The Tour de France’s dates have been changed with the start pushed back two months, the plan is now to begin in Nice on Saturday 29 August and finish in Paris on Sunday 20 September. The route is unchanged. It’s just that, a date change. It buys time but all talk about the race still feels like it should be in the conditional given the public health crisis caused by Covid-19.
There’s been lots of planning behind the scenes and some ideas like holding it behind a cordon sanitaire or various proposals for moving the dates have leaked out. Race organisers ASO and the French sports ministry would be remiss if they didn’t plan, just as a transport ministry will have scenarios for when the railways reopen, and the education ministry hones plans to reopen schools. Today’s announcement is different as it’s not a leak or a whisper but the date change is formal and it’s part of a coordinated attempt in the sport to reset the calendar with the UCI announcing a wider plan to hold all grand tours and the five Monuments. But again just moving the date is no guarantee the race goes ahead, remember this.
If the Tour de France happens it won’t be the first race since the sport stopped in March. There seems to be a convention that the Tour will only go ahead if there’s been sufficient time for riders to resume training outdoors and then to bank a race or two in August, perhaps a delayed and abbreviated Critérium du Dauphiné, maybe races on the August calendar like the Vuelta a Burgos or the Tour de l’Ain go ahead, or a rescheduled Tour de Pologne happens. Some European federations are preparing for national championships on the weekend before the mooted Tour start.
Pushing back the date by two months is as late as it can get without throwing what’s left of the UCI calendar up in the air as the Tour would end on the day the World Championships start but the UCI can move the men’s TT, slated for the same day, to a slot later in the week and voilà, there’s no more clash… although for now the UCI says its schedule stands. And that’s before we see what happens with the Vuelta a España. The Vuelta is 100% owned these days by ASO but the Spanish tour is not an asset to be left in a cupboard, it is culturally and politically significant in Spain and the plan is to run the Giro d’Italia in October and the Vuelta after which could all just about work weather-wise but dates have yet to be agreed and announced.
The Tour remains the sport’s shop window, it attracts huge audiences and so what is left of the calendar is being fit around it. To illustrate the Tour’s importance, according to market research by Repucom, a “sports measurement” agency, the Tour habitually gets a bigger audience than the rest of the World Tour races combined and by some margin, even the Giro and Vuelta together deliver roughly one third of the audience the Tour gets according to a presentation seen by this blog; another report by Repucom says the Tour can account for 80% of team’s media exposure in the season. It’s for this reason the teams and their owners who might have quarrelled with ASO in the past now appear keen for the Tour to happen.
A September Tour would feel quite different. But so do many things already, even a trip to the supermarket feels edgy. Weather-wise September can be pleasant, especially in France’s southern half where the race goes, typically warm but not hot; there’s more chance of a cold front but that can still happen in July and the probability of a snowstorm in the mountains is probably as slim as July (the high passes tend to close in November). Sunflowers would be harvested to leave fields of barren stubble but it’s the roadside fans that would be the big difference, they make the race what it is because millions are on holiday in France in July and estimates say 10-12 million come out to see the publicity caravan and race. Only the end of August is la rentrée in France, “the return” when kids go back to school, factories reopen and office workers are desk-bound again. Perhaps it’s no bad thing in terms of crowd management but it would feel, look and sound a lot more like the Dauphiné than the Tour.
Above all the big question is the anti-viral measures in place in four months’ time. If the race goes ahead because the public health authorities deem it can and surely it won’t happen like the old times. There would be new health protocols specific to the race. Presumably no team could start a rider with a temperature but can every mechanic and masseur with possible be symptoms be kept out, ditto every TV technician and each reporter? The date change is the easy bit.
There have been lots of suggestions and plans aired recently but today is different with the formal date change. But it’s just that, a date change. This buys time for the Tour but everything still feels conditional, there’s no certainty the race will happen. Yet it’s probably all the sport can do, the rest is up to the public health authorities…the coronavirus and all of us.
A September Tour de France would be strange, the huge roadside crowds that make it such a festive experience, even on TV, would be absent, leaving the race with a forlorn feel, like visiting a seaside resort out of season. Perhaps that’s helpful with the race distancing itself from the crowds and there will be protocols about hygiene and distancing. The change signals the importance of the Tour with other events slotting around it. For those making a living in the sport, a quiet Tour is better than no Tour and it might help keep several teams afloat but the outlook for many other races and squads remains insecure. Symbolically it also gives people in France something to look forward to.