Sport

GRAND DEPART

Tour de France set to go ahead despite Nice ‘red zone’

Slovenian rider Primoz Roglic (L) of Team Jumbo-Visma and teammates ride during a training session one day ahead of the 107th edition of the Tour de France cycling race in Nice, France, 28 August 2020. The 107th edition of the Tour de France will start in Nice, southern France on 29 August 2020. EPA-EFE/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON
By Craig Ray
28 Aug 2020 0

The 2020 Tour de France was always going to be challenging in a Covid-19 world. But if anyone was becoming complacent about the coronavirus as life slowly resumes after global lockdowns, the world’s greatest cycling race was reminded of the pandemic just hours before the start.

Nice has been gearing up for the Grand Depart of the 107th staging of the Tour de France for over a year. It should’ve happened in July, but Covid-19 delayed the start by nearly two months. And this week, just as everything looked set for a smooth start, the French government put the Alpes-Maritimes region on red alert following a spike in coronavirus cases.

That sent ripples of shock through the peloton as the possibility of delaying the start, or cancelling the race altogether, became a brief reality before nerves were calmed.

It was a timely reminder that the 2020 Tour de France will be unlike any other. Organisers have been forced to close some roads to spectators to reduce crowd numbers as there are still restrictions on gatherings in France.

But, as of Friday afternoon, the scheduled Saturday start of Stage 1 in central Nice, was still on track. And for sports fans it’s a great thing because this year’s Tour, unusually, starts with severe climbs and without former winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

The two Britons were unceremoniously dropped from Team Ineos for the Tour, as neither showed good enough form leading into the race. Reigning champion Egan Bernal, from the same team, will have to plot his course without the help of two of the most experienced men in the peloton. Bernal, 23, is also recovering from a back injury and his form remains unclear.

He raced in the recent Criterium du Dauphiné but withdrew before Stage 4. That was only precautionary, though.

“As for my health, I believe I’m much better. I still have a bit of pain in my back, but the truth is, it’s much better compared to the Dauphiné… so I’m hoping it gets better as the Tour goes on,” Bernal said on Friday at his team’s pre-race media conference.

Bernal might not have time to ease into the Tour, as the race moves from the Meditteranean into the Alps within a few kilometres on Stage 1 and features a tough first week of climbing. Stage 2, which also starts in Nice and covers 189km, includes the first category Cols de la Colmiane and Turini as well as a 9km climb to the finish. 

Primoz Roglic, one of the favourites for the race, suffered a crash in the Dauphiné but confirmed he would sign in for the first stage of the Tour on Friday. “I’m happy that I managed to be at the start of the Tour de France. I take it as good news,” Roglic said.  

NTT flies SA flag at Tour

South Africa’s NTT ProCycling is not expected to challenge for overall honours, but the team is hoping for a stage win and for climber Louis Meintjies to surprise some in the mountains.

Ryan Gibbons, the South African national champion, is also making his Tour de France debut. He will start the race with broken ribs sustained in a crash more than a week ago, but says he is able to ride with little pain. 

“It’s good to finally be at the Tour. It’s been a long year for us,” team principal Doug Ryder said. “We have an amazing team both on and off the bike here in France, and they are pumped up and ready for the next three weeks. 

“The official team presentation before the race is always amazing. To see the South African flag up there at the greatest cycling race in the world is special. This is our first year as NTT, but we have done some amazing things in the past.

“We have won seven stages of this race in our history and hopefully we can add to that this year. With this team we have a shot.” 

NTT sporting director and 1996 Tour de France winner, Bjarne Riis, has not had the year he would have hoped for when he signed on, but there is still quiet confidence that the squad could do something special.

Italian rider Giacomo Nizzolo won the European Road Race Championships on Wednesday and comes into the Tour high in confidence. He is a potential stage winner once the race leaves the mountains, where the sprinters can revel for a few stages.

“Everyone is excited and nervous, which is normal before the start of the Tour,” Riis said. “But we are prepared and, although the world has changed because of Covid-19, I don’t think we will see a difference in the way riders race. We will just focus on racing.” DM

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