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Tour de France Preview & Race Picks

Words by William Fotheringham; Image by Chris Auld

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“If a misanthropic scientist set out to design the perfect hothouse for infectious disease, he could do a good deal worse than the Tour de France: thousands of people coming from all over the planet to form a gauntlet of handshakes, hugs and unwelcome contact.” 

The prescient writer who penned this wasn’t banging fingers on a laptop last week. Or this March. Or any time between. Step forward Daniel Coyle, from his 2005 best seller Lance Armstrong’s War (in UK Tour de Force). Coyle was writing about Jan Ullrich catching a cold at the 2004 Tour start in Liège, but his words have blistering resonance as the 2020 race kicks off in Nice.

That would be Nice, just declared “red” for Covid-19 as France registers its biggest recent tally of daily Covid cases, over 6,000, the highest since the end of March. And as France hits an R number of 1.4—the number at which the Covid pandemic is moving upwards being 1.0. And as four staff members of the Lotto-Soudal team are sent home; two tested non-negative for Covid-19 and their room mates were correctly dispatched with them as a precautionary measure.

With this background, it seemed that the Tour was going to move into the tighter of two levels of access, with the public strictly limited at stage finishes, starts and on climbs. What beckoned was a Tour de France not quite behind closed doors, but with the door barely ajar. A Tour of masks, restrictions and ongoing worry. A Tour like no other.

At La Course en Tete, we’ve debated before now about the wisdom or otherwise of running the Tour de France in this Covid-hit year. But the basic problem is that in writing about Covid and the Tour you are dealing with two moving targets. As the French like to say, the truth of today is not that of tomorrow. That’s how the virus rolls. And the Tour is, of necessity, a movable feast.

In April, when the decision was made to postpone the Tour from July, it looked safe to assume that in September the picture would be far better. As it stands now, no one knows what the Covid situation in France will be in three weeks time. With the R number at well over one, it’s hard to see it improving. But what that translates to in terms of the Tour is impossible to predict.

The bubbles in which teams have tried to contain their riders and staff are not impenetrable. Lotto, Astana, Ag2R, Israel Start Up Nation and Ineos have all had riders or staff test positive—if not necessarily from their Tour teams—while Bora fell victim to what they claim to have been a false positive.

To muddy the waters further, the Tour’s own procedures over what would happen to the race if it was curtailed by the pandemic remained opaque. Might stages be cancelled or curtailed if local authorities deemed them unsafe? What would become of the initial rule that a team with two non-negatives in a week would be out, something which had apparently gone down poorly with the teams and was being reconsidered?

There were rumors that if the Tour were to stop before the first rest day it would be considered void; if it stopped afterwards the result would stand. But that in turn might raise the prospect of the race being decided by lawsuits over whether the result should be considered valid.

Uncertainty all round, and with a delicious irony, that extends to the race itself. A race like no other on a route like no other, with—at a stretch—half a dozen sprint stages at most, and the most mountainous opening phase since the 1979 went full Pyrenees from day one for Bernard Hinault’s second win.

Followed by two more climbing days in the first six, and a constant stream of climbs—albeit never the highest—in every French mountain range and running the full gamut of summit finishes of every size and steepness. The first straightforward flat stage? Day 10 into Ile d’Oléron, and that wasn’t straightforward as if the wind were to blow off the Atlantic there was every chance the race might split to bits.

Plenty there for a bike racer who loves an unstructured race to savor, so enter Julian Alaphilippe stage left. Enter Thibaut Pinot stage right. Egan Bernal and Tom Dumoulin are already centre stage in case you’re wondering. A four-way battle, between the Jumbo and Ineos teams with their need for a predictable power-based race, and two riders who seek the chinks in the armor of those juggernauts.

Add in a World no. 1, Primoz Roglic, in uncertain form. Blend with some outsiders: Tadej Pogacar, Mikel Landa, Dani Martinez. Cast a brief glimpse at those on the sidelines: Froome, Thomas, Kruijswijk. Stir in the fact that in this weirdly restructured season no one knows who is in form, and what form anyone will be in by week three. When—assuming the Tour is still going by then—the race tackles a monumentally steep finish at Méribel and a mountain time trial at La Planche des Belles Filles. This is all to savour, if you can handle the constant uncertainty.

Back to Coyle. His paragaph about the 2004 Tour concludes like this: “Always concerned about their health, riders now crossed the border into wholly appropriate paranoia. They were one poorly washed hotel fork, one meteorite of spittle away from a Tour-sized problem.” That was on a normal race, where being ill just means a rider compromising his chances of success.

In 2020 rather more is at stake. Lose the Tour, and the rest of the UCI’s rejigged calendar hangs in the balance. More chilling by far is the thought that  if the Tour spreads Covid people may die. That’s a big call for an organizer to take. August 28 and the Tour caravan is in Nice, primed and ready to go. With many fingers crossed for what is going to be a roller-coaster of a ride. Let’s just hope it ends well.

La Course en Tête Predictions

Peter Cossins

Top 3: Dumoulin, Bernal, Roglic

Why: Dumoulin’s form was on the rise in the Dauphiné and he may turn out Jumbo’s best option. I’d like to say Pinot for the win but don’t want to hex him.

Chances of Tour getting to Paris: 80%

Sadhbh O’Shea

Top 3: Roglic, Bernal, Pinot

Why: Roglic has been the commanding figure in the peloton since the season resumed and in spite of his crash I believe he can carry that into the Tour. Bernal will be formidable with Ineos strengthening their line-up, and Pinot has been building form in recent weeks

Chances of Tour getting to Paris: 40%

Sophie Smith

Top 3: Bernal, Roglic, Martinez

Why: The inside of the Ineos team bus will feel very different but Egan Bernal has got ‘it’. Jumbo and EF will make the Tour prime-time, Richie Porte for a stage win.

Chances of Tour getting to Paris: 60%

Jeremy Whittle

Top 3: Bernal, Roglic, Martinez

Why: Despite the loss of Nico Portal, Bernal and his team should be best placed to fend off Jumbo in the final week. Roglic isn’t ready yet to lead the Tour for a long period; Martinez will be suited to the final TT.

Chances of Tour getting to Paris: 40%

William Fotheringham

Top 3: Dumoulin, Alaphilippe, Bernal

Why: Dumoulin had the best build-up, Alaphilippe is racing on a route tailor made for him, and Bernal faces the old conundrum of trying to win two Tours in row. We’re used to it now, but it eluded Anquetil and LeMond

Chances of Tour getting to Paris: 50%

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