By Julien Pretot
NICE, France (Reuters) - French health authorities introduced stricter regulations for exclusions from the Tour de France in the event of coronavirus cases, hours before the race began in unusual conditions on Saturday.
The government's interministerial crisis committee has ruled that a team should be pulled out if two or more of its members test positive within seven days, race organisers said on Saturday.
Until now, this year's race, which began in Nice on Saturday, was operating under International Cycling Union (UCI) guidelines for teams to be excluded if two or more riders were to test positive over the same period.
The new regulations from the committee, which overrules the UCI, cover support staff as well as riders, organisers told Reuters.
Tour teams comprise eight riders and a maximum of 22 support staff.
Organisers, however, said that the Lotto Soudal team, which saw two staff members test COVID-positive on Thursday, remained in the race because the stricter measure did not take effect until Saturday.
Organisers have admitted there is a risk of the race not reaching Paris as numbers of coronavirus cases have been rising steadily in France since the beginning of the August.
The race's opening day was unusually quiet in Nice, a city on COVID-19 red alert.
While thousands of fans from all over the world traditionally gather in the start area for the 'Grand Depart', there were only small crowds in Nice as the peloton emerged in a highly-protected 'bubble'.
The giant podium at the start was placed 200 metres from barriers, preventing any intrusion, and the fans were in equally low numbers at a rain-hit finish on the Promenade des Anglais.
There were also hundreds of hotel rooms still available at the weekend -- a rarity for a Tour de France Grand Depart.
Riders were puzzled, but understanding.
"We can't complain, we're happy to be here because it's important to ride the tour -- for the riders, for the teams," said former world champion Philippe Gilbert.
"It's complicated everywhere, for everyone. In companies, in society in general, so it's the same for cycling."
"There are a lot of restrictions but we're all doing our best to produce a good show. We miss the fans, the hot weather, but we just have to deal with it," said Italian Daniel Oss.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; editing by John Stonestreet and Ian Chadband)