For health workers, the pandemic Tour de France is a big ask

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Caregiver Maude Leneveu, left, and union representative Corinne Bryand, pose outside the Pasteur hospital where they work in Nice, southern France, and where the Tour de France is racing this week-end, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. Both say the race should go ahead, despite increasing infections in France's battle against the coronavirus. (AP Photo/John Leicester)

NICE – Surely too busy racing to notice, the 176 riders who started the Tour de France on Saturday sped close to a sprawling hospital where caregiver Maude Leneveu is still reeling from furious months treating patients stricken and dying from COVID-19.

After her 12-hour days of cleaning their bedpans, changing the sheets, feeding them and trying to calm their fears, she’d then go home to breastfeed her baby daughter.

“We’re all exhausted,” the 30-year-old Leneveu says.

With coronavirus infections picking up again across France and her hospital in the Mediterranean city of Nice preparing for a feared second wave of patients by readying respirators and other gear, Leneveu suspects she might soon be called back to the coronavirus front lines. That would ruin her hopes of taking a short holiday after the Tour leaves Nice on Monday and heads deeper into France, after two days of racing around the city.

But while no fan of the race herself, and despite the health risks of pushing ahead with cycling’s greatest roadshow i n the midst of the pandemic, Leneveu is adamant that the three-week Tour must go on, because “life must continue."

“These are already tough times and it will be very, very hard to endure over the long term if, on top of all this, we don’t allow people to escape via the television, with events like this,” she said. “Many of my family members adore it and they would have been very sad if there’d been no Tour de France, because it’s emblematic.”

That the Tour, delayed from July, survived the health crisis that wiped out scores of other sporting events testifies to the emotional, political and economic clout steadily accumulated by the race during its 117-year history, both in France and beyond.

For race organizers and the French government, the reward of successfully steering the Tour to the finish in Paris on Sept. 20 will be a striking message — that the country is getting back on its feet after the first deadly wave of infections and learning to live with its epidemic that has claimed more than 30,500 lives in France.