Culture

How COVID-19 brought the 2020 cycling season to a halt

From the positive cases at the UAE Tour to the canceled final stage at Paris-Nice, the story of how pro cycling's 2020 season halted due to COVID-19.

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This story begins at 10:04 p.m. on the night of February 27th. An email goes out to everyone inside the UAE Tour entourage with a short but ominous message in bold-faced type:

Do not leave the hotel tonight under any circumstances.

Within hours, the mounting outbreak of the novel coronavirus is no longer a blip on the radar, confined to provinces in central China. The virus is now in the midst of pro cycling’s star riders at one of the sport’s biggest races.

What follows is an improvised and haphazard lockdown at two luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi that sees riders and staffers quarantined for weeks, with little or no contact with the outside world. This action is a precursor to what hits the entire cycling world, and the world at large, in the coming week.

In the following days, cycling learns how and why it is more susceptible than other pro sports to the invisible danger presented by COVID-19 and other pathogens. The sport’s biggest races are halted, riders are quarantined, and entire squads pull out of competition. Internal debates rage within the sport about whether to proceed with races, or whether to cancel the season altogether.

Over the course of two weeks, the mounting outbreak brings pro cycling to a halt, and exposes some basic, if tough to acknowledge, truths about professional cycling.

That larger whirlwind begins on that night in Abu Dhabi, as most of the pro cycling world sleeps. In this reported feature, VeloNews takes you inside the key moments leading up to the biggest threat to face pro cycling in more than half a century: COVID-19.

UCI President David Lappartient
UCI President David Lappartient during the 2020 Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin on March 1, 2020. Photo: Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Berlin, February 28

Far away in Europe, the 2020 track cycling world championships are nearing the end of the second day of competition when word of the UAE Tour’s halting hits the wires. Riders coming off the boards are asked about a possible cancellation of the Olympic Games, not about the race they just completed.

“We hope the games are not canceled,” says Malaysian sprinter Mohd Azizulhasni bin Awang, bronze medalist in Berlin in the keirin and match sprint. “For track racing, missing the Olympics would be a disaster.” Michael Mørkøv, a Dane who had raced the opening stages of the UAE Tour and who had flown to Berlin to race the Madison, is placed into voluntary lockdown for 36 hours before being cleared to race. Like a turtle on its back, the unique vulnerability to pro racing’s far-flung calendar is suddenly revealed. If containment is the only way to curb the spread of the disease, then how can racing possibly continue?

UCI president David Lappartient tries to calm the fears, and addresses the reports at the event. “The decision remains in the hands of the health authorities to decide what is the best decision,” Lappartient says. “From our side, we continue to support the events to take place in Italy. The public authorities can decide to stop some sport events, but so far, this does not seem to be the case. So that is why, as of today, these races remain in the UCI calendar.”

Those carefully chosen words come to be harbingers of the future: the situation will be changing by the day. In the weeks ahead, Lappartient will be criticized for not acting soon enough to cancel all events. But on February 28, the Frenchman, like many others in the sport, does not yet know what is coming.

Coronavirus Lockdown at 6th UAE Tour 2020
Riders and staff were prohibited from leaving the race hotel in Abu Dhabi at the UAE Tour. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Abu Dhabi, March 1

Back at the UAE Tour, authorities place two hotels in complete lockdown. Photographs of the lockdown are forbidden as the race entourage undergoes a battery of medical tests in the basement of the hotel. Mauro Vegni, the boss of race organizer RCS Sport, himself asks journalists to sign forms promising not to disclose details of the tests.

A first wave of riders is allowed to leave, and some journalists also hop into a taxi and leave in the middle of the night after they are given clearance. But not everyone is given a green light to go. An early-morning memo halts a group of journalists and staff who are set to leave, and they are held another day. Groupama-FDJ, Gazprom-Rusvelo, and Cofidis are held back.

