Late but alive, Tour de France races into COVID epidemic

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Alexander Kristoff of Norway, left, celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the first stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 156 kilometers (97 miles) with start and finish in Nice, southern France, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool)

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NICE, France (AP) — Delayed but alive again and out on French roads, the strangest Tour de France ever set off Saturday in a bubble of anti-COVID protocols to try to keep the 176 riders virus-free for three weeks of racing through the country’s worsening epidemic.

Only after riders peeled off their face masks and raced off from the start in the Mediterranean city of Nice, serenaded by a uniformed band playing “La Marseillaise,” did the Tour begin to look like its old, pre-COVID self, immediately delivering thrills and spills as storms made the roads as slippy as ice.

But with fans kept firmly at arm’s length, told by the government that it was best to stay home and watch the racing on television, the Tour lost much of its festive atmosphere. There was very little of the usual up-close communing between athletes and their adoring public that made the venerable 117-year-old rolling roadshow so unique among sports events in more carefree times.

Powering past thin crowds on the finishing straight in Nice that would usually have been many rows deep, Norwegian rider Alexander Kristoff won the first stage with a fearsome final sprint. He celebrated by giving a COVID-sensible fist-bump to a teammate.

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