PARIS, France — Perhaps no other sports event puts so many fans in such close contact with athletes as the Tour de France, with swarms of people clogging city streets, winding roads and soaring mountain passes during cycling's three-week showpiece and getting within touching distance of the riders.
And yet, unlike almost every other major sporting event this summer, including the Tokyo Olympics, the Tour has yet to be called off despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
For now, the start date remains June 27 — and there is a possibility that the race could be held without any fans lining the course.
France's sports minister Roxana Mărăcineanu said the Tour can still exist in a time of social distancing.
“The economic model of the Tour de France does not rely on ticket sales but on TV rights and media broadcasting," Mărăcineanu told France Bleu radio on Wednesday evening. "Everyone has understood the benefits of staying at home and prioritizing the televised spectacle. In the end, it would not be so disadvantageous because we could watch it on television.”
But it would be a Tour unlike any other.
The race, which was first held in 1903, is synonymous with images of thousands of crammed-in spectators stuck together like glue on winding ascents up the Alps, cheering on the riders as they go past.
On the final day of the race, a ceremonial ride into Paris, legions of yellow-jersey wearing spectators normally amass behind steel barriers along the Champs-Élysées: several banks deep and shoulder to shoulder, with fast-turning heads catching a glimpse of the winner flashing past.
Millions of fans watch each year's race in a festive atmosphere stretching across all areas of France. This year's race has 21 stages, where fans traditionally stand watching all along the way, and the longest is 218 kilometers (135 miles).
Thousands of police officers are needed to keep crowds under control and help negotiate safe passage for riders from 22 teams, with several often sharing hotels.
Enforcing a lockdown everywhere along the route for three weeks seems difficult — if not impossible — given that groups of people could appear from anywhere at any point.
One of cycling’s big attractions is that fans get so close to the riders, running alongside them up climbs and sometimes giving them a helpful push in the back on the toughest ones.
Sometimes they get much too close.
Two years ago, former champion Vincenzo Nibali crashed into a police motorbike on a narrow street lined with spectators and later abandoned the race. Four-time champion Chris Froome has been spat on and had urine thrown on him.
Mărăcineanu is in regular talks with Amaury Sport Organisation — the Tour organizer — but says it's “still too early” to predict what will happen. On her Twitter account, she added: “there is a time for everything. Right now, we have a more urgent battle to fight."
On Tuesday the International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo Games to next year. Likewise, soccer's European Championship, held in several countries, moved to 2021. Another major cycling race, the Giro d'Italia in May, was postponed this month.
Organizers of Wimbledon meet next week to decide on this year’s tennis tournament, scheduled for June 29-July 12. The French Open, normally in late May and June, is pushed back to Sept. 20-Oct. 4.
Tour organizers declined to comment Thursday when asked whether plans to host the race as planned this summer have changed, or whether a race without fans could be an option.
The last time the Tour was not held was in 1946, with the nation emerging from the second world war. It was also stopped during WWI.
Five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault — the last Frenchman to win the race — cautioned against it going ahead amid the uncertainty of how long the epidemic will last.
“There's a crazy illness which is spreading and, if it happens to last months, we shouldn't hesitate to call it off," he said in an interview with French daily Le Parisien on March 18. “We should ask ourselves if it's reasonable to allow people to go out on the roads if there's still a risk ... The Tour de France is a fantastic party. But it's less important than life.”