And then, rumor spreads through the entourage. UAE’s Fernando Gaviria and Max Richeze have both tested positive. The two stars of the sport will remain in a hospital in the UAE for weeks afterward. “I am feeling good,” Gaviria says with a brave face, days later. “I’m [staying] here to avoid infecting other people, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Milan, March 2

Alarm bells blare across Europe. The first cases of coronavirus are detected February 26 in communities south of Milan. Italian health authorities move quickly to place areas in Lombardy and Veneto under lockdown, and concerns grow that the upcoming spring races in Italy could be affected. Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milan-San Remo are on the chopping block.

Critics and even cycling media members dismiss such worries as alarmist, and RCS Sport maintains a public stance that the events will continue. The company sends a message to teams assuring them the March races are still OK. But teams and organizers scramble behind the scenes to adjust calendars. Dutch squad Jumbo-Visma sends classics ace Wout Van Aert to race in Belgium instead of in Italy. “With Van Aert’s start in the Omloop, we anticipate a possible cancellation of other races on his program,” a team statement reads.

Denver, Colorado, March 3

One day after RCS Sport sends its assurances about the March races, American team EF Pro Cycling breaks the stalemate. Team manager Jonathan Vaughters, who had previously tweeted his support for the upcoming races, circulates a team declaration. EF Pro Cycling will not race. The team cites travel advisories and health concerns for its riders and staff: “We think it best to follow this advice and make all efforts to keep our staff and riders healthy and to help ensure they are not at risk of transmitting the virus,” the team says.

Gandia, Spain, March 4

More teams enact racing bans. Jumbo-Visma sidelines its riders not only in Italy, but also for Paris-Nice as well. “This is like a crisis we’ve never seen before,” says Jumbo-Visma sport director Merijn Zeeman. “In our minds, there is no option other than to race, but we must listen to the advice of our medical staff. They all agree it’s best to not put our riders and staff in danger.”

A dozen medical directors from WorldTour teams urge the UCI to postpone racing. Team Ineos, rocked by the sudden death of sport director Nicolas Portal, also parks its riders until late March. Mitchelton-Scott managers hold conference calls between Spain, Italy and Australia. After many hours of debate and consideration, everyone agrees to sideline its program until late March.

“These are not normal circumstances,” says director Matt White. “We don’t want to see a repeat of UAE, and have our team locked down in a quarantine for two weeks.”

Milan, March 6

Behind the scenes, RCS Sport officials scramble to try to save its races. The Italian government issues a decree banning all public events, yet RCS still does not cancel. Finally, after agreeing to postpone Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, a lockdown goes national in Italy. Milano-Sanremo is canceled for the first time since World War II. The gravity of the situation threatens to postpone the cobbled classics and grand tours. There is even talk that the Giro d’Italia could be impacted.

“We will reschedule the races and we are working to save the May 9 start of the Giro,” says Vegni in exasperation.

Paris-Nice 2020 podium
Organizers of Paris-Nice forbade hugs and handshakes during the post-race podium ceremony. Spectators were also forbidden. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Paris, March 7

Team officials and race organizers hold an emergency meeting and vow to press on with Paris-Nice, despite worsening conditions in France. Organizer ASO agrees on a series of safety measures to protect the public and the peloton. Interviews are banned, as is any physical contact during the podium ceremony, including the customary handshakes and kisses. Then, ASO rolls out the biggest change. Fans will be forbidden from accessing the start or the finish areas.

ASO insists that it’s important to try to push the race all the way to its conclusion. Some teams refuse to start, and others agree with ASO. “We are not in a stadium, we are not in a little room. We are outside,” says Philippe Mauduit of Groupama-FDJ. “The show must go on, but we must not to do stupid things. If we have to stop the race, we will.”

Paris-Nice officials quietly hope that if they can push the race to its conclusion, the race and its emergency measures can serve as a model for racing under the cloud of coronavirus. The race will be tested every day with new challenges as the peloton pedals out of Paris.

