The feeling is that it’s all balancing on a knife-edge.
Yet much was the same at the annual Tour de France team presentation. The acrobatic BMX display soundtracked by – you guessed it – Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’. Bald men banging on graffiti-painted rubbish bins à la Stomp. Hordes of children performing a breakdancing routine. And don’t you dare forget the beatboxers.
The only tangible difference was the sea of masks – now mandatorily worn when outside in Nice – almost as if a higher power who fancies themselves as a race organiser was thinking of how to up the stakes from the stage-ending landslide of 2019 and could only plump for a global pandemic.
Two powercuts mid-ceremony were two unwelcome reminders that the lights could go off at any minute. Nairo Quintana was on stage during the first one, the Colombian waving to the crowd during the brief pause, yet it was impossible to tell whether it was a wave hello or goodbye.
Of course, Nice was the location where it all shut down the first time, with Paris-Nice juddering to a halt ahead of the global lockdown, and the city is now once again on red alert as coronavirus cases spike in France. But ASO have returned to the Mediterranean with reinforcements.
Compulsory masks, team “bubbles”, gallons of hand sanitiser, oodles of barriers to separate teams from everyone else. But most fittingly, the place they have set up shop to hand out accreditations and conduct meetings with participating teams is the Nice Congress and Exhibition Centre – also known as the Acropolis. The hope of the race organisation surely being this metaphorical fortification will survive the continued bombardment of a global pandemic.
Peter Sagan gets on to the stage, his rather fetching Batman’s Joker ‘Why So Serious?’ mask replaced by one simply reading ‘Bonjour Le Tour!’ The exclamation mark is surely not intended to imply surprise that the French Grand Tour continues full steam ahead despite an r-value of 1.4 in the country. Probably also a wise decision from the three-time world champion to remove the iconography of a super-villain who wished to bring misery and untimely death to vast swathes of a population.
Not to fear! The Ineos Grenadiers are here! But wait, they’re not a crime-fighting squad, just a rebrand to promote a new 4×4, the perfect vehicle to scale Colombian mountains in search of more high-altitude genetic marvels to help add to Master Brailsford’s yellow jersey collection.
Of course, if the Ineos riders looked just to the left of the stage, over the crowds of masked people sifting through the cramped streets and peering over the boards to catch a glimpse inside the half-filled team presentation, they would have seen a club shop for OGC Nice, Jim Ratcliffe’s other sporting investment.
The billionaire’s latest car venture is yet to even start production, but it has been “built on purpose”, much to the relief of future consumers terrified at the prospect of an off-road vehicle built on a whim.
Today’s peloton sees a growing number of teams employed as vehicles for good PR for questionable companies or economical soft-power opportunities for morally-challenged states. Is our saviour really only to be found in the supercharged and supermarket-backed yellow wasps of Jumbo-Visma? Meanwhile, Groupama-FDJ avoid ethical examinations as the public step around a homeless man lying up against the barriers of the presentation, resting his head on one of the promotional polka-dot t-shirts.
We’re not supposed to be thinking about him, though, are we? Sport has returned, and as long as the real-world problems that the pandemic did such a good job of highlighting don’t obscure the view from the sofa to the television, then it’s business as usual.
Business as usual involves the French preparing for their second coronavirus lockdown by slowly exploding the confidence of their latest star rider through sheer weight of expectation. England football fans know the feeling well, and they have also grown wary of the south French coast.
While France will surely be hoping Thibaut Pinot is wearing yellow if and when the race is curtailed, it remains to be seen whether the Frenchman can mentally conceive of leaving his quiet life tending his goats behind to become the nation’s champion, regardless of how loud Marc Madiot gets.
Meanwhile, Julian Alaphilippe is forced to wait off the side of the stage from his Deceuninck – Quick-Step team-mates while a montage of his swashbuckling 2019 Tour is replayed before he is then applauded into view to join them.
The “I’m just going for stage wins” soundbite he’s forced to repeat unendingly may be true if his iffy 2020 legs are to be believed, but he could also just be sick of the exaltation any time he so dares to stick his head out where fans can see him.