Roundtable: Is it too early to re-schedule the Tour? Will we see racing in 2020?

From shortened grand tours to the all-important questions around safety, there's a lot to pick over after the UCI revealed its plans for the 2020 season. Let's roundtable!

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The UCI revealed its initial outline for the re-scheduled 2020 season this week after the coronavirus racing stop.

The new calendar sees the Tour roll out of Nice August 29, with the classics, Giro d’Italia and  Vuelta a España slotting into yet-to-be-confirmed dates through fall. The rumor mill is already churning with talk of possible dates for the five monuments, and rumors of the Giro and Vuelta being shortened to leave space for other races.

Is it too early to have a roadmap for the season in place? Will we actually see racing in 2020? Let’s roundtable!

How important is it for cycling to have a revised calendar with the Tour de France with firm dates?

Andrew Hood (@eurohoody): The Tour is the Sun that the cycling universe orbits around. Having a “return date” is aspirational at many levels, for the sport and for the larger public. Riders now have something to train for and target after more than a month on the sidelines. Plus it will be a big help to cash-strapped teams, so they can telegraph the message to sponsors and backers that racing is back on the horizon. Simply seeing the Tour on the calendar, even if it remains a hypothetical, will breathe some much-needed fresh air into the sport. Racing is like oxygen for cycling; it cannot afford to remain idle for too long without dire consequences. Unfortunately, Italy, France and Spain are among the hardest hit nations in Europe, so transitioning from the current bleak conditions to a reality where a bike race could be held will require a dramatic improvement in a relatively short period of time. Stakeholders are correct in at least adjusting the calendar to have things in place if and when health authorities lift stay-at-home orders.

James Startt:  Well just about everyone I talked with agreed on one thing—the Tour is central. If there is one race to have, people want/need the Tour. It is the single largest annual sporting event in the world. No other sport can boast having such an event and as a result it offers not only a huge window of racing but a huge window of visibility for all of the sport’s many actors and partners. But it is also the hardest event to reschedule because well, it is three weeks long, and because it attracts the biggest crowds. From a logistical standpoint, it would certainly be easier to focus on one-day races and week-long stage races in terms of the global health crisis. That way, if a particular region is hit with a resurge of coronavirus cases, the UCI would only cancel a specific event. But at the Tour, if one area on the map suddenly sees a return of the virus, that could shut the event down. But it is the Tour de France and really everybody needs it from a sporting and sponsoring angle.

Jim Cotton (@jim_c_1985): It’s essential, and the first step forward. Many may consider it a pointless step given the future is so uncertain, but without some dates to aim at the season will never move forward. With so many teams already indicating financial difficulty and riders going stir-crazy riding on indoor trainers, everyone in the sport needs a glimmer of light. Organizing such a huge event is an enormous task, and it’s better that ASO and the UCI can at least start laying the foundations for an August-September Tour. If they hadn’t made the call soon, there likely would have been no logistical chance for the race to happen.

Is it fair that the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España be shortened? Or should all three grand tours remain at three weeks?

James: Well I think both will end up being shortened in some way shape or form. Both had foreign start locations—the Giro in Budapest, Hungary and the Vuelta in Utrecht, Holland. Both have now been canceled and there is really very little obligation to replace those stages with alternative ones. Indeed the Vuelta will likely be encouraged by A.S.O. to reduce the overall length. And Giro-organizers RCS may well prefer to shorten the Giro to make way from one of its other events. Why not hold the Strade Bianche or Milano-Sanremo on a Saturday and then have the Giro start the following Monday?

Andrew: I can understand the Giro’s insistence at sticking to three weeks. The Giro is RCS Sport’s marquee property, and the company wants to try to run its full schedule if possible. Since the Vuelta is owned by ASO, there could be some pressure there to reduce the race to be held over three weekends instead of four. The UCI isn’t shortening the worlds, so why should other races? Some say three straight grand tours would be too much for maxed-out teams and under-raced riders, but there is already talk of reducing rosters and inviting more second-tier teams to fill out the peloton. Everyone is desperate to save their respective teams, races and contracts, so there’s nothing lost at trying to pack everything into a shorter window.

Jim: If RCS agree to having the Giro shortened, then so be it, though Vegni and co. have already expressed a strong distaste for the possibility. And likewise with the Vuelta — if they’re happy to have their race truncated and that means other events can be saved from cancelation altogether, then that’s a good thing. It would be a shame to see the Giro and Vuelta forced to shorten against their will however – the idea of the Tour as a bully-boy in the calendar is unpleasant. Though with so much riding on La Grand Boucle, it may be a necessity.

Reports this week suggest the Giro and Vuelta could be shortened to free space in the packed fall calendar. Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

If you were a racer or soigneur, would you want to go to the Tour de France in these conditions?

Jim: ‘The Tour is the Tour,’ they say, and riders’ contracts and reputations can pivot on it. A stage win can transform an anonymous domestique into an overnight star, and if I were a rider, I would go. The Tour will only be raced if it’s safe to do so, and even then, with the strictest safety measures.

James: Every racer or team staff member I have talked to very much wants to go to the Tour. It is a necessity and if they don’t, many will be out of a job at the end of the year. Certainly it may be wishful thinking, but everyone right now is more focused on the hope that the Tour will take place rather than the reality that is still may not.

Andrew: Good question — right now, with lockdowns and shelter-at-home orders, I’d say no. Any resumption of racing is pinned on the notion that health conditions will allow it. If the pandemic situation improves as hoped and expected over the next four months, racing under strict health and safety guidelines would be feasible. Right now, there are a lot of questions of how that might look. If there were enough measures and protocols in place to assure everyone’s well-being, I would not hesitate. What’s sure is if there is a Tour de France this year it will not look and feel like any Tour before.

Considering the current pandemic conditions in Europe, will racing actually resume as planned, or will there be further disruption?

Andrew: That’s the million-dollar-question. From what we’re hearing, until there is a vaccine, everyone is going to have to live under a new reality. So the big question for cycling is, does the sport remain stopped until there is a vaccine and a complete return to normality, which might be 12-24 months from now? Or does cycling pivot to a new reality of racing on roads under strict health protocols? Cycling’s stakeholders have the challenge right now to try to bridge the gap from pre- to post-pandemic. What they cannot do is put the short-term economic interests of the sport ahead of the safety of riders, staffers or the larger general public.

Jim: Only time will tell. Many nations are reporting to be past the peak of the crisis, but who knows how the situation will develop. I think the situation in the next month will tell a lot. There is also the question of what happens if conditions improve in Europe, but other continents are still under the worst of it. In that situation, would American and Australian riders and teams be able to travel?

James: Ask the international health experts. But I don’t even think they can give you an answer. We are just in uncharted territory.

An American in France

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