Racing must continue.
In 2020, not 2021. The sooner the better. For everyone’s sake.
I’m not just writing that as an addict, as someone who has written a book on the Tour de France, but as someone who sees the value of sport, of entertainment, to society. We need it. I love the Tour as it has become, would love to see a race similar to the 2019 vintage of the Tour occur in 2020, but it seems that the world has made that impossible. Rather than fighting this by postponing and somehow hoping the later date will allow for a Tour to mostly go on, we should embrace a more radical solution.
The sport needs it, so too, do the teams, the riders, the sponsors, the locations (the tour is tourism), and, most of all, the fans. Sports have gone dark at the same time when we need distractions most of all. We need things to take us away from our present reality, which is mired in a warm remembrance of the recent past, a daily existence that toggles between formless and suffocating, and an inchoate future that is beyond the horizon.
But racing must also reflect the social-distancing strictures to keep competitors, support workers, media, and spectators safe from Covid-19. Sport has always been a reflection of society, of people’s ideals and needs, and now should be no different.
The inaugural Tour reflected France and technology of 1903. The stages connected the major cities, where the action (and readers) was. The route also reflected the fixed-gears that were standard of the day; it took years for the Tour to scale its first mountain. After World War Two, the Tour was seen as a reflection of French aspirations. The stages started moving to vacation areas, reflecting the fact that people had leisure time. When televisions started appearing in people’s homes, the Tour adjusted their finishes to coincide with when people could watch the race on television. As the Internet connected the world, the Tour made sure to become a multi-lingual multi-media extravaganza that could be watched everywhere.
For 2020, the only solution is to adapt racing to the social-distancing needs of the moment. So races can’t go on where people are told to stay inside, and the limits of gathering and event sizes should be respected, but there should be plenty of room to be creative after that, to honor both the moment and the traditions of the past, while serving as a place-holder and potential innovations for the future.
Just as we need sunrise and sunset to give meaning to time, and deadlines to know when to rest and work and play, the Tour as a fixed date on the 2020 calendar would give everyone something to look forward to and work for.
My preference is to keep it exactly where it is on the calendar.
While the Amaury Sport Organization, ASO, could postpone it until September as per the dictates of the French minister of sport, their goal of faithfully recreating Tours of the recent past is hampering the Tour for 2020 and beyond. Not to mention other races.
They should view the Tour this year as a one-off that bridges the past to the future, something that conforms to the past, that reminds people of the Tour’s history and continued existence, keeps riders and sponsors and locations in the public eye. It would help everyone reflect on what has been lost, whet the appetite, and get us thinking ahead to seeing the Tour in full flight again.
I’m currently thinking about the Tour turning back the clock to the early days of the Tour, when riders were supposed to compete as individuals, not as members of teams, and they were supposed to be completely self-supported. Remember the tragedy of Eugene Christophe, who was penalized for not operating the bellows when repairing his broken fork? Not that far.
The self-supported ideal was there in the first 1903 Tour, and the Tour even tried to recreate it with the touriste-routiers category in the 1920s. Maybe not award a maillot jaune, but a maillot d’argent, which has been lost to time.
The format is classic, but is also contemporary as we see the self-supported and limited-supported racing returning with many of the new gravel events. Racers fix their own flats and their own bikes while out training. They can do it in a race. And making sure their bikes are fixable on the road would be a nod to the practicality and resilience that is necessary at the moment. While bikes of today are much better than they were when racers were expected to make their own repairs during a race, it does create potential drama—imagine a race lead changing because of a flat, or a rider taking a risk on faster, flimsier tires. If they
To wit: have a single rider from each of the 22 teams selected contest the entire 2020 Tour de France route as a time trial, but on a single bike that they must ride without modification for every stage.
There are two directions to go with this. One would be toward the bike-packing ideal, where the riders are on their own the whole way. The other would be partial support. In both cases, the racers must carry everything necessary to repair their bikes on the road.
The divergence for the semi-supported version would be the racers can get aid at one or two feed/repair zones per day, and each rider has a single soigneur/mechanic who travels with them to fill bottles, make repairs, massage them, etc. for the whole race.
There could be one- or two-kilometer timed zones within the course, as the Tour goes through towns, to create a points competition, and the mountains can be timed for king of the mountain points as well.
Obviously, there would be stage winners, an overall competition, and intermediate competitions.
To add more flavor, a team competition could be created. Each team could have another entrant every day of the race, switching in a new rider every day even, but those riders must conform to the single bike, carrying his own repair gear, a single mechanic/soigneur, etc. ideal. That way stages could be more interesting, and there would be more strategery involved.
This is both a throwback and a modern interpretation. Thanks to social media and miniaturized communication devices, the world could be up on this race in the direction we’ve been seeing the past several years, but with the drastically reduced field have an intimacy with the race and racers that is impossible with 8- rider teams.
I’m not proficient enough on the logistics of coverage, but I’m sure France Television and ASO could figure out a way to have plenty of live coverage while still observing rules limiting the sizes of gatherings and protecting their employees and contractors.
This would change both how riders would train for the Tour as well as almost certainly change who the favorites are. Maybe it would be an experienced bike-packer like Thomas de Gendt or a planning nerd, like Adam Hansen—only with both those guys on Lotto-Soudal, their team would have to choose. Maybe the teams wouldn’t even start their typical Grand Tour favorites, going more with workhorse and breakaway riders who are used to riding at and off the front all day.
The only danger is that it might succeed. My feeling is that it will help both now and setting us up for the future.
Thanks for reading. This is intended as a start, a way to get conversations moving on the topic. I realize this is only a rough sketch. I’m open to other ideas. I’m looking forward to reading what you have in mind.