Back from the brink: Pro cycling’s COVID-19 return
How did cycling make it through 2020? Cautiously, and with lots of hand sanitizer.
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Richard Carapaz squeezed a bottle of sanitizer into his hands as he approached a bank of microphones attached to long fishing pole-like booms. Behind him, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos soared into the baking afternoon sunshine, its Gothic spires a reminder of this Spanish city’s 1,200-year history.
Far below, a scene that was distinct to the year 2020 played out on Burgos’ mostly empty main square. Carapaz spoke softly into the microphones, and his team-issued face mask made his words muffled and barely audible. After another squirt of hand sanitizer, Carapaz pedaled his bicycle over to a doctor, who pointed an infrared thermometer at his forehead. After he was given a verbal “OK,” and after another squirt of hand sanitizer, Carapaz climbed onto a podium to wave to the handful of fans who had come out to watch the Vuelta a Burgos.
The few fans cheered softly through their own face masks and stood in a crowd-controlled, gated area far from the riders. There were no autographs, no selfies. They watched as Carapaz lined up alongside his Team Ineos teammates at the start line, where nobody shook hands. Only when the race began did Carapaz slip the mask into the back of his jersey, and return to the familiar world of the fast-moving peloton.
“Right now I’d say that all the riders feel pretty good about what we’re seeing,” Carapaz said about the safety measures. “You can see that they are following a lot of protocols, and the team is doing the right things. That gives you confidence that we can keep racing.”
Welcome to pro cycling’s new reality in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a world of “bubbles” and sensitive safety measures, set against a veneer of normality and the underlying threat of a second wave of coronavirus infections derailing everything again. The symbols of this new reality are facemasks and hand sanitizer, seen everywhere at the races. Yet this new ecosystem — with its ban on crowds and requirements on health and safety — marks the only way that pro cycling could return during the biggest global crisis of the 21st century.
Cycling tiptoes back into the fray
By late July, the peloton was tiptoeing back to racing following an unprecedented four-month stop. A terrifying COVID-19 outbreak at the UAE Tour in February halted the race in its tracks, and by mid-March, the entirety of Europe was under various stages of lockdown. Wars and weather have stopped the Tour de France before, but there was nothing on this scale in the century-long-plus history of professional bike racing.
Riders in Spain, Italy, Andorra, and France were forced to stay in their homes until May. Zwift races and indoor training replaced the busy racing calendar. Professional cycling was teetering on the edge of collapse as races and teams struggled to survive.
But like a bad storm receding into the rearview mirror, by early June, there was a hint of sunshine on the horizon. Europe was easing restrictions, and infection rates plummeted across pro cycling’s heartland. Europe’s extreme measures paid off, and COVID-19 cases dropped as dramatically as they had risen. Large public gatherings such as concerts or soccer matches were still off-limits, but Europeans returned to work, restaurants reopened, and families hit the beaches.
Cyclists were suddenly off the leash. Riders and staffers ventured to training camps, seeing each other for the first time in months. Simultaneously, debates simmered online about whether the sport should return amid the global pandemic. Was it too risky to bring bike racing back? Would races further spread the deadly virus? Similar to other sports, pro cycling’s dire financial position amid a canceled season helped push stakeholders to proceed. The fragile nature of the WorldTour teams could not withstand a lost season.
“If there is no Tour de France, the whole model of cycling can collapse,” Patrick Lefevere, owner of Deceuninck–Quick-Step said in the Spring. “ASO can take a beating, the teams cannot.”
But how best to return? In a series of Zoom calls, UCI and other stakeholders hammered out a new racing calendar, and introduced an ambitious blueprint for health protocols and safety measures that could reopen the door for a return to competition. The revised calendar prompted plenty of grumbling from fans and team directors, who pointed at the logistical challenges the new calendar created. More than 150 pro races were squeezed onto the schedule from late August through the end of November, with the Giro d’Italia and the major one-day classics being held simultaneously.
“To me and most of the teams, we’re going to be pretty happy if we do the Tour de France and two or three of the monuments,” Jonathan Vaughters of Team EF Education-Nippo told Cyclingnews.com. “Everyone would be happy with that. Let’s just make sure that we race this year and do some good races. Let’s not worry about the quantity, let’s worry about the quality.”
The health plan to bring cycling back received plenty of other criticism. Team doctors met with UCI officials to hear briefs on the latest research around COVID-19, and to discuss ways in which other sports planned to return. The blueprint written up by the UCI for COVID-19 safety was brief, if straightforward. The 15-page document highlighted the creation of “bubbles” within a team to limit outside exposure. Teams and riders would need to be tested regularly for the virus, and each race would have to appoint a COVID-19 “Czar” to oversee the testing procedures.
If there is no Tour de France, the whole model of cycling can collapse.
“The final document that came out of it, from a 30,000-foot view, does some good things in establishing a COVID-19 coordinator and laying out specifics around testing,” said Kevin Sprouse, the team doctor at EF Education-Nippo. “But there’s a lot of stuff it doesn’t get into.”
