Words: Nick Christian | Photographs: Offside / Presseports
Cycling is coming back. While other sports have already returned, at the time of writing we are less than three weeks away from the second start to the season of the season. Although the 2.Pro level Vuelta a Burgos is expected to be the first widely televised race, World Tour proceedings will officially recommence on August 1st, with Strade Bianche.
(To those who say cycling has already come back, in reference to the Slovenian national championships, I put it that you did not pay €5 to – barely – watch the races streamed over 4G while, presumably, being filmed on someone’s Nokia 3310.)
The shape that it will take has yet to be fully realised and will vary somewhat from country to country, based on national and local COVID-19-related restrictions. In June the UCI published a fairly concise document entitled, “Procedures to be followed for the re-opening of the road cycling season in the context of the coronavirus pandemic,” from which we can glean some ideas.
The main impression you take away from reading it – and forgive me if this to state the bleeding obvious – is that most of the measures required to enable races to go ahead will be taking place behind the scenes, and below the surface. The inconveniences will be absorbed almost entirely by the race machinery, the media and, to no greater extent than necessary, the athletes themselves. Even as the races will all be happening at different points in the calendar to what we’re used to, every effort is being made to ensure that the racing unfolds just as it would at any other time.
And from a spectator’s perspective – not only on television but also in person – compared to games that take place in arenas, all signs point to cycling appearing more-or-less normal. And if there’s one thing we’re all longing for, it’s surely the opportunity to feel normal.
Football is bizarre without fans. Like watching 22 supremely talented competition winners. With cricket being a game less reliant on the contributory hubbub of the crowd, the empty stands matter less.
As we’ve said in these pages before, cycling really does need crowds. Even now, however, there’s no real reason why it should not have them.
Under the section headed, “Manage the presence of spectators” the UCI document advises/requires race organisers to “limit spectators in the departure and arrival areas according to the rules published by the national authorities,” to “maintain a safe distance between spectators and riders,” and “encourage spectators to wear a face mask.”
None of which precludes people from parking up somewhere on the side of, say, the Port de Balès or Grand Colombier, and watching the race go by. Just as they would in any other year. The fact that many fans already have their own “bubbles” – in the form of camper vans – only makes it more possible to remain covid-compliant.
In the absence of as many tourists from further afield, we can only hope the locals show up to support the racing. The crowds on the passes will inevitably be more sparse, while vocal, potentially particle-disseminating support for the riders will presumably be discouraged. Face masks will be in abundance, but at the moment it might actually seem stranger if they weren’t.
Ordinarily, that cycling takes place in the world rather than purpose-built areas is one of the sport’s fatal flaws. In the age of Coronavirus it could be the sport’s greatest asset.
There will be fewer sweeping shots of sunflowers at the Tour than we’re used to; Tuscany in mid-summer is drier and browner than it is in spring but no less beautiful. In an array of ways we haven’t thought of the racing itself will be different than we remember as well. But it may have more of what we love than we might expect, and bring closer to normality than we’ve been in months. We cannot wait.