CARCASSONNE, France (VN) – The start of stage 14 looked like a typical transition day at the halfway point of the Tour de France.
The riders got off the team bus, fans cheered them on as they pedaled towards the entry ceremony, and fans cheered them on as they walked back.
While things may appear like a normal tour this year, especially with fans allowed to return to start and finish and along the route, this is still a COVID tour.
Runners are masked, COVID-19 checks are still ongoing, and social distancing measures are being vigorously enforced.
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The 2021 Tour de France could see as in the pre-pandemic times, with enthusiastic supporters along the roads and leaning over the barriers, the race remains firmly behind closed doors for a key player: the media.
No one likes to hear the media complaining about things about the Tour de France.
After all, anyone with one of the most sought-after journalistic titles enjoys a front row seat to witness one of the sport’s most spectacular shows.
Yet the very nature of media and how it works changed dramatically over the past year, and all of these restrictions remain in place in 2021.
And many fear that it will stay that way and never return to the way it was before.
The media of the Tour de France in the era of COVID
Since its founding, the Tour and the media have been joined at the hip.
In fact, the race largely started as a publicity stunt to boost newspaper sales over a century ago. Journalists in a bike race usually have much more access and contact with the main players than in any other sport.
Imagine running out onto the pitch to interview Pele after he scores the game-winning goal, and that’s what reporters got used to doing moments after Chris Froome got the yellow jersey.
Before COVID, the media had pretty much carte blanche in the Tour de France.
Journalists can ride the team buses in the paddock, stroll around the registration area, have coffee in the start village and even have a last-minute chat with a runner or sports directors as they line up. for a step.
At the finish line, the media would form a foaming crowd scene to capture that raw, uncensored emotion that comes with winning and losing. Team buses were magnets after the stage to talk to riders, sport directors, team managers, coaches, doctors, trainers, mechanics and even bus drivers.
Reporters could even visit the team’s hotels to follow the gossip or arrange a longer after-dinner interview with a star.
– Tour de France ™ (@LeTour) July 10, 2021
How does the media work today?
Under the guise of COVID rules, everything is strictly prohibited except a designated mixed media zone at departure and arrival.
Journalists passing health checks are allowed to stand in designated bins along a fenced-in media chute where riders are required to pass – but not stop – at the start and finish of each stage .
Journalists can ask for a quick note from the team’s PR staff before the start, but it’s increasingly difficult for the media to get more than a few brief comments with key riders. Athletic directors and managers, so important to understanding a team’s broader tactics and ambitions, rarely make their way to the media area.
Post-race press conferences are typically limited to around five questions via video link from the finish line, where journalists are strictly prohibited, and only a few pool photographers and TV crews are allowed in.
So right now it is very difficult for the media to do their job, or at least to do their job as they have been used to for a long time.
There are workarounds, of course. Journalists work with their sources in different ways through their smartphones or in WhatsApp conversations with runners or staff.
But it’s just not the same. Why?
Of course, there are a few sound bites here and there, and sometimes a press conference will deliver a few zingers, but the real job of journalists is being able to ask questions of managers and staff around team buses, to ask questions about tactics, equipment, or opinions about their rivals.
Keeping journalists parked in mixed media areas makes it more difficult to ask more pointed questions about doping or even to broach the subject. It’s too easy for the team’s PR staff to keep runners and managers away from reporters or limit access or screening questions.
What will be lost?
By now, the Tour de France media have broadly accepted the restrictions as everyone knows this was the only way the Tour could perform in a pandemic. Everyone was ready to make their sacrifice for the greater good of the race.
After nearly two years of working under restrictions, however, many are starting to fear the COVID media rules will become permanent.
If you privately ask teams or riders what they think about media restrictions, many will tell you they prefer it. Staffs and riders can work and prepare for a stage at the start and recover after a race at the finish far from the prying eyes of the media.
With the closure of the paddock, VIPs and fans are also kept out, which means teams can work in relative peace. At present, only a selected French television team is allowed in the teams area.
– Emily Brammeier (@EmilyBrammPR) July 4, 2021
Some reporters will say the mixed zone isn’t that bad, with all the runners basically coming towards them instead of waiting outside a team bus for just 30 minutes for a runner to say ‘they are late for registration, and have no time to speak.
In today’s ever-changing media landscape, it’s teams and riders who take control of their own media message. With Instagram, Twitter, and a host of other social media sites, they can communicate directly with their fans and bypass the traditional media filter.
Most WorldTour teams have full media teams, with at least one field media manager, as well as photographers, video teams, and social media staff in offices to create and manage the image. team public.
So keeping the media out of the pens and the finish lines, and locked in a mixed media area, is fine for them.
With so much information already rife in the 24/7 news cycle, some might wonder what is lost if a few curious reporters can’t ask their questions?
Well, it is thanks to a few journalists that at least a few doping-related questions have been asked during this Tour de France.
Many criticize the media for not being aggressive enough against suspected performance, but with today’s restrictive media environment, it is even more difficult to ask questions.
Some are looking back at some of the high-profile doping scandals of the Tour’s past as an example of what will be missing if the media is kept at bay.
The city of Pau, for example, was the scene of many dramatic moments, with the media attacking Lance Armstrong and Michael Rasmussen directly.
One reporter suggested that if it hadn’t been for the incessant media prying in 2007, Rasmussen might have been able to finish that year’s Tour de France and win the yellow jersey.
Ultimately, it was the action of the police and the courts that ultimately unraveled some of the worst doping scandals, but the media played a key role.
Right now, with the media locked in their press boxes, limited to one or two questions, journalists are struggling to support the case.
Tour officials insist the media will see a return to normal once the health situation changes.
However, some fear that the teams – which are trying to monetize access to their athletes – and the UCI will not care if the media remain locked in their boxes.