Since World War II, the Tour de France has been held in July. That changed this year when the coronavirus pandemic took over the world. The 107th edition of the race, after being postponed, will now begin Saturday and run through Sept. 20. The pandemic pushed back the start date of the race, but the organizers have not made changes to the 2.156-mile route that was originally planned for this year. The race starts in Nice, France -- moving through 12 new sites -- and ending on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.
Usually, the race dips in and out of neighboring countries, but this year, the race will strictly be within France's borders. Officials are planning for two scenarios: (1) a largely normal race with social distancing rules and regulations in place; and (2) a severely constrained race in the case of a new outbreak in France. Tour leaders are working in close conjunction with the French government to create a flexible plan that can be put into effect if the situation changes during the race, which spans three weeks.
Here is everything you need to know about the 2020 Tour de France in this brave new world:
What precautions are being taken before the start of the race?
Teams have been creating "bubbles," to control the health of the cyclists and the staff members in preparation for the race. New members are added to the bubble only after going through two weeks of quarantine and testing. Anybody who violates bubble rules is sent home (Team Sunweb sent home rider Michael Storer from the Austrian Alps after he made an unauthorized exit from the bubble to buy shampoo. Team Sunweb did not provide additional details). Team hotels will also be controlled -- fewer people will be allowed and the dining area will be separated. Cyclists will travel with team buses instead of flying between transfers.
Is this a scaled-down competition?
It is not -- the organizers are keen on keeping the route, the riders and the stages in alignment with the original tour rules. This year's race will see 22 teams (with eight riders per team) -- a total of 176 riders, and 21 stages split into nine flat, eight mountainous, three hilly and one individual time trial. All stages and trials are within the confines of France.
Who are the cyclists to look out for this year?
Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) is the one to look out for this year. After winning Slovenia's road race title, he finished second in June's time trial, and won two out of the three stages at the Tour de l'Ain in the beginning of August. Also keep an eye out for the defending champion, Egan Bernal (Team Ineos), who could join Laurent Fignon (1983 & 1984) as the only riders to win the Tour twice before turning 24. Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) won the Tour de la Provence, the Tour du Var and the Stage 7 summit finish at Paris-Nice.
How many fans can watch the race in person?
Currently, France has a ban on gatherings of over 5,000 people. This means the organizers of the race will have to ensure that this cap is maintained at all times of the race (for context, more than 10 million fans usually attend the race during the course of the three weeks). Riders will not be allowed to mingle with the public, hug, give autographs or take selfies. The finish line, which is usually the area where large groups of people congregate, will also be off limits for everybody except a few staff members. Fans cannot drive cars up the route's most popular climbs, instead they are being asked to walk or ride bikes to keep large number of fans from congregating.
What are the mask rules for the race?
Everybody coming to watch the race, even though they're outside, will be required to wear a face mask. It is common sense and will prevent the race from becoming a COVID-19 cluster, the organizers said. The riders will not wear masks when they're racing, but they will have to wear them during media interviews and in the team buses or cars. The staff will be masked at all times.
What about media presence?
The media will be asked to follow social distancing rules. They will not be allowed to surround the riders with microphones before and after the race like they would have in previous years. Media will also not be allowed near the team bus parking area. Media members will have to submit a negative COVID test to be accredited, and they'll have to maintain a 1.5-meter distance from the riders in the mixed zones. Masks will stay on during interviews, and all surfaces will have to be regularly wiped down.
How will the cyclists' health be monitored during the three-week race?
A mobile laboratory will follow the cyclists throughout the route to spot test any rider showing symptoms during the race. Cyclists will be tested if they show symptoms and during every rest day. Organizers and staff will also be able to make use of the lab to get tested during the event if they show symptoms. The tour is also doing random testing of healthy cyclists and staff as a way to catch asymptomatic carriers, several teams told ESPN.com
What if a cyclist tests positive during the race?
Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the sport's governing body, has put together rules governing positive tests, but they're not making them public. The rules will be sent to teams two weeks before the start of the race. "It's a big question, and not easy to answer. A race will not stop if there's one positive case, even if nobody knows if the race will go on to the end," David Lappartient, president of UCI, said in a news conference two weeks ago. UCI will conduct contact tracing and some exposed cyclists could have to pull out of the race, he added. If a large outbreak occurs, there is a good chance the rest of the race from that point on will be abandoned, but the organizers are taking decisions one day at a time.
What is the worst-case scenario for a team?
Any team with two positive coronavirus cases in the span of seven days will not be allowed to compete in the race. "If a team has two positive cases or [members] with strong symptoms within a seven-day period, they will be out of the race," the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) said in a statement to Reuters.
Teams are avoiding exposure, as expected, and Lotto Soudal sent to two staff members home after testing positive.
What about the famed publicity caravan?
The floats, extra cars and vehicles that usually surround the main group of riders will still be present, but it will be reduced by 40 percent to aid social distancing.
Are there any changes to the route because of the pandemic?
The only change from previous years: The race will be held entirely in French territory, with no dipping into neighboring countries because of the pandemic. Otherwise, the race will be held on the same route previously planned for this year. It starts in Nice on Saturday, then the cyclists will ride southwest through Sisteron, Le Teil, Cazères, Loudenvielle, Pau and Laruns), then north to Ile d'Oléron, then east (through Poitiers, Chauvigny, Clermont Ferrand and Lyon) and finally north to the finish line in Paris.
Did the tour make use of a previous race as a model when deciding the rules?
Route d'Occitanie, a four-day cycling event in Southern France (Aug. 1 to Aug. 4), went on without a hitch, and COVID protocols seemed to work, the organizers of the event said. Fans at the finish line were given masks and were instructed to wear them correctly (no below-the-nose mask wearing was permitted). Fans were prohibited from the area where team buses are parked at the start and finish of the race. In the mixed zone, which is the only area the media was allowed, social distancing and mask rules were in place. Only one or two journalists were allowed per organization, and questions were limited to two per journalist. This event, albeit being a smaller one (with 147 riders and hundreds of fans), gave hope and a guide map for organizers and fans leading up to the tour.
Where can I watch the race on TV?
For people in the U.S., NBC Sports will broadcast it live at 7 a.m. ET. No cable but want to watch the tour? Subscribe to FuboTV at $55 a month for entire coverage of the tour. If you're in the U.K., ITV4 will live telecast every stage of the tour.
What are cyclists' thoughts on the tour going ahead amid the pandemic?
The cyclists are cautiously optimistic and are doing everything in their power -- within the bubble and following the rules strictly -- to stay healthy leading up to and during the course of the race, many team doctors said. "They've done a very good job at putting their head down and say, 'OK we've got to do the best we can and trust the doctors, the UCI and the race organizers to do what's right,'" Kevin Sprouse, head of medicine for EF Education First Team, told ESPN.
What is the one fascinating storyline to follow at this year's race?
The effectiveness of contact tracing is the most interesting thing to follow. It might decide whether the race comes to a crashing end after a few positive tests, or if the race can go on after the positive cases have been isolated. It's going to be interesting to see how the organizers handle a positive case. As of now, riders and staff members are asked to maintain a list of people they've been in contact with, so in the case they're tested positive, the organizers will be able to contact trace and isolate all the people who have been primarily exposed to the virus, teams CCC and EF Education First said. Also, if a rider tests positive, it's likely the entire team will be eliminated from the race.