The huge requirements for testing placed an enormous financial burden on teams and races. And the new rules provided broad guidance for how to handle fans along the road, among other areas of potential transmission. Still, riders in the peloton were quietly optimistic that racing — albeit altered to reflect the new realities of a world pandemic — could resume before summer was out.
After these changes were approved, the tiny Vuelta a Burgos — a race usually sandwiched between the end of the Tour de France and the start of the Vuelta a España — was suddenly center-stage. When the racing calendar collapsed, the Burgos dates stayed put. So when the revised calendar was scripted, the five-day Burgos tour suddenly found itself right at the front of the line.
In typical years, the race drew Movistar and maybe one or two big names. For 2020 some 14 WorldTour teams converged on Spain’s sunbaked northern meseta. Top stars like Carapaz, Mikel Landa, Mark Cavendish, and Remco Evenepoel showed up. It was the first major European stage race since Paris-Nice ended in mid-March.
“It feels really good to get back on the bike again,” Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss told VeloNews. “I think we have to take it race by race. Everybody is in the same boat. Everyone wants to start strong because even though we have a calendar, nothing is for sure. With these safety measures, it’s a big step. You have to stay optimistic at least.”
Suddenly, all eyes within the cycling world were on this small event in Spain. Would the race’s COVID-19 protocols hold up? Would riders and fans be safe? The stakes couldn’t have been higher.
Creating a “bubble”
Preparations for the Vuelta a Burgos, which ran from July 28 to August 1, began weeks in advance. By late May, conditions had improved enough that local health authorities and politicians gave the green light for the race. After months of demoralizing race cancellations and rescheduling, simply having Burgos on the calendar was a ray of light for the entire peloton.
With the help from staffers from the Vuelta a España, Burgos race officials began working closely with teams to pull off the impossible. By June, the UCI introduced its coronavirus protocols, and that put the wheels into motion.
“We worked harder on this edition than any in our race history,” said race director Marcos Moral. “Our biggest fear was the questions about the larger health situation. We were always confident we could pull off the race to meet the standards set out by the UCI and the other authorities. Everyone rose to the occasion.”
Moral estimated that it cost the race an additional $70,000 to meet the requirements introduced as part of the UCI’s COVID-19 protocols. Those costs included extra staff, more fencing and security than usual, as well as a battery of pre-race COVID-19 controls for its staff, plus an expanded medical team. He added it was a small price to pay to have the race unfold without major incident.
There were a few hiccups out of the gate. Israel Start-Up Nation ended up pulling two riders out of the race before it started, and UAE-Team Emirates also yanked three riders out after the first stage. All the riders had come into contact with someone else who had returned a positive result for COVID-19. A series of follow-up controls revealed that none of the five riders tested positive, but everyone was on the edge of their seats. It was better safe than sorry, but everyone also knew that a positive COVID-19 case could torpedo the return to racing.
“We took a bullet for the race, and maybe tomorrow, some other team will have to do the same,” said UAE-Emirates sport director Neil Stephens about why it pulled out its riders. “If everyone works together, and everyone does things in the right way, we can see a lot of racing this season. Everyone is in the same boat.”
The race also required everyone, from staffers to journalists to race officials, to present official documentation demonstrating that they had tested negative for COVID-19 at least 72 hours before the race. Riders had to undergo two COVID-19 controls, at three days and six days before the race, to be allowed to start.
Following these protocols will cost money, but that's OK with us. Not racing at all would cost us even more.
Teams grumbled at the growing costs of the health controls, particularly the COVID-19 tests that cost nearly $200 each because samples had to be shipped overnight to labs. Even before Burgos, teams had introduced a series of controls to create their own insular “bubbles,” a sort of COVID-19-free work space where everyone inside of it — from riders to sport directors to soigneurs and bus drivers — were absent of the virus. Some squads put the protocol price tag as high as $100,000 per team for the season. But team sources said that was simply a cross to bear in extraordinary times.
“It’s really a lot of money,” Jumbo-Visma manager Richard Plugge told VeloNews. “Following these protocols will cost money, but that’s OK with us. Not racing at all would cost us even more.”
Riders and staffers, however, later said that the health protocols were not that dramatically different than what many teams were already doing. Since racers are always on the edge of falling ill, especially when their systems are at the breaking point deep into a stage race, many of the COVID-19 protocols were simply built on top of what many teams already had in place.
“We’ve been using hand sanitizer for the past five years,” said Team Ineos sport director Brett Lancaster. “We’ve always had our own chef, and we’ve always been very careful about keeping hotel rooms and the buses very clean. The biggest changes for us are the facemasks, social distancing, and the COVID-19 tests. Other than that, it’s been pretty close to business as usual.”
Fending off COVID-19
Among the first series of races, each organizer handled things a bit differently. At Burgos, fans and media were allowed so long as they wore face masks and respected social distancing rules. At Strade Bianche, held days later, organizers closed off the entire Piazza del Campo in downtown Siena to fans. The Tour of Poland, which saw a horrific finish-line crash in stage 1, banned media and fans outright. The Tour de France was planning on closing off the team bus parking area to fans and media, and only allow fans to walk or ride their bikes to the key mountain top finishes.
