching Paris, or if there aren’t enough competitors left for the race to be viable. Would the leaders be officially declared as winners, no matter how far the race actually ran? The rules don’t seem to specify what happens in cases which have rarely if ever cropped up before, but are a distinct possibility now.
The 2020 Tour de France Route – heading into the hills early, with very little let up before Paris
This year’s Tour began yesterday, Saturday August 29th, in Nice, the resort city on the Cote’d Azur, where cafes in the shade of palm trees overlook broad beaches and sparkling Mediterranean waters. Nice is just a few miles from the Italian border to the east, and the towering Alps to the north.
The Grand Départ showcased the sprinters along the beachfront after a hilly circuit near the city. An early breakaway made things interesting through the hills, but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. Rain made the course tricky and the stage was filled with crashes, including some race favorites, with some riders sustaining injuries. The peloton cooperated to moderate speed later in the race, and finish times were taken at the 3km to go marker rather than risk more serious crashes in the inevitable mass sprint.
The finish itself was well worth the wait, with Alexander Kristoff turning in an impressive burst of speed to claim the win over Peter Sagan. Kristoff is the second Norwegian ever to wear the Yellow Jersey; Sagan claimed the Green Jersey.
Today the race heads into the mountains of Provence. The region is famed for its picturesque flower meadows and fresh cuisine, less so for its leg-bending ascents.
Those climbs offer the kind of punishment usually served out only after at least a week of racing. This means big strategic time gaps can open up very early in the race. Attacking and defending those gaps will be key to deciding the podium contenders over the remaining stages.
There are only a couple of stages in the Pyrenees, fewer than usual, followed by varied stages in the maritimes and lush valleys in the west, through lowland country up to central France, then back into the high Alps before a couple of days in equally challenging terrain toward the northeast. If all goes to plan, the Tour will finally wrap up in Paris with the usual display of racing against the backdrop of the capital’s iconic monuments – made for TV.
The route promises an exciting mix of mass sprint finishes, days made for puncheurs who can climb multiple smaller hills then smash out a strong sprint, and showcases for pure climbers who can leave rivals behind on grueling ascents.
This may be one of the toughest Tour de France routes yet, according to riders who have reconnoitered it. From the spectator’s perspective, this is a Tour where the possibilities for advantages to be won and lost emerge early, and do not let up until the peloton arrives in Paris. It could be anyone’s race, and will be a nail biter to watch.
Favorites to win the 2020 Tour de France and riders to watch
Setting aside the potential of COVID flare ups to throw everything to the wind, this years’ race features several riders with the strength and experience to prevail, at least on paper. It will be fascinating to see who can use the unusual staging of the route to their advantage.
The racing is expected to be faster and even more intense than usual, because of the very limited race calendar. In a typical year the teams would already have been battling it out for several months of stage races, one day classics, and the earlier grand tour, the Giro d’Italia. This year, legs are far fresher.
This also makes it harder to gauge who has timed their build up well, and who is hitting peak form for the Tour.
Two riders missing from the lineup this year are Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome. Neither showed enough form in the Critérium du Dauphiné (a stage race often used as final prep for Tour de France contenders) to be chosen for their TDF squad. They will focus instead on the Giro and Vuelta d’Espana respectively, giving them more time to regain full fitness. It seems odd to have neither of them in the Tour, since between them they have won 5 of the last 7 Tours.
- That leaves last year’s winner, the young Columbian Egan Bernal, as a natural favorite.
- Look out also for Primoz Roglich and team mate Tom Dumoulin – Dumoulin has great strength with superior time trial abilities, and was a serious contender last year. Roglich is tough, experienced and dominated the pro circuit late last year, though his withdrawal after a crash in the Dauphiné leaves a question mark. The same goes for Bernal actually: he withdrew earlier in the Dauphiné with back problems which apparently are still troubling him.
- Pinot Thibeault – a perennial Tour de France presence who has been dogged by bad luck. Last year he looked ready to seize the race in the Alps when a thigh injury took him out. He certainly has the climbing ability and guts to reach the podium. He was banged up in the Stage 1 crashes, so it remains to be seen if he will be able to shine this year.
- Julian Alaphilippe – held the yellow jersey for a long stretch last year, and showed he has what it takes. He’s downplaying his hopes this year. Don’t be fooled!
- Adam Yates – still has youth on his side, finished 4th in 2016, has several stage wins to his credit, and could well have the strength and experience to prevail at last.
- Richie Porte has supported Chris Froome in several previous Tours, and showed the ability and tenacity that could place him on the podium in his own right. His support will not match the big teams, but if the breaks go his way, he could be a contender.
- Don’t count out Roman Bardet either. He’s a popular French rider whose best days in previous Tours show that he could rightfully claim a top G.C. placing.
- Do count on Peter Sagan to take the Green Jersey in the points classification once again. No one else in the lineup has matched his ability to win sprints on both the flats and the hills in many past Tours, though there are a couple of riders who might get close this year – keep an eye on Wout van Aert and Sam Bennett. As of midway through stage 2, Sagan is fighting hard to pick up points behind yesterday’s stage winner, Kristoff.
All that said, it will be especially hard to predict who will finish on the podium this year, even as the race unfolds – not only because of the contests of strength and determination, and potential disasters of crashes and mechanicals, but because of the more random risk of infection.
It would be truly painful to see a leader eliminated from the Tour because of the virus reaching his team mates, after all the effort and skill it takes to get to the front of the race.
We will have to look on whatever happens philosophically, as just one more of the uncertainties hanging over our lives during the pandemic. It’s one more addition to the daily dramas, battles and pitfalls that make pro stage races like the Tour de France so compelling to watch.
La Course 2020 – The Women’s Tour de France Event – Gives an Early Highlight
The women’s race was staged as a one day event over some of the same route used for the men’s stage 1. Originally conceived to run in Paris at the end of the Tour, La Course was moved to Nice as another concession to the pandemic.
The route was a great setting for a competitive race. An early breakaway was reeled in by the peloton, but another attack on the main climb let a small group of the strongest riders get away. The race came down to a close sprint on the beachfront finish, where Britain’s Lizzie Deignan edged out Marianne Vos, a previous La Course champion, with a perfectly timed bike throw. Deignan is based in nearby Monaco, and felt she almost had a home advantage. It doesn’t hurt that she is having a great season, and after this and a big win just 5 days before she is now the UCI’s top ranked woman cyclist.
As a footnote to this year’s Tour: word is that a Women’s Tour de France is planned for 2022, to run after the men’s Tour is finished, and featuring multiple stages. Stay tuned…