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The Tour de France rolls out from the French Riviera on Saturday, two months later than planned and under the shadow of a coronavirus pandemic which could still shatter hopes of the world's greatest bike race making it to the Paris finish line in three weeks' time.

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Originally slated for June, stage one of the three-week epic over the peaks and plains of France embarks from Nice's iconic Promenade des Anglais for a 154km loop likely to end in the kind of mass bunch sprint which is tailor-made for a global TV audience tuning in from 190 countries.

However, coronavirus still has the race in its grip.

On Thursday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex put Nice on a Covid-19 "red zone" list with tightened health protocols.

Meanwhile, any team that has two riders test positive will be expelled from the Tour.

In a worrying appetiser, Belgian team Lotto have already sent home four of its staff after one positive test and one "suspicious" result.

Saturday's Promenade des Anglais start line in Nice will allow just 100 spectators.

'The Tour de France is really the lungs of cycling throughout the world'

Crowd limits

Throughout the Tour, a virus testing cell will travel with the teams.

The pandemic means a very different looking Tour this year for riders and fans.

Current French government law limits public gatherings to 5,000.

That means a cataclysmic change for organisers, with some climbs in previous years attracting hundreds of thousands of people along the roadsides.

"Yes, the public will have access to the Tour de France," Tour chief Christian Prudhomme told AFP.

"But there will be screening areas at the start and finish areas to allow the current government maximum of 5,000 fans.

"Screening will also be in place in the 20-or-so climbs and passes," Prudhomme added, explaining that "in certain places, only people on foot, by bicycle or who come on public transport set up by the hosting towns or villages can go to the passes."

Health and safety protocols for riders and teams involve them being kept in a bubble and tested several times, with the smallest possible interaction between respective bubbles.

Selfies will be frowned upon.

Dave Brailsford, the head of Team Ineos which has gobbled up seven of the last eight Tour de France titles, admitted there remains uncertainty over the race getting to the Champs-Elysees on September 20.

"If there comes a point when it becomes too much of a risk for riders and teams, to society in general, then people need to take that on board," he said.

Brailsford has, incidentally, dropped two former Tour winners, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

David Lappartient, the president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), warned teams to be vigilant.

"There is no such thing as zero risk," he said.

"It is not impossible that some teams do not get to the end.

"But with respect for the rules, we should not come to that."

On Saturday the riders will attempt to think only of the challenge ahead.

Lotto-Soudal's diminutive Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan, who stands at 5ft 5in (1.65m), is a red hot favourite to win the openerRead More – Source