Those steps were all part of a larger plan on how to race during the midst of a world pandemic.
All eyes were on Burgos because it was the first to roll out many of the new UCI-mandated protocols and policies. A key figure at any race in the coming months is the role of “COVID-19 Czar,” a point-person inside the organization that coordinates and ultimately decides what happens in a race.
Esther Martínez, a Spanish doctor, was designated as the race’s COVID-19 coordinator at Burgos, and worked closely with race organizers, UCI officials, team doctors, staffers, and racers to assure a safe and healthy race environment.
“We were confident that the rules in place and the other protocols that were introduced would allow us to hold the race in a safe and responsible manner,” Martínez told VeloNews. “It was important that everyone was working together in a transparent way. Trust was key.”
As part of the protocol, team doctors are required to fill out a questionnaire every day for their racers. The checklist includes temperature and other health checks, as well as monitoring any symptoms of a possible infection. That information is shared among the race medical staff, which also do another level of monitoring before and after each stage.
Burgos, like many of the other early races, got lucky. There were no positive coronavirus cases during the five days of racing in Spain. Was she worried that a longer stage race, such as a three-week grand tour, would be any different?
“We believe if the ‘bubbles’ remain intact, the racing can be safe,” she said. “The bigger danger to the race is what is happening outside the race. If there is an active outbreak in the larger community, there is no question that the race needs to be stopped or rescheduled.”
Going into Burgos, another big question mark was what would happen if a rider tested positive for COVID-19 during the race. Martínez said that the rider would be removed from the race, and that contact tracing would be carried out to test all other teammates and staffers for possible infection. Even with a positive case, that would not necessarily mean that the entire race would be canceled. Martínez revealed to VeloNews that the Burgos contingency plan would have called for outright cancelation of the race if three riders from three different teams would have tested positive for COVID-19.
Terminating the race wasn’t something the Burgos organizers wanted to do. But they were prepared to do it.
We were confident that the rules in place and the other protocols that were introduced would allow us to hold the race in a safe and responsible manner.
Plenty of potential pitfalls
When VeloNews went to press in mid-August, there were troubling signs across a few hotspots in Europe that suggested that everything wasn’t going to go as planned.
Just a week after the Burgos tour ended, a town near the start of the final stage saw a wave of new infections, prompting health officials to impose a two-week lockdown, the first in Spain since conditions eased this spring. Other parts of Spain were so bad that officials were considering reintroducing restrictions, and a host of European nations imposed quarantines on tourists returning from Spain.
Parts of France, Belgium, and Italy — nations all hosting major races in the coming months — were also seeing alarming spikes of new cases. Was it the first signs of a feared second wave? Or could the European health authorities react fast enough to keep things tamped down?
There was a sense of underlying doom mixed in with the initial wave of optimism.
“No one’s expecting smooth sailing from here through all the way to the end of the Vuelta in November,” said Mitchelton-Scott’s Matt White. “When you look at the bubbles inside the race and inside the teams, one of the safest places to be at the moment is a bike race. Because you know the people sitting around you at the dinner table, your teammates, your staff, have all been tested. Most of the general public haven’t had tests, and here we do.”
Still, there was no hiding the joy riders and staffers felt during the Vuelta a Burgos. After months of being chained up inside, they were freed. Racers delivered on their end of the bargain, and served up five exciting days of racing.
That morning ritual with Carapaz, when he was applying hand sanitizer at every turn and wearing a facemask, played out over the next several weeks as the peloton cautiously and anxiously settled into a new normal.
Throughout August, racing resumed across the men’s and women’s calendars. Though there were a few hiccups out of the gates — particularly with delays in returning required pre-race COVID-19 screenings from busy labs — it seemed to work.
Evenepoel went on to win the Burgos tour. Annemiek van Vleuten reeled off four straight victories on the women’s side in July and August. Strade Bianche and the Route d’Occitanie, won in dramatic fashion by Egan Bernal (Ineos), led into Milano-Sanremo and the Critérium du Dauphiné. The Tour de France loomed. Maybe, just maybe, this was going to work.
“With the protocol, everything was pretty fine,” Evenepoel said. “It was better that we do it like this than not having any races. I accept the protocols and whatever it takes, so long as we can keep racing.”
For a sport that is all about sacrifice, suffering, and hard work, the idea of wearing a face mask and using handfuls of hand sanitizer seemed like a small price to pay. Still, the sport’s longstanding structural challenges, caused by the independent nature of its teams, race promoters, and governing body, presented a looming challenge to COVID-19 safety. At some point, the virus was bound to test the resolve of pro cycling in 2020, and nobody knew for sure how each entity might react in such a situation.
Whether cycling’s COVID-19 roadmap is enough to steer the sport through the treacherous road remains to be seen. As the Tour de France appeared like the promised land, everyone inside the peloton worked hard to keep their bubbles, and their racing ambitions, intact.