Brussels, March 12

One by one, pro races across the globe are shuttered in a matter of hours. The Belgian government bans all large public gatherings, essentially canceling the March classics E3 Binckbank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem. Officials in Spain cancel the Volta a Catalunya, and organizers in the United States do the same with the Sea Otter Classic, Redlands Bicycle Classic, and the Tour of the Gila.

As the U.S. government imposes a travel ban to Europe, American riders scramble to return home. Tejay van Garderen abandons Paris-Nice to travel back to Colorado: “Obviously this is a tough decision,” van Garderen says. “My wife and kids had plans to travel from the U.S. to Nice for the final, but given the current circumstances, I couldn’t risk being separated from them with no options of seeing them.”

Van Garderen is not alone, as Lawson Craddock, Leah Thomas, Coryn Rivera, and others make their way to airports. Van Garderen’s quandary reveals the tightening vise squeezing the European calendar.

Milan, March 13

RCS Sport’s Giro d’Italia dreams succumb to the mounting crisis. Hungary closes its borders and cancels the opening three stages of the first “big start” to be held in Eastern Europe.

The Giro has not skipped a year since 1945, when much of Italy lay in ruins after the close of World War II. A resigned Vegni announces that he intends to reschedule the race: “RCS Sport, having taken note of the international and national situation, announces that the date of the 2020 Giro d’Italia is thereby postponed,” he says. The stiff language belies the urgency of the situation — the European calendar is in a tailspin.

Single cyclist sitting up with back to the camera with metal fencing lining the road
A lone rider coasts along an empty fan section at Paris-Nice 2020. Photo: James Startt

Nice, France, March 14

International criticism builds as ASO continues with Paris-Nice. More teams and riders pull out of the race — Bahrain-McLaren and Israel Start-UP Nation remove their entire squads. ASO agrees to cancel the final mountainous stage outside Nice, and the race limps to its finale on a mountaintop, where Nairo Quintana wins the stage and Max Schachmann the overall.

“Now all activity stops for cycling as a whole,” says Nibali, underscoring the growing gloom around the peloton.

Aigle, Switzerland, March 15

The UCI urges organizers to shut down all racing until April 3, as Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie and Italy’s Tour of the Alps all set for April are canceled or postponed. A pall settles over the peloton. No one could have guessed a week earlier when Paris-Nice started that the race could be the final World-Tour event in a long time. It’s no longer a question of adjusting schedules or tweaking training calendars. Racing is simply on hold until the coronavirus crisis breaks.

Girona, Spain, March 16

Pro riders wake up to discover they will be fined if they ride outside after Spain imposes a nationwide lockdown. Riders training atop the Teide volcano on Tenerife scramble to leave before airports are closed. Riders all over the globe wonder when they will be racing next as lockdowns sweep across Europe and there’s no clear exit strategy for the international health crisis.

“What are we still training for?” asks Dutch superstar Mathieu van der Poel. “Even the Olympic Games are no longer certain. All I know is I will be on my bike tomorrow for hours of training, but why? For what?”

ASO postpones Paris-Roubaix, Liége-Bastogne-Liége, and La Fleché Wallonne in a move that feels like a harbinger for bigger cancelations in the year. No one knows how long the COVID-19 crisis will last. There is speculation that warmer weather could slow its spread. Will races scheduled for June or July be held? And under what conditions? Is racing without the public lining the roads and cheering on the riders even worth it? For a sport that’s endured world wars, extreme heat, bush fires, and winter storms, an unseen virus that converted into a global pandemic stopped it in its tracks.

Marc Madiot, Groupama-FDJ’s longtime manager, sums up the situation: “Cycling is always a reflection of society and this has never more been the case as it is today,” he tells VeloNews. “Even the Tour de France is not safe right now, as much as we might like to think otherwise. We have to put ourselves on standby right now and do what is asked. And then we will see.”