Giro d'Italia

Inside the Giro d’Italia bubble: COVID-fatigue sets in as riders seek answers

Peloton grows weary of uncertainty as Giro d'Italia continues to push toward Milano in face of escalating health and weather worries.

MONSELICE, Italy (VN) – Milling around the hotel hosting EF Pro Cycling and Israel Start-Up Nation’s ahead of stage 13 of the Giro d’Italia on Friday morning felt normal enough. Skinny guys lounged around on the sofas in compression tights and team hoodies, mechanics walked in and out with multi-thousand dollar bike frames, staffers poked at their mobiles in the lobby.

However, beneath the surface of the hotel on the beachfront on Cervia, fatigue and doubt about the future of this year’s Giro were creeping in.

After a rain-sodden classics-style stage into Cesenatico on Thursday, and having been COVID-tested overnight for the fourth time of this year’s coronavirus-crippled, rain-ravaged Giro d’Italia, riders are calling for direction and guidance from the top about a race that some suggest should be stopped.

“It’s just it’s a funny existence this Giro, because you’re waking up wondering if you’re going to be racing,” Alex Dowsett, winner of stage 8, told VeloNews on Friday morning. “You’re waking up, checking on your phone to see if it hasn’t been canceled because of either COVID or the weather – you just know there’s a high probability of something.”

Thursday’s stage had played out under a storm after a fresh wave of uncertainty swept over the race. That morning, EF Pro Cycling management issued a letter to the UCI and Giro d’Italia organizers pushing for an early shuttering of the race. While Dowsett’s Israel Start-Up Nation teammate Rick Zabel welcomed that some action was being taken, he was frustrated that it had to originate from within the peloton itself.

Ruben Guerreiro on stage 9 of the 2020 Giro d'Italia
Ruben Guerreiro (EF Pro Cycling) took stage 9 in one of the many days blighted by rain, wind and cool temperatures. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

“I think it’s always a bad situation for the teams and the riders when you have to decide what to do,” Zabel said. “It shouldn’t be the riders on the team to take this decision to leave from a race. It should be the race organizer who takes that decision.”

After a refusal from the UCI, the peloton pushed on through the hills outside of Cesenatico, racing under conditions more typically seen at the grimmest editions of February’s Paris-Nice as Jonathan Narváez soloed to a stunning victory. Later that night, the whole race bubble was tested again for coronavirus, a late move by RCS Sport in reaction to the swathe of positive coronavirus tests found in the 571-strong bubble on the Giro’s first rest day.

Two teams are out of the Giro — Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma — and some are wondering if the race will make it all the way to Milano. Yet another round of testing is scheduled for everyone inside the Giro bubble Monday to coincide with the final rest day.

“I’m just bored of talking and thinking about COVID, to be honest,” said one EF Pro Cycling staffer, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Yesterday there was an amazing race, Narváez took an incredible win, and all everybody is talking about is corona.”

The American squad had just completed its breakfast in a separate hotel room in the hotel, served hot out of the team’s kitchen truck parked at the side. Israel Start-Up Nation, dozens of Shimano neutral service staff, and a handful of media ate in the main dining area.

While the riders and staff of the Israeli team had their own cordoned-off eating area and were separated from the dozens of moto drivers, race mechanics, and hungry hacks, the walls of their “race bubble” was being stretched to the limit.

Some riders have complained about too-crowded hotels. In the opening weekend in Sicily, some teams were packed into hotels that were shared with hundreds of vacationers enjoying the last of Italy’s summer.

“This hotel is the first time all the staff, riders, [and tourists were together, and] everyone’s been like, ‘This is this isn’t right,’” Dowsett said. “If you’re talking about the bubble, this just pierces that bubble with a sharp knife. Every other hotel has been OK if we’ve been in the same room, it been a very long way from everyone else. But this hotel isn’t OK.”

Israel Start-Up Nation is riding a high after its first WorldTour win through Alex Dowsett, but that doesn’t stop riders having their fears about racing. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Buoyed by a morale-boosting, history-making stage win for his team, Dowsett seemed positive. For teammate Zabel, the mood was more troubled. With his wife Lonie expecting a child any day, the German fastman is nervous that he will miss the birth should he be put in quarantine when traveling back to his home, whether that be as planned in Milan, or earlier.

“It’s not a nice situation to be in,” Zabel said. “On one side, I don’t want to get sick and don’t want to get corona and miss the birth. So this would be the worst case, but on the other side, I also don’t want to leave the race, because I don’t want to let my teammates down.”

Despite UCI boss David Lappartient’s assurances that “cycling still has the situation under control,” as he told Het Nieuwsblad earlier this week, high-profile names inside the peloton including Jos van Emden and Thomas de Gendt have raised their fears and concerns about the race carrying on. Meanwhile, RCS Sport is adamant that the Giro will complete its 21 stages as planned.

The letter issued by EF Pro Cycling called on teams to engage in a dialogue to make a collective decision on the fate of the race, which still has 10 calendar days until completion. Zabel wanted clarity and a firm decision from the sport’s upper echelon as he feels the two-way pull of team loyalty and impending fatherhood.

“It shouldn’t be a single rider or team who takes the decision to leave,” he said. “This decision should be made by bigger, bigger organizations, but I don’t have confidence and trust in them that they really care about the rider field. They care more about bringing the race to the end.”

Despite Jonathan Vaughter’s letter Thursday morning, VeloNews‘ sources at EF Pro Cycling insist that the team will race through to the end of this year’s Giro, whenever that may be.

“The test we did yesterday, and the tests we’re going to do in the future will be crucial on the decision about staying or not,” he said. “As long as everybody is healthy and the rest of the Giro is too, then we’ll stay. But there are a lot of tests, and a lot of positives, so you can’t pretend it’s not the end. I just wish we could talk about the racing, and not all this, because the racing has been the best.”

Despite being much-reduced after handfuls of crashes and the exit of Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo Visma due to positive COVID-19 tests, the full rider contingent was given the all-clear to roll out of Cervia on Friday morning after a full set of health checks. Dowsett and Zabel both looked relieved as they sat in the lobby of their Cervia hotel as stubble and heavy eyes showed the impact of a high-stress race.

Israel Start-Up Nation and the rest of the peloton were treated to a day free of coronavirus gossip and the stress of attritional as they sped north from Cervia to Monselice for the race’s 13th stage. For now, at least, the talk was racing.

The next hurdle for both the GC riders and perhaps equally importantly, the weather and the future of a race in the shadow of COVID, comes Sunday. A major summit finish looms on the horizon at the top of the Piancavallo climb. Later that night, the next round of rest-day coronavirus tests begin.

Between the weather and the health and safety situation, there’s something different for riders to think about beyond their Instagram feed or Netflix binge at this year’s Giro.

“All this is a really big talking point around the dinner table,” Dowsett said with a grin.

While riders have a new topic to chew over, there’s a sense they’re fed-up with it already. The frozen peaks of the Alps and next round of health tests may cut that conversation short.