NICE, France (AP) -- The strangest Tour de France ever finally set off on Saturday from the Riviera city of Nice in an extraordinarily subdued atmosphere, amid fears the race could be stopped well before it reaches Paris.
The sight of the 176 riders on the starting line was already seen as a big win by organizers and French government officials relieved the mega-event drawing hundreds of thousands of roadside fans every summer could take place. After the European soccer championships and the Olympic Games were postponed to 2021, the Tour - delayed by two months - survived the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the normally buoyant atmosphere surrounding the event made way for brooding feelings. Instead of the usual pulsating crowds, riders were greeted by an eerie silence as their names were read out on a stage where they were presented to an empty square in downtown Nice, overlooked by a stone statue wearing a mask marked ''protect ourselves''. A quiet crowd of a couple of hundred people, all masked, were kept 50 meters away behind metal barriers.
Since its inception in 1903, the race has only been canceled during the two world wars.
But the number of daily COVID-19 cases has been rising steadily across France, prompting concerns the Tour will have to be stopped if the situation deteriorates further.
''It's a first miracle that we are able to start this race, but we want a second miracle to happen, which is the Tour de France to arrive in Paris,'' UCI president David Lappartient said. ''The goal is really to reach Paris.''
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French minister in charge of sports, said the chances of the Tour being cancelled before reaching Paris were ''very slim'', but also added ''everything is possible. That type of thing could happen but of course I hope that it won't and I think that it won't because the Tour organizers have done an extraordinary job''.
To ensure the 22 teams competing at the constantly traveling event remain virus-free, organizers have put in place stringent rules keeping them away from fans.
Tour spectators and riders usually mingle at the start of stages, posing for pictures together and exchanging a few words. All this was impossible Saturday at the start of the 156-kilometer Stage 1, with fans not allowed to take selfies with their heroes or to get autographs. They could not approach the team buses of last year's winner Egan Bernal and former world champion Peter Sagan, which were parked side by side.
Instead of the usual throngs, the park where the buses are gathered was largely empty, with, at best, just a few small clumps of people to cheer the riders as they rode past.
In addition to the social distancing imposed, French health authorities have also decided that an entire team will be expelled from the race if two or more of their members, including staff, test positive for COVID-19 within a week, increasing the probability that only a fraction of the peloton will reach the Champs-Elysees in three weeks' time.
On the starting line, riders kept their masks on until the last minute. After a uniformed band played the Marseillaise, the riders started rolling as planes trailing white smoke roared overhead. The crowd at the start, mostly just one row deep, cheered as they pedaled past, finally with their masks off.
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