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Optimism, fear and a changing of the guard

Tom Mustroph
September 10, 2020

As the Tour de France reached its halfway mark, the mood was anything but jubilant. The Tour's director has tested positive for COVID-19 and many of the riders were battling injuries, but the bubble was largely working.

Tour de France | Etappe 10 | Julian Alaphilippe
Image: picture alliance/dpa

It almost seems like some riders have already had enough, just halfway through this year's Tour de France. 

"Yes, I've felt better," Nils Politt says sarcastically. He crashed at the start of the Tour and he's had a sore back ever since. He took also another tumble at the beginning of the second week. 

"My left shoulder got damaged, something to do with the ligaments. And I've got bruises everywhere else, including to my ribs. It's pretty unpleasant," he says. 

Things don't sound all that different when you speak to Germany's big hope, Emanuel Buchmann, who was injured coming into the Tour. 

"I have been much better. I'll have to see how I can recover over the next few days. 

It's not just the crashes that have fed into this exhaustion, it's the stages they have faced in the first week and a half. The mountains and other climbs sapped a lot of power from the sprinters' legs on stages two, four and six – long before they got anywhere near the finish line. Then it was on to the Pyrenees – and there are even more climbs in store before the Tour reaches the Alps.

Coronavirus on the mind

Adding to their stress is the pandemic, although this is of a mental rather than a physical nature. Some of the riders have contracts that are set to expire, so in a shortened race calendar, they are under extra pressure to make as good an impression as possible. 

That's not to mention the threat of the virus itself. France has registered several thousand new confirmed cases every day for the past few weeks, so it seems almost miraculous that not a single rider has tested positive so far. However, among those who have tested positive are Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme along with four coaches from four different teams. Still, the low number of positive tests shows that the bubble formed around the peloton is working reasonably well – much to the relief of all.

Radsport Tour de France - 8. Etappe Cazeres - Loudenvielle
More and more fans have been lining the course as the Tour progressesImage: picture-alliance/Augenklick/Roth

"So far, all the athletes have tested negative. And I am very relieved about that. I hope it will continue this way", says Nikias Arndt of Team Sunweb. Still, he remains cautious. 

"The virus could still be spread to the riders from outside," he points out.

And the risk may be increasing as more and more spectators, not all of whom are wearing masks, turn out along the course as the Tour progresses. 

Also hanging over the riders is the two-case rule, which specifies that if two members of any team test positive for COVID-19, the entire team will be disqualified. 

"It would be a pity, and we would certainly all be disappointed," Arndt says of the prospect that all of the riders on a team could remain Coronavirus-free but still be disqualified because two of their coaches tested positive. 

"But it would be the only right thing to do to protect the remaining field of riders," Arndt concludes. "I am fully behind the idea, because at least this would allow the race to continue."

Changing of the guard

As for the race itself, a kind of changing of guard is emerging. Team Ineos, with defending champion Egan Bernal, has fallen back into a secondary role. Primoz Roglic, captain of the very dominant team Jumbo Visma is the clear No. 1. Not only is Roglic the man wearing the yellow jersey, but he's also been the strongest on the mountains and has had the luxury of paving the way for stage wins for his noble helper Wout van Aert on flatter stages. The former mountain biker already has two stage wins to his name.

Tour de France | Etappe 11 | Roglic und Bernal
Slovenia's Primoz Roglic has the yellow jersey ahead of last year's winner, Egan Bernal of Colombia.Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Roglic's only real threat comes from fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar. 

"In the Pyrenees, he was definitely one of the strongest," Roglic says. "For me it is just nice to see two Slovenians cycling so well here. It's crazy for a country of two million people to have the two best riders in the world." 

All patriotism aside, though, giving Pogacar a free pass is simply out of the question for Roglic. 

"He is a super nice guy. But that doesn't mean that we're going to let him win," he said. "There is also a battle between us."

A Colombian quartet comprised of defending champion Bernal, former Giro winner Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Miguel Angel Lopez are still in the mix, currently in second, fifth, sixth and ninth places in the overall rankings respectively. Meanwhile, French natives Romain Bardet and Guillaume Martins are in third and fourth, keeping their hope of a podium finish alive. 

All this of course, is assuming that this year's Tour even makes it to the Champs Elysees on September 20 – something that appears anything but certain in view of the levels of new COVID-19 infections in the country.