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No planes or trains, just automobiles and 'bubbles' at Tour de France

Tour de France 2019 - 106th Edition - team bus - photo Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2019
EF Pro Cycling team bus at 2019 Tour de France (Image credit: Bettini Image)

The classic comedy, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” is scheduled for a remake soon as popular actors Will Smith and Kevin Hart announced this month they will team up on this road-trip film. The Tour de France version of a similar storyline is remade each summer and the 2020 sequel will feature only automobiles and buses for the first time in many years.

Gone are the jets that were previously noted on official Tour route maps as the transport of choice for teams to use on the two long transfers, between stages 9 and 10, and again between stages 20 and 21. 

High speed trains are not part of the equation for the long distances either to connect the Pyrenees with the wind-swept Charente-Maritime region along the Atlantic Ocean, or to connect the Vosges Mountains in eastern France with Paris.

All transfers in 2020 will be made via road vehicles this year, using team cars, vans and buses. It is one of the few years that the race does not have an extreme transfer, such as the 789km connection between the Pyrenees to Paris in 2018. It is also one of the few times since the ‘60s that the Tour will be raced entirely on French soil. 

It’s not a huge adjustment for teams from a transportation standpoint this year, but just one more item on the checklist to secure the “bubble” of safety precautions brought on by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Wheels on the ground

“To be honest the air transfers at the Tour de France are helpful and it's always cool to drive straight on to a runway and hop on a plane, but the travel was still quite long and generally less comfortable than on a team bus,” said Tom Southam, directeur sportif for EF Pro Cycling. 

“Honestly, I thought it was a lot cooler when they used to catch the TGV in the nineties. Much more comfortable than an economy flight and you could sit there and read about [Miguel] Indurain in the newspaper.”

Going back to the second Tour in 1904, trains and cars were used but for illicit transfers. That year 10 riders were expelled for violating rules related to travel as they were found to have hopped rides on trains, and a couple in cars, to aid their race positions.

The use of trains for route transfers was not introduced at the Tour until 1960, coinciding with the first time the finish from a stage was not close to the next stage's start location. Just 10 years before, the Tour had used a contiguous course that traced close to the country’s perimeter. After stage 9 in 1960, all teams used the train to move from Bordeaux to the Mont de Marsan for the climbs in the Pyrenees.

Air transfers were first made in 1971, twice used to move teams between Le Touquet and Paris for stage 7 and again from Marseille to Albi for stage 13. The incorporation of planes and trains have allowed organisers to use more cities for start and finish locations. 

Back in 1960 there were five transfers, which was a staggering number for that era. Now in 2020, there are 16 transfers of varying distances. Only three cities - Nice, Lyon, and Méribel - host back-to-back stages for starts and finishes, with Nice hosting three consecutive days for starts.

“This year doesn't present any real problems not flying, firstly as everyone is in the same boat, so why worry,” suggested Southam. He added that a 626km mid-week transfer after stage 9 for the rest day does not pose an issue for ground transport. 

“Secondly, the roads are fast up to the Vendée from the finish of the stage. I expect it will be a five-hour drive or so, and the stage finishes early. On the bus the riders will have food prepared by our chefs and a decent level of comfort. The doctor and chiro will travel on the bus in case there are any serious issues to take care of. The riders have access to Normatec and Incrediwear recovery tools and they have space to stretch, etc. 

“We quite routinely do three-hour transfers in races, so although it is longer than usual, I don't think anyone will be too fazed by it. We have a rest day the following day and the guys will be fed and tucked up in bed before midnight, without any worries,” said Southam.

The UCI rules do prohibit teams taking alternative air travel, a helicopter for example, so since no air transfers are part of the Tour plan this year, teams have no other options but to travel by bus and car. 

"The lack of air transfers at this year’s Tour de France hasn’t presented a big challenge for us. In fact, it could well be the preferable scenario," said CCC Team sporting manager Steve Bauer, who is the head directeur sportif at the Tour. 

