A relieved Tour de France has the finish in sight

By Elian Peltier

The Tour de France embarked on its final week Tuesday, with more than 500 miles of racing left and only 40 seconds separating the leader from his closest pursuer.

The field had already covered 15 stages, racked up nearly 1,650 miles and lost 20 cyclists, none of them to the coronavirus, despite early concerns that the race could trigger new waves of infections in a country that has seen a surge of cases in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the Tour announced that 785 more tests — conducted Sunday and Monday on riders, staff members of the 22 teams and race officials — all had come back negative.

It has not exactly been business as usual, however. Fans of the Tour have been scarcer on the sides of the road, and selfies and autographs are forbidden. Riders put on masks as soon as they cross the finish line and operate in a restricted environment, although that has not been foolproof: Last week, Christian Prudhomme, the race’s director, tested positive for the coronavirus, along with a few team staff members.

But for the most part, the stringent protocols put in place to keep the 2020 edition safe appear to be working. And in the absence of virus drama, much of the attention has been directed toward those excelling — or struggling — on their bikes.

Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic of Team Jumbo-Visma is leading the race, but his good friend and countryman Tadej Pogacar of Team Emirates is only 40 seconds behind after winning a mountain stage Sunday. Germany’s Lennard Kamna won Tuesday’s 16th stage, well ahead of the leaders, who — protected by their teammates — kept close watch on one another from the relative safety of the front of the main pack.

With six stages left before the race’s arrival on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday, Roglic and Pogacar will take their fight for the yellow jersey into the French Alps this week, including on a much-anticipated stage today with a harrowing mountain climb to the finish near the ski resort town of Méribel that has never appeared on the Tour’s route.

“It’s unprecedented,” Prudhomme said about the Col de la Loze.

Many expect the fate of this year’s Tour to be sealed there.

Pogacar said this week that his strategy would be to try to close the gap on Roglic in the mountains and then try to take the yellow jersey in a time trial Saturday. He finished ahead of Roglic at the Slovenian time trial championships earlier this year, beat him in a sprint to the line Sunday and then tried — and failed — to do it again Tuesday.

“The perfect scenario would be to take it on the evening of the final time trial, but we live in a real world,” Pogacar said. “If there’s a chance to take it, I will try.”

Until Sunday, last year’s winner, Egan Bernal, was third behind Roglic and Pogacar. But the Colombian star lost ground and fell to 13th overall, leaving his chances of repeating as the Tour champion — or of even climbing onto the awards podium in Paris on Sunday — nearly nonexistent.

“There are riders that are stronger than me, and we need to accept it,” Bernal told journalists Sunday. “I had no power. I haven’t had the legs.”

Still, Bernal, the first Colombian (and the first South American) to win the Tour, said he would give his best out of respect for the race. On Sunday, he posted a picture of himself wincing in pain on his Twitter account. “Long live to the Tour,” he wrote in French.

The Tour de France was initially scheduled for July but delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers have tried to maintain this year’s edition by keeping the racers in a so-called bubble, with every rider required to wear face masks before and after each stage, and staff members ordered to do the same even as they ride together in the cars that accompany the peloton.

Team doctors have had to complete daily health checklists for every rider and staff member so they can be isolated if any symptoms of possible infection appear. Prudhomme, the race director, was allowed to return Tuesday only after self-isolating and testing negative.

Besides Bernal’s collapse Sunday, another surprise this year has been the poor performance of French riders, several of whom were favorites for the yellow jersey or the podium. Through 16 stages, there isn’t a single Frenchman in the top 10.

One French favorite, Romain Barnet, dropped out after sustaining a concussion in a crash. Another, Thibault Pinot, crashed on the first day and never seemed to regain his stride. He lost all hope of winning when he was left behind in Stage 8, losing more than 25 minutes in a single day, and said his only goal now was to finish the race.

“The Tour is not over,” he said after dropping out of contention last week. “I never thought about quitting.”

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