'July will be one, long, unwanted desert' — Summer without the Tour de France is hardly summer at all

Tom Cary
The Telegraph
Summer without the Tour de France is hardly summer at all - GETTY IMAGES
Summer without the Tour de France is hardly summer at all - GETTY IMAGES

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Not since the Second World War has France experienced a July without its most precious of gifts to the sporting world taking place. Having been moved provisionally to later in the year following the Covid-19 crisis, those whose lives are shaped by the race reflect on a Tour de France-free July.

Rod Ellingworth — general manager, Bahrain-Merida

Cycling’s calendar is so familiar to us we don’t tend to talk in days or dates. I was chatting to Roger Hammond, our performance director, about this recently. In cycling we tend to say ‘After the classics’ or ‘Before the start of the Giro’. Everyone knows what you mean. The Tour is the biggest race out there. It dwarfs the rest. So of course its absence is going to be felt. Late June or early July means only one thing for cycling fans: the grand départ followed by three weeks on the road.

There are the familiar butterflies. How are your riders going to go after all that work? Have you picked the right team? Have you recce’d every stage properly? Where are you going to attack? So yes it’s going to feel weird on Saturday. It’s unsettling. Apart from anything else, this is the longest I’ve spent at home in 30-odd years. My kids don’t know what’s going on. To be honest, I was on something of a learning curve anyway, getting used to running a team [Ellingworth took over at Bahrain-Merida last year]. So I’m trying to look at it as an opportunity.

We have been able to build our protocols and infrastructures. I think we’re in decent shape. Most of the guys have trainers at home and can go out and cycle on the roads near them. I was right up front with them from the start, telling them ‘There’s no f------ excuse’. For me it’s about getting our heads on. Forget what is ‘normal’ in terms of the rhythm of the season. This is now the rhythm of the season.

Michael Morkov — rider, Deceuninck-Quick-Step

My father was a cycling fan so I always watched the Tour growing up. Cycling is very popular in Denmark. It’s a tradition for many families to watch the race in their summer holidays. When [Danish rider] Bjarne Riis won in 1996, that was huge. That was when I got really hooked. I have two smaller brothers and we used to watch the stage each day and then we would race each other around a parking lot near to our local school, pretending to be our heroes. One brother had a TVM jersey, I had a Rabobank jersey and my smallest brother had a Team Telekom jersey.

I’ve raced it four times as a rider now and it’s so special. Of course, it’s going to feel strange this year that fans won’t be able to watch the Tour their holidays but for me anyway it doesn’t feel that strange any more. We’ve had the new race programme for a while now so I’ve got used to it. It feels like a different world when I won the Madison gold at the track world championships in Berlin in early March after spending 34 hours in isolation due to a suspected outbreak at the UAE Tour, where I had been earlier in the week. Now I’m just focused on being in the best shape I can be for the start of the season in August.

Ned Boulting — commentator, ITV

This would have been my 18th consecutive summer spent following the Tour. It will be the first time I have ever spent my July birthday in the company of my youngest child, who is now 17. There are shrubs and flowers in the garden I have never seen in bloom, because I have always been in France when they do. If I am honest, I’d swap all of this for the chance once again to slip on my accreditation, and wake up on the morning of stage one of the Tour de France with a sense of happy tension that is, for an adult, the closest thing I know to childhood memories of Christmas morning.

When Saturday comes and there is no Tour de France, I will be downcast. Perhaps we will all return in September to witness the planned, extraordinary variant of the great race. Perhaps not. But this race-less summer that stretches before me has laid bare just how profound my relationship with the Tour has become. I am, in a word, addicted. July will be one, long, unwanted desert.

Servais Knaven — sports director, Ineos

I was 17 years a professional cyclist and now I'm in my 10th season as a sports director. So that is 27 years that the Tour has formed the structure of my entire year. And that's all gone now. For me I’ve lost all sense of what month I’m living. Okay, you know it is summer because of the weather but for me it doesn't feel like the Tour is about to start. I only thought about it for the first time on Wednesday because that was the day I was going to be driving to Nice.

