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LOUDENVIELLE, France (VN) — The Tour de France riders toiling over the Pyrénées face a different kind of hurdle Monday.
Health officials will conduct a round of COVID-19 controls on the Tour’s first rest day that could produce the race’s first confirmed positive cases.
Under health protocols, any team that produces two positive cases from inside their respective 30-person bubbles will be out of the race.
One official told VeloNews that teams are walking on eggshells ahead of the first round of compulsory tests.
“We cross the fingers,” said Cédric Vasseur, manager at the French team Cofidis.
“We took all the procedure to avoid being caught by COVID. It’s true we are a little bit cautious,” Vasseur said Thursday. “Even if we are confident, we cannot give 100 percent sure that nobody will be infected. In any case, if somebody tests positive for COVID, they will be out of the Tour.”
That’s the harsh reality of racing the Tour de France during a world pandemic.
The race opened in Nice a week ago under a cloud of uncertainty and apprehension. Things have gone better than expected, and so far, there have been no publicly acknowledged COVID cases among the Tour caravan.
All that could change as the entire peloton and all team staffers will undergo a round of required mid-race COVID-19 controls beginning Sunday evening and carrying into Monday morning.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for teams.
If a team produces two positives, it’s immediately out of the Tour. Any singular case will mean that person is removed from the Tour.
If there is one positive, the team will have to hope there isn’t a second positive test before the next round of testing on the Tour’s second rest day on September 14. After COVID rules were revealed last month, race director Christian Prudhomme added a caveat that a team could face expulsion only if two positive cases came within a week.
Teams have no choice but to accept the conditions.
“It’s part and parcel of this Tour,” said Allan Peiper, sport director at UAE-Emirates.
“There is no anxiety,” Peiper said. “We’re in our bubble, we’re safe, we follow the rules, and we do what we’re meant to do, and we see nobody else. There won’t be an infection in our group if we follow the rules. I don’t see a problem there.”
Teams are leaving as little as possible to chance.
They have been operating under strict protocol that includes face masks, social distancing, ample use of hand sanitizer, and twice-a-day health checkups for riders and staffers.
Contact with the general public is also banned, and exchanges with media is limited to a fenced-off mixed zone or via videoconferencing.
Some teams are sending special cleaning squads early into team hotels each afternoon to sanitize rooms, dining rooms and other public areas before the arrival of riders.
In addition to being required to clear two COVID tests before entering the Tour “bubble,” riders and staffers were tested again in Nice before the Tour started.
“We did our first round of testing at the start of the Tour, and will do another on each race day,” said Florence Pommerie, head of medical staff at the Tour de France.
Team officials told VeloNews that the upcoming round of testing will be divided into two groups. Team staffers will be tested Sunday evening, and riders will be tested Monday morning of the rest day.
The Tour is organizing the controls in coordination with French health authorities.
Results are expected to be returned overnight, allowing any rider who might test positive to have time to undergo a follow-up control before the start of Tuesday’s stage via a mobile lab traveling in the Tour caravan.
Riders also expressed worry about the risk of false positives. There have been a few cases of riders testing positive for COVID-19, only to have follow-up tests return negative.
“I wouldn’t say I am worried about, but there’s potential of some false positives,” said George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma). “It’s happening often and it’s a real possibility that could happen again.”
It is not known if the test results will be publicly revealed.
The rest-day tests are part of a series of measures introduced by the Tour along with French national health authorities for this year’s rescheduled edition.
“We have had to add an entire team for testing along with a mobile laboratory so that we can test everyone who is in the race bubble—the riders, the team staff, and the race officials,” the Tour’s medical chief Pommerie said. “And lastly, we have a mobile lab that can quickly go to a team hotel in case someone is showing potential signs. We also have a COVID-19 ambulance in case someone needs to be evacuated quickly.”
The Tour de France will hit a milestone Monday at the first rest day. The race has unfolded so far without a major hiccup or setback with COVID-19.
Teams are fearful their Tour could end after this weekend if their “bubbles” have been found to be contaminated.