Cazouls-lès-Béziers (France) (AFP)

The peloton, few public and many masks: the first race since March and confinement, the Route d'Occitanie, started Saturday four weeks from the Tour de France with an abundance of precautions in Saint-Affrique (Aveyron) where the health issue was on everyone's mind.

"If you want to stay near the buses, wear the mask and not on your chin but on your nose. Otherwise, it's no use." Around Ineos' bus, Sir Dave Brailsford himself, manager of the most dominant team in cycling, police journalists tempted to ventilate their lower faces in the heat of the parking lot already heated by the Sun.

A reminder that if cycling in France has resumed its rights, the continuation of the season will depend on compliance with the health protocols in place. The public, limited in number near the starting line above the Sorgue, is also required to wear a mask. As for access to the area where the teams' coaches are parked, this is just a memory of the world before.

"We suffer but we understand", summarizes Daniel Contejean, 75, who came from Millau 30 minutes away who does not despair of seeing Thibaut Pinot. "He's going to have to come and get his bike," he reassures himself, pointing at his mount about ten meters away.

"I really want it to be punctual because cycling is the popular sport par excellence, explains Romain Bardet. I hope that these barrier gestures will not take our fans away from the side of the roads for too long. We must keep this conviviality, this enthusiasm between runners and followers. "

The familiar atmosphere of cycling that the unchanging voice of Daniel Mangeas, speaker of the Tour for more than forty years, comes to recall in the walls of the reduced departure village.

- "we can do it" -

"If everyone does the right thing - and it's not complicated - we can get there", wants to believe Dave Brailsford, acknowledging that even by doing the "maximum", "there are still risks ".

Same optimism displayed by Marc Madiot, the boss of the French team Groupama-FDJ: "What we do in the bicycle can hardly be extended to the whole of society but it is an extremely secure scheme".

"The runners have constraints, not trivial, but they know why they do it, they know that it goes through there", plants the president of the union of runners UNCP, Pascal Chanteur, whose organization was associated by the Union international cyclist (UCI) in the development of the health protocol. A document which notably provides for tests at regular intervals and the establishment of a "race bubble" during competitions.

And gives rise to more constraints for the towns along the route. Not enough to put off Philippe Vidal, mayor of Cazouls-lès-Béziers, 5,000 inhabitants and the first town to welcome the arrival of a race since March.

"I did not hesitate for a single second," he told AFP. Even if the health crisis forced him to "order 10,000 masks, hire more barriers and mobilize more municipal officials" to organize the event.

"When a moment like that comes, we have to be there, he says. And in a way, we are rewarded because we have a dream line this year." With Egan Bernal, Chris Froome, Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Miguel Angel Lopez, the next winner of the Tour may be on the Route d'Occitanie until Tuesday.

© 2020 AFP