Even as the peloton rolled out for Stage one of the 2020 Tour de France in Nice, the usual team and rider nervousness was compounded by racing under the strange, new cloud of Corona. Team rosters had been shuffled, rider training and preparation was jumbled and the simple logistics of conducting and competing in a race that usually relies on so much interpersonal connections meant there were more questions than answers.
The Tour de France organisers, the ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) bares the brunt of criticism whenever anything goes wrong. A week before the start of the 2020 Tour de France, the Côte d’Azur and showplace for three stages of the tour was tagged as a high-risk region for corona infections. Many Europeans had seen a stabilisation in the infection rates now felt that the risks of overseas travel were low-enough and they could take their yearly overseas holiday. But the new hotspots were a threat right up to the official start there was an air of uncertainty.
For the ASO organisers, who had already delayed the 2020 Tour de France, the risk of rider, team and organiser infection would be just as devastating as the loss of the entire race (considering the organisation and financial investment)… so the show must go on, but with safety on top spot.
Fewer Spectators / Increased Viewership
After the first stage in Nice, I asked German broadcasters and French broadcasters about the TV viewer numbers. Initially they were able to speculate that viewership had climbed, and later the statistics confirmed it. With the increase in bike shop and online bike and gear sales in 2020 across the globe… viewer interest is skyrocketing and so cycling is on a roll.
The stage finishes in Nice only saw crowds of about two-deep around the start / finish areas which gave fans better viewing chances and also means that during the climbing stages, riders will be hoping to enjoy less-crowded ascents. In the first week, the crowds were well behaved and generally were wearing masks and keeping distance. To foster safety, teams of TDF helpers equipped were patrolling the more crowded areas in Nice and dishing-out hand sanitiser with squirt-guns.
Some of the magic of the masses of spectators is lost in 2020, the ‘corny’ caravan (about 2 hours before the peloton passes) still keeps the spectators amused. In addition to polka-dot t-shirts and caps, this year you can also pick-up an official Tour de France face-mask.
The switch-backs during the last climb of Stage 8 up the 1569m, Cat 1 climb Col de Peyresourde has seen denser crowds in Basque country. Unfortunately with too many mask-less spectators who are still too close to the riders for comfort. Almost a normal Tour de France which you could say is exciting… but in context for 2020 it is disrespectful and scary.
Remote Commentary Teams
GCN is now part of Eurosport (which in turn is part of Discovery) and an English GCN/Eurosport presenter in Nice suggested that their 160-person strong team was now a team of only 6 people on location. While the UK is (arguably) still part of Europe, all returning visitors face a two weeks mandatory quarantine and this is a substantial deterrent for commentators who sit in a cubical anyway during the tour. Travel for media from the US, Australia and other countries is even harder and the presenters, commentators and analysts from NBC (USA), Eurosport/GCN (UK) and SBS (Australia) are all remaining at home and relying on the live feeds and extra video snippets.
Digital services such as the Tour de France live ticker along with a smattering of videos from riders and teams and live-feeds from ex-pros provide plenty of fuel for otherwise very typical race commentary during the 2020 Tour de France.
So it is business as usual in many ways, although the commentators, producers and support team will miss out on excellent croissants, the daily travel between stages and the all-important networking. A side effect is that foreign broadcasters will save mountains of cash on overheads (flights, accommodation, costs) which I think viewers can already see is being directed towards more tech in their local broadcast and support of digital services.
Tour de France Media Bubbles
It is almost like layers, upon layers, upon layers. The closer you are to the core of the team, the stricter the distancing protocols and testing to avoid contamination and infection. In the team bubble, riders will undergo multiple PCR tests during the tour. I have now completed three PCR tests (for accreditation and also to be able to leave quarantine) but also have different ‘Stop Covid’ (French and German) tracking apps on my phone and remain strict with masks and sanitary procedures.
Prior to the tour, media Q&A sessions were held in an auditorium though the teams themself were not present and used a video link instead. The riders of the French team Direct Energy were asked about their concerns about the Tour being cut short, after an awkwardly long, but telling silence, the webcam was then shifted to the Directeur Sportif for a sanitised response.
The typical media barrage around riders is now gone (perhaps for the better) and media not only need a negative PCR test (which is validated by the race organisers prior to accreditation), rider access is essentially limited to major media networks who have a slot at the start and finish line. Armed with 2 meter microphone extension, if the cycling team media liaison is feeling generous, a journalist can get lucky and get a short slot and ask a pro-rider a question or two before or after the stage.