As a DS (directeur sportif), it feels more like November. Pre-season. For Ineos this whole period has been difficult following the death of Nico [Portal, Team Ineos’s lead sports director] in March. We all went to the funeral and then I drove home to Belgium and then lockdown happened almost the next day. It is going to be very different at the Tour without Nico but I’m confident we can fill the gap.

We will go with four DSs if that’s allowed rather than three. We have so much experience to fall back on. We also have three Tour winners in our rider group. It could make it difficult but the most important thing is that Ineos win the Tour. It can also be an advantage to have three leaders. It gives you tactical options. We are confident we can make it work.

Rupert Guinness — freelance journalist

In a parallel universe I would be sitting in Nice right now sipping a nice cool rosé. I usually go over a week or so beforehand. I’ve covered 33 of the last 35 races since my Tour first in 1987 (I missed 1996 when I moved from Europe back to my native Australia, and 2007 when I joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a rugby writer and was told in no uncertain terms by the editor that I was a rugby writer and not to mention the ‘c’ word. Cadel Evans was second that year by 23 seconds. I remember I was very happy he didn’t win because I didn’t miss out on reporting on an Aussie win!

In actual fact I’m sitting on a home trainer in a car showroom in Sydney. That’s because this year I find myself racing in the Virtual Ride Across America [VRAAM]. I’m riding 18-20hrs a day. It’s getting pretty sore down there. I was meant to be doing the real thing only for coronavirus to force a 12-month delay. It’s funny how things work out. Because of RAAM I was kind of preparing to miss this year’s Tour, or at least the first half. The irony is that now I may be able to do the whole thing if it goes ahead in September. I hope it does, even if it’s not the same grand adventure it used to be.

I remember in 1987 when the start was in West Berlin, and I was working for Winning Magazine, we carried a daily diary from Stephen Roche which was agreed on a handshake — no money. Gone are the days you would sit on a gutter outside the cars to do your interviews. The buses have killed all that. But I still love the sights, the sounds, the colours of summer in France. I don’t want to become a curmudgeon. The day I become a curmudgeon is the day I stop covering the Tour.

Matt Rabin — head of physical therapy, EF Education First

I was meant to be at the European Championships with the Wales football team this month, before meeting up with EF Education First at the Critérium du Dauphiné. But that’s obviously been postponed. It actually doesn’t feel that weird anymore, because everything feels weird. And there have been upsides. My kids are six, four and three. And while you have those moments when you want to wring their necks, it has been special to spend this time with them. We travel so much in this job. The funny thing is I always assumed my wife and I had a strong relationship because I went away a lot. But having spent more time together than we ever have done before, we’re getting on better now than we were at the start of lockdown. 

And we should still get a Tour in September, albeit it will look very different. Will there be fans? Will there be media? Sponsors? There are so many unknowns. But I’m not worried. I had Covid-19 in March. I’ve tested positive for antibodies three times since. So firstly I have no issues in terms of exposing myself to the virus, although I’d understand if anyone else did. In any case I'm a firm believer in dealing with the facts as they are presented rather than dealing with hypotheticals. What I think will be weird is when we go away in September rather than now. It will hit you when the Tour finishes and it’s only 12 weeks until Christmas. 

Taryn Kirby — press officer, Mitchelton-Scott

This period has certainly made my job tougher. We’ve actually done more than ever before because the difference with our role is that the racing created the content for us. We just had to polish it. But during this period there has been no racing so we became the creator — Zwift, a new podcasts and so on. It took a lot more effort because you were the builder not just the decorator.

I was in Colombia on holiday when Covid hit Europe, riding my bike from Bogotá to Medellín. My holiday turned into a work trip as I found myself drafting press releases at 3am. I flew back to my home in Andorra a couple of days later and it was months before I saw anyone again. I live on my own so it was really intense.

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