Socially-distanced spectators watch the Tour de France start from Nice

The Tour de France set off from the Mediterranean city of Nice on Saturday in a bubble of anti-COVID protocols to try to keep the 176 riders virus-free.

Socially-distanced spectators turned up to see "Le Grand Depart" in a much more muted atmosphere than normal.

Only after riders peeled off their face masks and raced from the starting line, serenaded by a uniformed band playing "La Marseillaise,'' did the Tour begin to look like its old, pre-COVID self.

A few hours later, powering past thin crowds on the finishing straight in Nice that would usually have been many rows deep, Norwegian rider Alexander Kristoff won the first stage with a fearsome final sprint.

For the next three weeks the riders will try to race along the country's roads during the pandemic, but no one yet knows whether the race will reach the finish line in Paris intact.