NICE, France (VN) — One way to speed up COVID-19 controls? Bring in a mobile lab.
That’s what the Tour de France is hauling from stage to stage during the three-week loop around France in what will be a key tool in cycling’s toolbox to try to arrive in Paris.
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Cycling’s biggest race begins Saturday with the cloud of coronavirus hanging over its collective like an executioner.
With teams facing possible expulsion for two positive cases, and Nice already under “red zone” status as a COVID-19 hotspot, many are worried if the Tour will make it to Paris when it ends on September 20.
“It’s a miracle that we are starting this Tour de France,” said UCI president David Lappartient on Friday. “It will be a miracle if we can arrive [in] Paris, and that is the goal.”
So what happens if someone tests positive for COVID-19 during the race?
Everyone has already been tested for the presence of the coronavirus, and they wouldn’t be in Nice if they didn’t come back negative.
On Friday, the UCI released updated COVID testing rules for the Tour and other grand tours. Teams could be ejected if two riders — not riders and staffers as originally proposed — test positive for COVID-19 within a one-week period.
Individual riders and staffers, however, will be removed from the race and put into quarantine if they test positive or show serious symptoms.
A rash of possible false positives has triggered a backlash from teams. To ease worries, the Tour will pack along a mobile lab throughout the race to be able to provide quicker turn-around on controls. Race owners ASO paid for the mobile lab, and the lab will help confirm if a case is legitimate.
It’s not sure exactly how long a lab result will take to finalize, but technicians and all the lab equipment will be on-site each stage throughout the Tour.
That means samples don’t need to be transported to far-away labs. Officials said the goal is to be able to turn around a sample in time to know if a rider is positive or not before the start of each day’s stage.
“The plan is that the lab will be able to return the results before the start of the next day’s stage,” Lappartient told a handful of journalists Friday, including VeloNews. “If that is not possible, the person will be removed from the race anyway.”
Under the protocol, if a rider tests positive or shows symptoms of infection, the mobile lab will give the Tour a faster turn-around time on returning what would essentially be a “B-sample.” If both samples return a positive result on COVID-19, the rider or staffer can be fairly confident they have been infected.
As Lappartient said, if the second sample cannot be completed by the lab before a start of a stage, the rider will not race, and will be removed from the Tour.
“We have to be very strict on the health questions,” Lappartient said. “There can be no compromise on the rules.”
Lappartient also confirmed that French local and national health authorities will be working closely will race personnel and the UCI, and that the government officials will have the ultimate word to decide if the Tour continues is pandemic conditions dramatically worse.