Saturday marks Le Grand Départ of the 2020 Tour de France, an occasion sure to delight cycling fans the world over. Most of us had made peace with the reality of COVID-19, assuming all races would be cancelled (and leaving a gaping hole in our summer schedules.) With conditions in Europe improving a bit, Tour organizers decided to go ahead with the race, pushing it forward one month.
Note: Cycling’s other grand tours have also been rescheduled: The Giro d’Italia or Tour of Italy will take place October 3-25; the Vuelta a España or Tour of Spain kicks off October 20 and concludes November 8.
As much as I long to see the peloton pedaling through the sunflower fields of southern France, my inner hall monitor has misgivings:
How will the riders observe social distancing guidelines while crowded on a narrow country road? How can teams ensure the athletes’ safety when they’re living in cramped quarters and taking meals together? What about the crazy fans along the way?
A couple of weeks ago, we got a preview of how the Tour might look, all risks considered. The Critérium du Dauphiné, a five-day romp through the Alps and Rhône Valley, provided all the thrills of a mountain race: mano-a-mano battles up impossibly steep slopes; tactical team maneuvers; and a few ugly crashes.
What was missing? Well, fans, mostly. In years past, the roadsides would teem with spirited (often unruly) cycling aficionados; this year only a few stragglers showed up to cheer on their favorite riders. At the finish line, no spectators were permitted. American Sepp Kuss rode to one of the all-time great stage victories, accompanied by scattered applause.
I hope he could hear all of us at home, shouting encouragement as he stayed ahead of the pack.
Podium girls also seem to be a thing of the past, and rightfully so. Nothing against them personally, but they don’t add much to the festivities, in my opinion. When you’ve just spent four hours on a bike, you’d probably rather stand between two waiters, one holding a burger and the other a milkshake. Am I right?
So, how will Tour organizers protect the participants?
- Common-sense precautions such as isolating the riders in a “bubble” where their exposure to outsiders is limited (similar to the NBA)
- Limited number of fans along the route and, especially, at the start and finish
- Constant testing of riders and support staff
- Disqualification of any team on which two or more riders test positive for COVID
Many riders in the Dauphiné wore masks, at least at the start of the race, when all competitors are clustered together. I didn’t read about any such requirement for the Tour, but I expect to see a similar situation come Saturday.
For more information on how Tour organizers have prepared for the race, here’s an article recently published in the Financial Times.
The Top Contenders – and Who’s Missing
Chris Froome, four-time winner of the Tour, missed the 2019 season after a serious crash in last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné race.
Fans were eager for his return in 2020, only to have him withdraw from the Tour after a disappointing result in the Dauphiné. Teammate and fellow Tour winner Geraint Thomas also withdrew, leaving Team Ineos with Egan Bernal as the only contender for the yellow jersey. He rode well in the Dauphiné and happens to be the defending champion of the Tour. Keep an eye on him.
Slovenian Primoz Roglic, a former ski jumping champion, had the Dauphiné victory within his reach when he crashed on day 4. If he’s recovered and well-rested, he’ll be vying for the top podium place in Paris. I’ll make my judgment after seeing how he rides the first few days.
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot may finally have his moment of glory. Despite riding many days without team members alongside him, Pinot rode like a madman, keeping pace with the leaders from Team Jumbo-Visma and Ineos. Maybe this is the year he puts it all together and brings the French a long-awaited maillot jaune.
Stage 1: Coastal Nice and the Maritime Alps
Le Grand Départ takes the peloton from the posh seaside of Nice, up into the mountains just north of the city. While not a particularly long stage, it does have a few categorized climbs that could push the opportunists in the peloton to an early breakaway.
For us spectators, it will be a day to inspire wanderlust, prompting reminiscences of Before Times when we could travel the world. All of France is beautiful but there is something a little spicier, just a little bit extra about the Riviera. Remember To Catch a Thief, the classic movie with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant? The peloton will navigate the same roads, with the same show-stopping views.
So, What Are We Drinking?
Bellet is the region nearest to today’s route, and it’s quite interesting. Perched at the very edge of the city, aficionados have nicknamed it the “Urban Appellation of Nice.” Despite its location along the warm, sunny coast, Bellet benefits from elevation which cools things down a bit. Vineyards lie at about 1,000 feet above sea level, and include Rolle (aka Vermentino) which makes crisp, lemony white wines. There is also a little Braquet, making pale rosés, and Folle Noire, Cinsault, and Grenache, which combine forces in the red wines of the region.
The wines might be difficult to find – in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever had one. But feel free to crack open a lovely pink wine labeled Côtes de Provence, a much larger region whose wines are widely available.
And, if you’re interested in learning more about the unique story of Bellet, its history, and its wine producers, please check out this website. It’s full of insider’s tips on getting around and which wineries to visit. Take a virtual trip to the South of France without leaving your couch.
Enjoy the first stage of Le Tour 2020. Let’s toast to the riders, their safety, and an exciting three weeks to come!