Tour de France yet to be postponed

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PARIS — Perhaps no other sports event puts so many fans in such close contact with athletes as the Tour de France, with swarms of people clogging city streets, winding roads and soaring mountain passes during cycling’s three-week showpiece and getting within touching distance of the riders.

And yet, unlike almost every other major sporting event this summer, including the Tokyo Olympics, the Tour has yet to be called off despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

For now, the start date remains June 27 – and there is a possibility that the race could be held without any fans lining the course.

France’s sports minister Roxana Mărăcineanu said the Tour can still exist in a time of social distancing.

“The economic model of the Tour de France does not rely on ticket sales but on TV rights and media broadcasting,” Mărăcineanu told France Bleu radio on Wednesday evening. “Everyone has understood the benefits of staying at home and prioritizing the televised spectacle. In the end, it would not be so disadvantageous because we could watch it on television.”

But it would be a Tour unlike any other.

The race, which was first held in 1903, is synonymous with images of thousands of crammed-in spectators stuck together like glue on winding ascents up the Alps, cheering on the riders as they go past.

On the final day of the race, a ceremonial ride into Paris, legions of yellow-jersey wearing spectators normally amass behind steel barriers along the Champs-Élysées: several banks deep and shoulder to shoulder, with fast-turning heads catching a glimpse of the winner flashing past.

Millions of fans watch each year’s race in a festive atmosphere stretching across all areas of France. This year’s race has 21 stages, where fans traditionally stand watching all along the way, and the longest is 218 kilometers (135 miles).

Thousands of police officers are needed to keep crowds under control and help negotiate safe passage for riders from 22 teams, with several often sharing hotels.

Enforcing a lockdown everywhere along the route for three weeks seems difficult – if not impossible – given that groups of people could appear from anywhere at any point.

One of cycling’s big attractions is that fans get so close to the riders, running alongside them up climbs and sometimes giving them a helpful push in the back on the toughest ones.

Sometimes they get much too close.

Two years ago, former champion Vincenzo Nibali crashed into a police motorbike on a narrow street lined with spectators and later abandoned the race. Four-time champion Chris Froome has been spat on and had urine thrown on him.

Mărăcineanu is in regular talks with Amaury Sport Organisation – the Tour organizer – but says it’s “still too early” to predict what will happen. On her Twitter account she added: “there is a time for everything. Right now, we have a a more urgent battle to fight.”

On Tuesday the International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo Games to next year. Likewise soccer’s European Championship, held in several countries, moved to 2021. Another major cycling race, the Giro d’Italia in May, was postponed this month.

Organizers of Wimbledon meet next week to decide on this year’s tennis tournament, scheduled for June 29-July 12. The French Open, normally in late May and June, is pushed back to Sept. 20-Oct. 4.

Tour organizers declined to comment Thursday when asked whether plans to host the race as planned this summer have changed, or whether a race without fans could be an option.

The last time the Tour was not held was in 1946, with the nation emerging from the second world war. It was also stopped during WWI.

Five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault – the last Frenchman to win the race – cautioned against it going ahead amid the uncertainty of how long the epidemic will last.

“There’s a crazy illness which is spreading and, if it happens to last months, we shouldn’t hesitate to call it off,” he said in an interview with French daily Le Parisien on March 18. “We should ask ourselves if it’s reasonable to allow people to go out on the roads if there’s still a risk … The Tour de France is a fantastic party. But it’s less important than life.”

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”