'Back to normal' is a catchphrase for Tour de France's this year — a limited number of spectators will be allowed at the track, without masks. Former world champion Peter Sagan is hoping to get up close to his fans.
The city of Brest is ready for the Grand Depart of the Tour de France. For months now, on the Place de la Liberte in front of the city's town hall, a large clock has been counting down the days, hours, and minutes to the start of the first stage on June 26.
Publicans and hoteliers are daring to dream again.
"The hotels in the immediate vicinity of the Grand Depart were booked out early on by teams and organizers. But we also have additional capacity for visitors," Olivier Henne, spokesman for the city's tourism office, told DW.
There is no estimate on the number of people who will descend on the port city in Brittany for the Tour.
"We also don't have exact numbers from the last Grand Depart in Brest in 2008. But we know from experience that the Tour attracts many first-time visitors to the region," Henne said.
"Many of them didn't have an exact idea of what they could expect. About three-quarters said they would like to come back. So, there are long-term effects."
The Grand Depart will cost Brest about €420,000 ($502,000) and the metropolitan region will contribute a further €420,000. Overall, the municipalities and entire region will transfer €3.6 million to Tour organizer ASO.
It's business as usual — and that's the case for the entirety of the Tour this year. It will be held in summer again, as usual, instead of in autumn as it was in 2020.
The declining number of infections has led to an increase in normality. Across France, the incidence rate over the past week was 32 infections per 100,000 inhabitants. In Brittany, it was 28.
"The situation is developing positively, all traffic lights are green thanks to our measures, but also thanks to the Bretons' sense of responsibility," Stephanie Mulliez, the director general of regional health authority ARS, told a press conference last month.
Back in April, the incidence rate was 10 times as high in Brittany, at 337. At the beginning of last year's Tour at the end of August, 58.9 newly infected people per 100,000 were counted across the country. That increased to 112.8 by the end of the Tour.
Another positive sign: Brittany started its vaccination campaign early and has led the charge in France. "51% of all Bretons have so far received at least one vaccination dose," Mulliez said.
But that does not translate into another lockdown. On the contrary, the COVID-19 restrictions in France are being relaxed.
Since last week, it's no longer mandatory to wear a mask when out on the streets, squares or beaches. Bars and restaurants are open to 50% capacity inside and full capacity on outside patios.
The only restriction is that "no more than six people may sit together at one table," said local tourism authority spokesman Henne.
Restrictions on numbers of spectators have also been put in place, with up to 5,000 people allowed to attend sporting events in stadiums. However, Tour organizer ASO isn't planning to come close to the new limit when introducing the teams.
"We are planning on 1,000 spectators for the team presentation," an ASO spokesperson told DW.
Organizers are also appealing to fans to maintain physical distancing as a matter of principle and to avoid grouping together.
"The spectators can come, but they should spread out over the entire stage route if possible, and not just concentrate at the start and finish," Brest's sub-prefect Ivan Bouchier told French media.
Yet how this will be achieved is unclear. "We will certainly not put a gendarme behind every spectator," Bouchier said.
The plan is for fans to be able to access the mountain stages only on foot.
'The fans spur us on'
Be that as it may, the riders are happy to have the fans back.
"I'm really happy that after a difficult 2020, there will be more fans lining the route again this season," Peter Sagan, three-time world champion and seven-time winner of the green jersey, told DW.
"We've already seen that at the Giro d'Italia. And it will happen on such iconic climbs as Mont Ventoux on the Tour.
"We ride for the spectators, after all, and their encouragement spurs us on. We'll see if I have another opportunity like in 2019 on the climb to the Tourmalet, when I signed a copy of my book held out to me by a fan during the race," the Slovakian said.
Much more of a return to normality is difficult to imagine.
Cuts at assistance level
Team managers are also pleased.
"Last season was tough. Fortunately, we were able to run quite a few races after all," Ralph Denk, manager of Sagan's Bora hansgrohe team, told DW. "But the lack of entry fees and the increased expenses for hygiene measures generated extra costs of about €1 million," he added.
The teams have tried to compensate for the deficit by canceling training camps and adjusting salary structure.
"The riders capable of winning races are still very much in demand and earn well. The good helpers, however, have had to accept cuts," Denk explained.
So for many riders, the Tour is also about showcasing themselves in a way that will help see this return to reality also reflected in their bank accounts.