The professional peloton is once again set to compete in the sport’s race of races, the Tour de France.
As with most sporting events this year, cycling’s biggest race was not only postponed but was forced to make a number of adjustments to the way it was run due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, with coronavirus cases in France surging, questions have been raised as to how the race can even take place at all and whether the restrictions in place will be effective or simply strip the Tour of its character.
Should the Tour de France be taking place at all?
On Wednesday, coronavirus cases in France jumped to 5,429 — 2,000 more than Tuesday’s number.
Countries neighbouring France have begun enforcing quarantine restrictions on visitors from certain regions and masks have already been made mandatory in some towns.
And yet, the travelling roadshow that annually traverses the French countryside is still gearing up to roll out of Nice on Saturday.
The Tour de France has always been more than a bike race, more a self-publicising caravan explicitly designed to sell things — a fact that has existed right from its very inception in 1903 by Henri Desgrange as a vehicle to sell copies of his newspaper, L’Auto.
Since then, vehicles (and riders) festooned with sponsor garb have delighted packed crowds on roadsides around the country.
This year, things will be different — and not just due to the September running as opposed to the usual July.
Fans will not have the same access to riders as they normally would, with riders confined to a bubble as much as possible. Even media access, virtually unfettered under normal circumstances, will be restricted.
Masks will be mandatory at the start and finish of each stage and “encouraged” on the roadside, although organisers concede that they would be powerless to stop fans from going bare-faced.
“If you love the Tour, if you love the champions, wear a mask,” race director Christian Prudhomme said this week.
“Not only will this not be the year to collect an autograph, but you shouldn’t ask for autographs or ask for selfies.”
Other restrictions include that if a team records two positives in a seven-day period, the entire squad will be thrown out of the Tour.
With that level of restriction imposed on the field, meaning the prospect of one mistimed sneeze from a spectator potentially wiping out half the peloton, perhaps it will be a surprise if the Tour even reaches Paris on September 20.
What that would mean for European sport’s cagey reopening in this pandemic, remains to be seen.
Ineos vs Jumbo-Visma: The battle of the super-teams
So what of the race?
We have become accustomed to seeing a Team Sky/Team Ineos train dominating the professional peloton as it trundles through the French countryside and steams up the mountain passes in recent years.
Seven of the last eight Tours de France have been won by some iteration of the British team — the only blemish when Chris Froome broke his wrist in 2014.
Now, there is serious competition in the form of Jumbo-Visma, lead by former ski-jumper Primoz Roglic and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin.
Although competition is undoubtedly a good thing, Team Jumbo-Visma is simply harnessing Team Ineos’ tried and tested methods for its own use, powering along with a series of stunningly powerful riders at the front of the peloton to snuff out any possible attacks.
And there’s no doubt it has worked, with Ineos leader and reigning champion Egan Bernal left isolated and vulnerable in his races so far this year.
At the Tour de l’Ain and Criterium du Dauphine, Ineos were completely outclassed by Jumbo Visma, who have been cleaning up during this truncated lead-in to the Tour.
Wout van Aert has won Milan-San Remo — the first classic of the year — and Strade Bianche already this season.
Meanwhile, Kiwi George Bennett, who will be a key lieutenant for Jumbo-Visma in the Tour, won the Gran Piemonte to show off his impressive form.
Jumbo-Visma has, admittedly, suffered a significant setback with Steven Kruijswijk’s injury ruling him out of the Tour party.
It will also have to deal with the two-leader issue that has dogged Ineos/Sky in recent years, with Roglic and Dumoulin both vying for general classification honours.
Ineos’ problem has been solved in that regard though, as team leader Sir Tom Brailsford fills his Tour de France basket with an Egan Bernal-shaped egg — with last year’s Giro champion Richard Carapaz in support, leaving Froome and Geraint Thomas on the sidelines.
Yes, such are the embarrassments of riches afforded to cycling’s dominant team that despite leaving riders who have won six of the last 14 grand tours between them out in the cold, they can still produce a team featuring winners of two of the last three. That’s strength.
There are other contenders: Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quickstep) will carry the home hopes, while Colombian pair Nairo Quintana (Team Arkea-Samsic) and veteran Rigoberto Uran (EF Pro Cycling) could challenge their fellow countryman Bernal in places, but all those riders will struggle with teams not strong enough to follow the two major behemoths.
What of the Australian challenge?
For the legions of Australians who stay up overnight to watch the Tour, there’s some bad news.
Just two Aussies will line up for the grand depart in Nice.
That means no green jersey tilt for Michael Matthews, who would have been itching to have a crack at perennial points king Peter Sagan again this year.
To make matters worse, the Australian-based team, Mitchelton-Scott, will have no Australians in their squad for the first time.
Mitchelton-Scott will have to make do with the odd stage win this year, with Briton Adam Yates confirming last week he would not be targeting general classification.
However, what the Aussies lack in volume they more than make up for in class, with both riders capable of challenging for stage wins.
Richie Porte will make his 10th appearance at the Tour and, at 35 years of age, will need something truly remarkable to happen if he were to come close in the overall classification.
However, he could well add to his one stage win this season, with a mountainous route that’s bound to cause a few upsets and breakaway chances.
The other challenger is Lotto-Soudal’s pocket rocket Caleb Ewan.
Ewan is proof that good things come to those who wait after claiming three stages on his belated, maiden Tour appearance last season.
With limited opportunities for the sprinters this year and a brutal course through all five of France’s mountain ranges, it could be a rough ride for the diminutive Sydneysider, but he proved last year he could mix it with the best of the sprinters.
The route means the possibilities of winning a green jersey are remote, but far from beyond the 26-year-old. After all, Sagan has to lose it at some point, right?