Riders showing up at the start of the 2020 Giro d’Italia were dismayed to discover they were being packed into massive hotels in Sicily with hundreds of tourists milling about.
Now that racing’s well-intentioned “race bubble” has been popped, many are wondering if the source of infection can be traced to where riders and staffers sleep every night.
The bubble literally burst Tuesday at the Giro d’Italia after a wave of riders and team staffers tested positive for COVID-19, despite the best efforts by the peloton to insulate itself from the contagious disease.
“Our team made big efforts to get us separated dining rooms, but still we’d encounter the general public in the hallways and in the lobby,” Sunweb’s Chad Haga told VeloNews. “We’d try to minimize that as much as possible, but it was shocking to see normal guests at the hotel. Are they taking all the measures necessary? It’s those sort of things you see as the weak points, and there’s only so much you can do to minimize that.”
Just days after Simon Yates tested positive, his entire Mitchelton-Scott team left the race, after four team staff members also came up positive in rest-day COVID controls conducted Sunday evening and Monday. Haga’s Sunweb teammate Michael Matthews also tested positive, as did Steven Kruijswijk, prompting his Jumbo-Visma to pull its entire team out of the Italian grand tour. Staffers from Ineos Grenadiers and Ag2r-La Mondiale also tested positive.
Many are wondering how riders like Yates, Matthews, and Kruijswijk came down with COVID-19 during the Giro despite all being required to test negative several times before being cleared to start the race. Clearly, the infections came once the race started.
The surge in positive cases has many wondering where the infections might be coming from. Could those moments of exposure at team hotels, where riders and staffers often mix with the larger public and hotel workers, be what’s behind a rash of positive cases hitting the Giro this week?
“This first hotel [in Sicily] we were at was one of these big beach hotels that had hundreds and hundreds of people not involved in the race hanging out there, passing through, visiting this massive buffet line which fortunately we were sort of kept separate from,” said Brent Bookwalter (Mitchelton-Scott). “Still, that’s a lot of exposure and a lot of people around, and they’re all wearing varying levels of masks around their chin, mouth, or if we’re lucky their mouth and nose.”
Team hotels can often be the most exposed point of contact for riders and staffers with the general public in what’s otherwise a tightly controlled environment before, during, and after racing. Races across Europe introduced a string of measures to keep riders and staffers safely insulated during the race, but several riders told VeloNews that many of those measures have not been consistently applied once riders head to hotels each evening.
To compound that risk of exposure, there were multiple teams in hotels, with sometimes two, three, and even four teams sharing one larger hotel.
“We actually had two of the teams in our hotel last night,” Movistar sport director Max Sciandri told VeloNews. “We’ve had three days in the same hotel with Jumbo and Sunweb. First of all that is a bit messed up, having three teams together. But I have to say that both Jumbo and Sunweb had very strict rules when it comes to hygiene. I saw the soigneurs carrying suitcases with gloves.
“You can’t blame anyone,” Sciandri said. “Everyone wants to be here. The teams want to race the race. But that’s what’s happening and we can’t control it. The starts and finishes are good. The mixed zone [where the press takes rider interviews] is good. The only thing that could be better is the hotel.”
Even if teams often bring their own cooks and keep meal areas segregated from the larger public, there is no place during a race that riders and team staffers have more chance of possible exposure to COVID-19 than at their respective team hotels.
Riders interviewed by VeloNews at the Giro said hotel conditions depend on the day. Sometimes they might be in a smaller hotel, perhaps with only one other team and very little or if any public. On other nights, such as in Sicily, several teams can be packed in together, and sometimes with dozens or even hundreds of other paying hotel guests.
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” said EF Pro Cycling’s Lawson Craddock on hotel consistency. “We’re still using the same elevators, walking up the same stairs, opening the same doors that everyone else is. It’s frustrating that it enters the peloton but it’s not all that surprising given what we’ve all seen.”
Craddock, who left the Giro on Tuesday for personal reasons not related to the COVID-19 situation, said the possible exposure also extends out to the roadside, where fans line the course, oftentimes without required face masks or respecting social distancing rules.
“Thousands of people out on course, and we’re staying at hotels that normal people are also staying at. I wouldn’t say that we’re completely removed from the public. For us, it tells us we need to keep our distance,” Craddock said of COVID-19 cases. “It’s surprising, but it’s also not surprising. I can’t say there are many social distancing protocols here at the Giro.”
Despite the teams’ best efforts, some exposure is inevitable. The Tour de France made it safely to Paris, and despite seeing four team staffers test positive, no riders tested positive and no teams were forced out of the race due to the Tour’s strict COVID-19 risk-reducing protocol.
The Tour was also held a late-summer lull in the number of infections, which started to rise as the Tour looped around France. Now infection rates are spiking across Europe, and many are starting to take a closer look at cycling’s bubble concept.
It’s almost impossible to identify a first point of contact for a peloton that moves around Italy with different starts and finishes every day. Hotels and fans along the roadside are a worrying fracture in the bubble, but there are also other possible contact points.
“It’s different hotel to hotel,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “It wasn’t perfect at the Tour de France, either. There were hotels where we also had to share with the general public. There were not many, but it wasn’t 100 percent teams-only.”
White echoed concerns about the opening hotels in Sicily, where he said the hotel was shared by several teams as well as some race officials, mixed in with tourists.
“We were sharing a hotel with the general public. There were a lot of holiday-makers at our hotel and in the same eating area,” said White, whose Mitchelton-Scott team left the race Tuesday. “It was four or five teams, plus the race organization, and the holiday-makers on top of that. So it was everyone a big hotel, and there were certainly a lot of people using similar buffets. We demanded that we had our own food, served at our own table, but there were hundreds of people in the same eating areas.”
Team staffers, such as bus drivers and team chefs, also mix with the general public when they’re filling up the gas tank or buying food supplies. Despite the stringent measures introduced by teams — which include hand sanitizer, hand washing, social distancing, masks as well as twice-daily health checkups — somehow COVID-19 cracked the Giro bubble.
“Everybody wonders,” Haga said. “I haven’t heard too much conjecture but it makes you more aware of how much contact there is with the general public. Even if they are wearing a mask, or if it’s just in passing, there are a lot of people around. It makes you that much sharper on what you touch or who you talk to because we’re very vulnerable.”
“We’re all wary,” Haga said. “Because somehow the bubble was popped and we don’t know if it’s somehow been spreading silently and the tests will bring that to light, or it was somehow an isolated case.”
Race officials insisted the health controls are working and vowed Tuesday that the Giro will arrive to Milano as scheduled on October 25.
— Jim Cotton and James Startt contributed to this report.