By Agence France-Presse
The Tour de France will be raced from August 29 to September 20, organizers announced on Wednesday, postponing cycling’s flagship event originally slated to start on June 27 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown.
The new dates follow French President Emmanuel Macron’s extension of a ban on large public gatherings until mid-July.
The news comes as a relief to professional cycling teams and fans with four-times Tour winner Chris Froome welcoming “light at the end of the tunnel” for those suffering under COVID-19 lockdown.
The decision moves the three-week race out of its traditional slot in the summer holidays where roadside crowds of around 12 million would be expected to gather in festive spirit.
It will now finish on the same day the postponed French Open championships starts, September 20, giving a worrying indication of a potential autumn fixture pile-up as more sports seek to reschedule suspended events.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme told AFP the new start was based on a double rationale.
“We wanted to be as far away from the pandemic as possible,” he said.
“The president put a July 14 date on public gatherings, but it seemed more reasonable to us to allow the riders time to get into peak condition.”
While the dates have changed the original route remains intact, starting in Nice and finishing in Paris.
“The Tour is still the Tour. All the challenges we set remain intact,” he said of the hotly anticipated climb-laden route that rarely strays far from the mountains.
Britain’s Froome said the news came as a boost for all lovers of the sport.
“It’s the news we have all been waiting for, some light at the end of the tunnel,” said the Ineos rider.
“I’m seeing a lot of negativity and despondency on my timeline, I know this period has been tough on all of us, and bike racing is not important in the greater scheme of things.
“But let’s take hope in that we may return to some sort of normality in the near future.”
The new date solves a series of problems after organisers faced up to the reality that the race could never take place on the original dates.
Rescheduling means top cycling teams will survive economically, social distancing will be easier without massive crowds, and the 4,500 strong Tour de France rolling caravan can be more easily put up in hotels outside August.
With the Tokyo Games and football’s Euro 2020 both delayed by a year, the Tour is the last major event remaining on the summer sports calendar.
Elite cycling will breathe a huge sigh of relief as the Tour accounts for most of its earnings.
“The Tour represents around 60 percent of earnings in a season,” French team AG2R boss Vincent Lavenu said last week.
The Tour will provide a daily fix for deprived sports addicts the world over, with millions of armchair fans able to tune in daily, including those still working from home.
The new date gives the ASO time to stage the warm-up Criterium du Dauphine — held annually ahead of the Tour but postponed this year as the spring cycling season was swept aside by the coronavirus.
Cycling’s governing body the UCI has said that May’s postponed Giro d’Italia would be raced after the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a espana after that, with dates to be announced in May.
Health comes first
With the Giro and the Tokyo Olympic road race in late July on Mount Fuji both postponed, the Tour de France will be more competitive than ever as the whole spectrum of elite cyclists focus on the one race.
“The Tour de France is 3,000km of smiles,” race director Christian Prudhomme has repeated many times in the past in reference to the Tour and its fans.
But he has also stressed that health comes first as France battles the coronavirus crisis.
France has been under lockdown since March 17 in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus which has claimed the lives of over 15,700 people in the country.
The epic race will now embark from Nice on the Mediterranean coast on August 29 and culminate over three weeks later on Paris’s celebrated Champs Elysees on September 20, where the traditional yellow jersey is awarded to the winner beneath the Arc de Triomphe.