Ordinarily the bike race from chilly Paris to the balmy Mediterranean shores of Nice (hence the moniker Race to the Sun) serves as Opening Day for the cycling season. Technically the Tour Down Under, which courses through southern Australia, precedes it on the calendar but, because I rarely have the chance to watch that race, Paris-Nice always feels like the starting point to me.
Today it also felt like the swan song of the season.
Sports in the Era of COVID-19
Last Sunday, as the riders braced themselves for the wind and rain of stage one, people were becoming collectively alarmed at the spread of novel coronavirus. The sports world, however, was moving forward on a quasi-normal basis. Basketball fans were penciling-in their brackets, anticipating a month’s worth of March Madness. Hockey aficionados looked forward to a long and exciting playoff season.
Cycling fans like me wondered who would exhibit the form – and stamina – to prevail in the one-day classics and grand tours to come. I tuned in to the NBC Sports app to watch stage one, a grim affair in which the peloton battled chilly temps, constant rain, and crosswinds. None of this came as a surprise: early season races are exciting partly because of such harsh conditions.
What happened at the finish line, though, was another story.
The Cheese Stands Alone
Sorry, I’m not comparing Max Schachmann to a cheese, let alone an imaginary one from a children’s song, but his victory seemed surreal. After winning stage one, he was awarded the race’s first yellow jersey, an honor bestowed on the cyclist with the fastest overall time in the race.
Such an honor usually brings with it a lot of pomp and circumstance: standing atop the podium, receiving a trophy for the stage win, and donning the yellow jersey (usually with the assistance of very attractive young women). Lots of congratulatory handshakes with local officials and cycling bigwigs follow, much to the delight of the crowd in attendance.
Well, that’s what happens in normal times. These are not normal times.
Max strode onto the podium already clad in the yellow jersey. Respecting the policy of social distancing, a term now on everyone’s tongues, race organizers had given Max the jersey backstage, where he put it on himself. Same with the trophy, which he clasped in hand as he climbed to the top position on the stand. He waved to the organizers and officials, smiled for a few photographs, and looked out into the empty space where the spectators would have been.
Such is victory in the time of COVID-19.
The Bigger Picture
Paris-Nice is usually an eight day race, culminating in a sprint finish on the seaside boulevards of Nice. Throughout the week, though, commentators wondered aloud whether the race would go forward. As cancellations rippled across the world of professional sports, many speculated that Paris-Nice would be another casualty of the coronavirus’s spread.
Although the race went on as planned, seven teams defected prior to the start, citing concerns about the virus. Day after day the news worsened: Denmark called home all of its citizens, forcing current world champion Mads Pedersen and the bulk of the Sunweb cycling team to abandon the race. Management of the Bahrain-McLaren team eventually pulled their squad from the roster. And race organizers eliminated the final stage on Sunday while being unclear about whether the race would even proceed on Friday or Saturday.
Turns out it did.
Saturday’s stage was the most exciting of all, with Max Schachmann holding on to win the race. I loved watching him defend the yellow jersey, especially when he had no teammates left on the last climb. He weathered attacks from his rivals by keeping pace with each one – an exhausting exercise, to be sure. But at the end of the day there he was, king of the road once more; and once again basking in victory on an empty podium, with no fans to show their appreciation.
As the final jerseys were awarded (climbing, points, best young rider) I wondered whether I was watching not just the first big race of the cycling season, but the last.
In just the last week, four of the five classic races known as The Monuments, have been canceled or postponed:
- Milan-San Remo slated for March 21st has been canceled.
- The Tour of Flanders, scheduled for April 5th has been canceled.
- Paris-Roubaix, a one-day race lovingly referred to as Hell of the North, has already been postponed from its scheduled date of April 12.
- Liège-Bastogne-Liège, on the calendar for April 26th, has been postponed.
- The Tour of Lombardia (Italy) is scheduled for October 10th; stay tuned.
But, in what may be a harbinger of bigger things to come, the Giro d’Italia, the first of cycling’s grand tours, has been postponed from its original start date of May 11th to who-knows-when. Race organizers promise an update by April 3rd but that’s not far off. I fear it will be canceled, too.
Depending on how well the virus is contained between now and this summer, the Tour de France – cycling’s crown jewel – and the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) may be additional casualties.
I’m crushed just thinking about it. I’ve been a cycling fan for many years, and it’s the reason I started this blog: Tour de France by the Glass debuted in 2015. Each day I wrote about the race and suggested wine pairings from the highlighted region.
I haven’t missed a stage since.
What to Do?
Admittedly we all have bigger fish to fry than crying over a canceled sports event. What we should hone in on is how to get through this trying time, doing the best we can to assist others. As frustrating as it is to adopt “social distancing” protocols and work in isolation from home, we must persevere.
Feeling lonely and out of touch? Why not pick up that Instagram/Twitter device and use it instead to make a phone call? Our elderly friends and relatives need interpersonal contact now more than ever; and come to think of it, so do we all.
I’ve felt particularly helpless when I think about children going without the meals they normally receive in school, or families whose livelihoods are severely impacted by layoffs and closings. Maybe I can’t volunteer in person at the food bank or help with homework at the Boys and Girls Club, but I can support those programs through online donations.
It feels small and inadequate but at least it’s something. For now.
Do you have suggestions on how to make the world a better place in this time of chaos? I’d love to hear about them and would be happy to pass them on via social media and word of mouth.
In the meantime, take care of yourselves and each other. I wish you good health and good cheer.
P.S. If we are lucky enough to see a Tour and a Vuelta this year, be on the lookout for Nairo Quintana. He’s back in great form and had a fantastic few days in Paris-Nice, boding well for the rest of the season. As for his countryman, Sergio Higuita, every GC contender in the peloton should have him in their sights. You heard it here first!