The ASO are conducting interviews with key riders and jersey-winners for broadcasters. But many other media publications have stayed at home as the chance of a scoop is close to zero.
One of the curiosities is the team presentations (prior to each stage) and it is essentially designed for the cameras and home audiences and this year is somewhat void of spectators and fans. For the start of Stage 3 at the Alliance Riviera Stadium in Nice, a small crowd behind the stage could watch the back of the teams who faced an otherwise empty space at the front of the stadium. It was a nice touch to see some of the riders turn to acknowledge the fans on location.
Team Bubbles at the Tour de France
At the airport before the start of this years tour, I spotted a few riders arriving decked with masks, clear face shields and disposable gloves as well. ‘On-record’, many of the riders and teams were not too concerned by the announcement that ‘two infections in a team bubble is an instant team disqualification’, but the strict adherence to the team bubble segregation is a clear sign how serious this is. Typically a cycling team has a large number of support staff and for most teams there is a split with an inner-circle of riders and staff and separate circle of staff who don’t need direct rider contact.
In practice, this is fairly challenging to manage and in Nice, some of the teams and the ‘inner core’ staff were housed in one hotel while the other team support staff stayed in other hotels. Can all cross-over and contact be completely avoided?
Social media and a flow of tweets and instagram posts still keeps many of the riders in contact with fans and media but the physical isolation simply makes it different this year.
Except while racing, riders wear face masks and with the trend of big sunglasses, it can be hard to identify the riders. For the media and fan interaction this increases the distance and connection even further… Romain Bardet… that that you?
Technical Catch 22
With the exception of Team Trek-Segafredo and Mitchelton Scott, all of the other team title sponsors this year are not bike or part suppliers. But scrolling through the list of team suppliers and partners obviously reveals a host of brands supplying the bikes, helmets, sunnies, cycle wear, shoes, groupsets, cycle computers and equipment.
Many of the named partners (and some of the unnamed partners) are obliged to support the team during the Tour de France and this introduces a Catch 22 for TDF 2020 to supply, setup, replace and even fix gear while maintaining the necessary distance and not compromising team bubbles.
The teams are usually well-stocked but the nature of the tour is that behind the scenes, things go wrong and need to be fixed. With teams sharing the same hotel and team buses parked side-by-side, improvisation between the mechanics is not unknown.
The added social distancing with fewer ‘hangers-on’ is welcomed by many within the teams but at the same time, it changes the nature of the bustling Tour de France. And somehow, the teams still need the team equipment or ongoing technical support without popping the team bubble.
Through the grapevine you may hear that one of the teams this year is racing a bike brand that not actually the same as the name printed on the frame. But for all of these tech details, cycling forums and websites like Bike Rumour usually pick up on these details quickly.
Next Generation Tour Marketing
The Tour de France is a marketeers paradise – the viewers know it (and accept it) and the brands pay for it and get the brand visibility in return.
Although the podium platform is now shared by both a man and a women for a gender neutral award presentation, another new trend is extravagant product placement. The local French favourite Julian Alaphilippe (Team deceuninck Quick-Step) and yellow jersey wearer in Stage 2, 3 and 4 was reported wearing a US$120,500 Richard Mille watch. With the rate at which the pros crash (especially in Stage 1 this year)… I wouldn’t recommend this.
Stage 1 winner, Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) played it safer and wore custom gold plated and diamond encrusted Scicon sunglasses worth £5,000 on the podium.
For the rest of us, a more accessible extravagance are the white road cycling shoes and a majority of the team riders are wearing white shoes in 2020 so after the rain for Stage 1 there would have been extra shoe polishing duties.
Outlook: Le Tour 2020 and beyond
To be fair to the ASO and the teams at the 2020 Tour de France, there have been the usual dramas such as the crashes in Stage 1 and rider led ‘calming’ of the peloton. Yellow jersey wearer Alaphilippe lost yellow due to a form-error and 20 second penalty, much to the disappointment of the local fans. And the ‘downhill’ Stage 5 from Gap to Privas was the first tour stage in many years without any break-aways.
All-in-all, the usual drama and talking points but otherwise the racing under Corona conditions is going well and (to date) the ASO precautions appear to be working. E-Sports is still growing in popularity and still compatible with corona restrictions, but is not yet a racing format that appeals to all spectators and professional cyclists.
A fix for corona will likely take time and is a global challenge, even when developed nations have established control, the risk from travellers from 3rd world nations suggests that the 2021 Tour de France could start on time, but with similar levels of precautions.