Paris (AFP)

A break of 139 days: world cycling, at a standstill since the last Paris-Nice stage on March 14, resumes its thread on Saturday with the Strade Bianche in Italy and the first French race of the summer, the Route from Occitanie.

For nearly five months, the peloton chomped at the bit. The runners spent most of their time on a home trainer and then, around mid-May for the most part, returned to training outdoors. Back on an unprecedented period for a strange season.

An elite calendar almost saved but hyper-dense

The first victim of Covid-19, the Strade Bianche race, on overheated Tuscan dirt roads in the heart of summer, also marks the return of the WorldTour.

For a bit, we could believe the tradition respected with, to follow, Milan-Sanremo on August 8.

Mistake. The mythical "classicissima" keeps only the barely increased distance (299 km anyway!) And the final, by the Cipressa and the Poggio, to reach Sanremo. For the rest, it must change its route because of the prohibition of passage decreed by several mayors of the Ligurian coast so as not to add to the traffic difficulties during the summer period.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) tried to squeeze in the maximum number of events in a hundred days. But it recorded forfeits from races condemned by the health policy of their respective countries, especially in Germany, or by the effect of already exacerbated competition. In the coming period, the teams will be called upon on two or even three simultaneous fronts.

France at the heart of the system

Many teams have tried to limit travel as much as possible, as have the runners. Vincenzo Nibali, one of the few big names in the peloton to skip the Tour de France (August 29 to September 20), opted for a 100% Italian program, with the exception of the world championship scheduled for the 27 September in Switzerland.

In the same spirit, the formations of the first favorites of the Tour (Bernal for Ineos, Roglic for Jumbo) have chosen France to set up a training camp and to also be able to carry out the course reconnaissance.

At the beginning of August, the Route d'Occitanie (Bernal, Froome, Pinot, Bardet) and the Tour de l'Ain (Bernal, Thomas, Roglic, Quintana) took advantage of the situation and displayed exceptional plateaus. Just like the Dauphiné which will bring together from August 12 almost all the candidates for the yellow jersey.

Because, more than ever, the Tour concentrates desires on the part of the teams, for the stages and / and the general classification. Patrick Lefevere, the boss of Deceuninck, can only admit it: "We know the weight the Tour has in world cycling."

Froome, coronavirus: unanswered questions

During the forced break, no answer was given to questions that arose at the start of the season. Other questions were even added. So for Chris Froome, the four-time Briton winner of the Tour whose transfer to the Israel SN team for 2021 and the following seasons was announced on July 9. Will it be operational at the highest level after its serious fall in June 2019? Will he even be selected by his Ineos team, which already lines up the last two Tour winners (Bernal, Thomas)?

Above the peloton hovers the threat of a truncated recovery. "The risks exist, every race is at risk", recently conceded the president of the UCI, David Lappartient, in the Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport.

The UCI also announced this week to tighten its health protocol. At the Tour de Burgos, which has been taking place since Tuesday, the Spanish public has become accustomed to seeing riders from a distance, masked except in the race.

Away from supporters and the media, high-level cycling has entered its bubble.

© 2020 AFP