"Whilst the charter flights in previous years have been well organized, often then require a drive of up to two hours to even reach the airport and the same on the other end once the flight has landed. So, by the time you add this time together, it’s still a long evening or day of traveling that could be been done faster by vehicle. The team buses provide a comfortable setting and the riders can rest and recover better in this controlled environment so we are happy with the logistics this year."

Trek-Segafredo said since their service course is located in Belgium, it will not be difficult to organise transportation for the Tour. To maintain safety protocols for staff, private vehicles will be used to maintain the “bubble.”

The bubble in France

Tour de France organiser ASO distributed its COVID-19 medical protocol to the 22 teams racing at this year’s race during the recent Criterium du Dauphine.

New rules for this year’s race begin with the size limit of the Tour entourage, with each team comprised of up to 30 people, including riders and staffers, starting three days before Saturday's opening stage and running through the final stage in Paris on September 20. 

This is the “team bubble” which works to encapsulate team members outside the peloton, from moving from finish and start lines and hotels to eating meals. The key "race bubble" includes all the 22 teams and key race staff and officials. 

“Our goal was to keep team personnel numbers as low as possible and with the ASO organizing the final pre-race PCR test and tests on the rest days, this takes away a big logistical challenge for us," said Bauer about CCC Team. 

"We have our own internal COVID-19 policy which riders and staff are required to respect and the ASO has also implemented a very strict protocol when it comes to daily practices at the race and interaction between teams and external parties."

“The health and safety of our riders and staff is of the utmost priority so once we enter the bubble in Nice, we will be following these protocols, as we have already been doing since racing resumed.”

A bubble is defined as a group of people who share an exclusive space and restrict physical contact with those outside this household, which can be family and friends, or in this case a pro cycling team.

“As a safety measure ASO have set a limit for teams of 30 people, riders included, who can be part of a team’s ‘bubble,’ at the Tour. As you can imagine this doesn’t allow for any excess staff,” said Dr. Kevin Sprouse, head of medicine for EF Pro Cycling and is a member of the UCI Steering group which created the emergency rules to resume racing related to coronavirus pandemic. 

“We aren’t bringing an extra person to handle testing and COVID-19 issues exclusively — those duties will be trusted to our capable and well-drilled medical staff. One thing is certain. We aren’t skimping on medical staff to bring extra mechanics.” 

Health regulations require the use of face masks before and after stages, in feed zones, and inside team buses and cars. Only riders and essential staff will be permitted into the team bus parking areas, a move to limit contact with fans and media. 

At team housing locations, there are tight controls which include keeping a team to its own floor or section if in a hotel. 

The bubble is serious business so the show can go on, and medical professionals continue to reiterate that safety begins with simple steps.

“The first rule, the simplest and best known, but also the most incisive, concerns good habits – washing hands often, sanitize them, maintaining the distances with people outside the bubble and wearing the mask in public spaces. We will repeat it endlessly and, as a reminder, we have given everyone a refillable sanitizer spray and two washable masks,” said Trek-Segafredo head doctor Nino Daniele. 

“We have eliminated the ‘food room’ for riders’ snacks at the end of the races, which was normally in the room of a soigneur. We have imposed daily sanitization of all vehicles and limited access to the bus.”

The UCI has stated that all riders, staffers, and other personnel must pass two COVID-19 controls in order to enter a respective team bubble. Anyone testing positive will not be allowed to race or work on the Tour. Any Tour-bound riders who test positive for COVID-19 as part of pre-race screenings can be replaced by a healthy rider until 10 a.m. on Saturday August 29. 

Everyone in the Tour entourage will be tested again on both rest days, September 7 after the first nine stages and September 14 with six stages remaining. Symptoms will be monitored daily, with a mobile COVID-19 medical unit present at each day’s stage to expedite any required on-the-spot testing. Riders and staff also have to complete a twice-daily questionnaire to help identify COVID-19 symptoms.

Everyone is hoping the strategy and protocol will keep the Tour de France riders safe, healthy and on the road all the way to Paris.