It would be a “miracle” if this year’s Tour de France finishes, the head of the world governing body for competitive cycling has warned, after a surge in coronavirus cases prompted a rule change.
There was an unusually subdued atmosphere as the race began in Nice on Saturday amid fears the 176 riders may not make it to the finishing line in Paris.
Union Cycliste Internationale president David Lappartient said it was “a first miracle that we are able to start this race”.
“But we want a second miracle to happen, which is the Tour de France to arrive in Paris,” he added.
French sports minister Jean-Michel Blanquer struck a more upbeat tone, saying that while “everything is possible” the chances of the Tour being cancelled before reaching Paris were “very slim”.
France faces an infection rate which is steadily rising, with a post-lockdown high of 7,379 new cases recorded on Friday.
In light of the resurgence, health authorities imposed stricter restriction rules on the race hours before it began.
The new rules state an entire team – which consists of eight riders and 22 staff members – will be expelled from the race if two or more members test positive for COVID-19 within a week.
This rule previously applied only to riders.
Given four members of the Lotto Soudal team were sent home on Thursday after a mechanic and a caretaker tested positive, the change will reduce the chances of the peloton reaching the Champs-Elysees in three weeks’ time.
The Lotto Soudal team remained in the race because the changes were not enacted until Saturday.
Since its inception in 1903, the race has only been cancelled during the two world wars. But organisers admitted there is a risk it won’t reach Paris as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
France’s health ministry said the country was seeing an “exponential” spread of cases, though there had not been a similar surge in hospitalisations and deaths.
President Emmanuel Macron has raised the possibility of another nationwide lockdown – days before 12 million children are due to return to school.
Like other hard-hit western European countries, France imposed a sudden and strict lockdown in March.
These were gradually lifted from May 11 after infections sharply dropped, and Mr Macron said he is “doing everything to avoid another lockdown”.
On Friday, the outdoor wearing of masks was made compulsory in Paris.
Some 267,000 coronavirus cases and 30,596 deaths linked to the illness have been recorded across the country.