• Team Cofidis rider France's Guillaume Martin (R) rides during the fifth stage of the 72nd edition of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling race (AFP)Source: AFP
It's almost time for the Tour de France Grand Depart, it's September, both of the main favourites for yellow in Paris are coming off injuries, COVID is spiking in France, and the spectre of teams being thrown out or the race being cancelled entirely looms large. Yes, it's definitely 2020, but that's not all bad news.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

29 Aug 2020 - 10:30 AM  UPDATED 29 Aug 2020 - 10:31 AM

There's a sign at SBS that sits at the bottom of the main flight of stairs and directs the flow of people around the Artarmon studios. It reads 'This is a one-way staircase. 2020 huh?'.

Bushfires, coronavirus crisis and lockdown have turned the year into a curious cocktail of a series of cancelled events, limited freedom, boredom, and fear of what's around the corner. Social media brings an unhealthy mix of hyperbole, vitriol and self-righteousness. Even signs at work deliver sass.

Thankfully a tonic to our ills is present, the Tour de France. Unlike normal life, watching the unknown with a bit of danger thrown in as people try to come to terms with changing circumstances is very compelling.

A retreat for three weeks into the mountains and farmlands of France, into a battle for coloured jerseys, one of the greatest physical tests known to man, a captivating spectacle that will allow an escape from the humdrum of Zoom meetings and worrying exactly how close that approaching unmasked person on the footpath is about to get.

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The Tour is not immune to the coronavirus, and it will shape/mar/place in context the 2020 edition of the race. Starting off from one of the declared COVID-19 hotspots in Nice, and in the midst of a nation-wide spike in infections which hit 7,379 cases on the eve of the Grand Depart.

Alongside the normal tension of finding out what's going to happen in the competitive battle on the roads of France, the invisible tension and threat of coronavirus cancellation pervades the race. Roadside fans will be at a minimum, along the colour and noise they bring.

So, what can we expect from the 2020 edition of the Tour de France? 

No INEOS Grenadiers dominance. You remember that team that's won six of the past seven Tour de France? They may win this year, but what is gone is the British team having a stranglehold on the race, choking the life out of it by the attrition of their never-ending series of riders on the front of the peloton.

We saw last year that their grip on power was starting to become a bit more tenuous, only for Bernal and Thomas to finish 1-2. This time, Egan Bernal comes into the race with questions over his health and form, Richard Carapaz was preparing for a different race this time two weeks ago, and Pavel Sivakov hasn't quite put it together at this level yet. No Froome, no Thomas, and Jumbo-Visma comes in with the mantle of favouritism and the expectation of being in control.

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The vacuum created the decline of INEOS Grenadiers should be filled mostly by Jumbo-Visma, but there are plenty of riders looking to step up and make use of a bit more freedom. There are simply too many really good climbers at the race for it to go by a traditional 'wait until the summit finish' and control all the major threats going off the front of the race. Sure, Jumbo-Visma can do a lot of policing of the top 15 or so general classification favourites, but when the fifth move of the stage goes with fringe yellow jersey candidates present, for example, Lennard Kämna (BORA-hansgrohe), Tiesj Benoot (Sunweb) or Sergio Higuita (EF Education First), are they going to use more effort to close things down again? Probably not.

Those three riders named are all on the ascension as stage race riders, all relatively young, and all with good results to their name this year. In a regular year of the Tour, they would well-known as riders to watch, but with the concentration of Grand Tour stars above them this time around, is it finally a time for the Tour where we see a relative unknown high on the general classification after a long break establishes an advantage for them?

Think Richie Porte at the 2010 Giro d'Italia, being launched to prominence by a pair of audacious breakaways, Oscar Perreiro at the 2006 Tour de France, when the peloton thought it was fine to let him get half an hour up the road in the race he eventually won overall. Or think back to just the other week, when Daniel Martinez (EF Education First) won the Criterium du Dauphine, the traditional pointer towards what will happen in the Tour!

Finally, everything looks like it's going to be closer and more exciting. There's an entire article on why the green jersey battle isn't a lock for Sagan this year, so I won't dwell on that here, but things are shaping up for an interesting fight for the king of the mountains title as well.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Adam Yates and Esteban Chaves (both Mitchelton-Scott) have all said that they will eschew a challenge for yellow to attack and take stage wins, which is also a good way to get into the fight for the polka dots.

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So, the Tour comes to us in September this year, has the constant threat of cancellation, is crammed full of general classification riders, all at a time when the dominant team of the generation is losing its aura of unbeatability. Just one of those factors would normally be race-defining, but with them all coming at once, it promises an unpredictability that we haven't seen for years at the Tour. 

What is predictable is that we'll have a great product on our screens. I've been witness to just some of the efforts that have been made by SBS production, editorial and management staff to make sure we get to see the Tour de France broadcast and surrounding goodies ready to go, bigger and better than before. The best on-screen talent in the business will bring you the action from what could be one of the most chaotic Tours in memory.

Let's see what 2020 serves up.

Coverage of Stage 1 of the Tour de France begins tonight at 9.00pm AEST on SBS On Demand, SBS HD and the ŠKODA Tour Tracker. La Course begins at 6.00pm on SBS On Demand, 7.30pm of SBS HD. Full stage details here for every stage broadcast