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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Explained: Why the Tour de France might brake short of Paris this year

The event started on a wrong foot when just two days before the opening leg, the Lotto-Soudal team announced that two of their support staff had tested ‘non-negative’ for Covid-19.

Written by Shashank Nair , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 13, 2020 11:13:16 am
The pack rides during the tenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 168.5 kilometers (104.7 miles) from Ile d'Oleron to Ile de Re, France, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (AP Photo)

Doubts over the completion of this year’s Tour de France increased after four support staff from four different teams tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday. Currently on its 12th stage, the prestigious cycling race that concludes in Paris was originally scheduled to begin on June 27 but got postponed to August 29 because of the pandemic.

The event started on a wrong foot when just two days before the opening leg, the Lotto-Soudal team announced that two of their support staff had tested ‘non-negative’ for Covid-19. Bora-Hansgrohe, a German team that was set to take part in the Tour, had one of its riders test positive – which eventually turned out to be a false positive. But by the time the actual result had come out, the team had already withdrawn its entire squad.

Are there any rules in place to counter athletes and support staff getting coronavirus?

The race organisers began with the strictest of intentions with a ‘Two strikes and out’ policy. Any team that would have two members test positive for Covid-19 within a week of them being in their respective protective bio-secure bubble would immediately have to forfeit from the race.

But the issue with the Lotto-Soudal team and an outcry by most teams over the stringent rules saw cycling’s world governing body UCI relax the norms. Now the two-strike policy applies only to a team’s riders and not the support staff.

Switzerland’s Marc Hirschi rides during the ninth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 153 kilometers (95 miles), with start in Pau and finish in Laruns, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. (AP Photo)

Another issue that cropped up was that team members and riders were surprised to find out that in some of the designated hotels, members of the general public too were being given accommodation, creating doubts over the effectiveness of the bio-secure bubble.

What is the frequency of testing?

Till now the Tour de France organisers have conducted three rounds of tests on riders and support staff – the last of which took place on last Sunday and Monday. A fourth round of testing is scheduled for September 13-14.

But according to Reuters, the organisers in consultations with the French government, have said teams that have had one member ejected for testing positive can breathe easy if another member tests positive, as long as it’s in the next round of testing and not the same round.

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What are the chances of cancellation?

Till September 7, France was regularly clocking 25,000 cases per day. According to a report in Reuters, riders have already complained that their safety is being compromised by spectators who run alongside them, but are doing so sans any masks or are at a safe distance.

“The way 2020 has been going, nothing surprises me anymore,” Irish sprinter Sam Bennett said to the /Guardian/ before the start of the tour. “We just have to stay open-minded. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did make it to Paris, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t make it past the weekend.”

The same article states that teams and riders are considering racing on a day-by-day basis. With no certainty on when the race could be called off, most are hoping that by staying on top on a day-to-day basis, they might be judged the winners should the race be stopped prematurely. But this is speculation on the part of teams and riders as race promoter ASO and UCI’s combined rules on the Tour de France don’t have any provision for a premature end to the cycling event.

As of now, there are no plans for cancellation with stand-in Tour de France director Francois Lemarchand telling AFP that, “We’ll go all the way. We must go to the end, and there is no reason we can’t, if everyone respects the rules there are no worries.”

Any high-profile Covid-19 cases?

Lemarchand made that statement instead of Christian Prudhomme because the long term-director of the race was tested four times and in the fourth test, his result came back positive. He has now left the tour for a week of quarantine and is said to be asymptomatic, according to an AFP report.

What was troubling was that in Prudhomme’s role as the chief organiser of the tour, he had to attend a host of social events and on the previous Saturday had accompanied French Prime Minister Jean Castex to the tour in the same car. But the French premier was tested and his report came back negative.

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