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BURGOS, Spain (VN) — Last year, the Vuelta a España made it through the COVID calendar the least affected among the major grand tours.
With the “Delta variant” blowing up across Europe, however, the Spanish grand tour starts Saturday with the race organization and peloton on edge about possible infections within the race bubble.
Organizers and teams have reinforced COVID protocols ahead of the Vuelta just as the Delta variant is spiking infections across Spain and beyond.
“Now the Delta variant is here, which is more contagious than before, so it’s logical everyone is being even more careful,” Jumbo-Visma general manager Richard Plugge told VeloNews.
“During the Giro and Tour, it was almost as life was returning to normal,” Plugge said. “Now the rates are going up and everyone is being more cautious.”
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The Vuelta organization is tightening down controls and protocols across the race just ahead of the race start Saturday in Burgos. Teams are also buckling down as well, fearful of an outbreak among their ranks.
Pre-race screenings so far have not revealed any infections inside the Vuelta “bubble,” but officials will be keeping a close eye on controls and any sign of possible infections.
The heightened sense of urgency at the Vuelta reveals just how fast things continue to change in the ever-evolving coronavirus pandemic.
So far in 2021, both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France did not see a repeat of COVID complications that both of those races endured last year. In fact, there were no COVID cases at the Tour this year.
With vaccinations unrolling across Europe, there was a sense that the sport had endured the worse of the pandemic.
Teams and riders ejected from Volta a Portugal as cases spike
A new strain of infections, however, is putting the Vuelta under pressure as cases spiked across Spain during the past few weeks.
In nearby Portugal, the ongoing Volta a Portugal has seen several cases within the peloton during this week in racing. Two teams with squads in the Vuelta a España — Caja Rural and Euskaltel-Euskadi — both left the Portuguese tour this week following infections within their ranks.
Officials said no staffers or riders from those Portugal squads will be present in the Vuelta.
On Monday, the Portuguese tour race leader Daniel Freitas left the race after a breakout of COVID-19 among his Radio Popular-Boavista team.
The 2021 Vuelta starts with the same health protocols and mitigation efforts that the sport unrolled last season with success to conduct races as safely as possible during the pandemic.
Riders and staffers underwent coronavirus controls six and three days before arriving in Burgos, and then underwent another round of controls by the race organization.
More controls will be carried on both of the scheduled rest days, as well as on anyone who might be showing symptoms of a possible infection.
No changes in protocols until end of 2021 season
Plugge, who was recently elected president to the team’s association AIGCP, said the teams and race organizers will keep operating under the same strict health protocols through at least the end of the 2021 racing season.
During the Tour in June and July, organizers tweaked their “two strikes and out” rules, and limited exclusion from the Tour only in the case that two riders came down with cases.
Before, that ban included staffers as well, which now are only removed from the bubble, and do not count against a team’s racing future.
Right now, everyone inside the Vuelta “bubble” wants to stay safe and keep everyone healthy as the season’s final three-week grand tour opens Saturday with a short prologue.
Plugge said any discussions about adjusting COVID protocols or looking at vaccination rates across the peloton will have to wait until the end of the 2021 racing season, which still includes the Vuelta, the world championships, the fall classics and the rescheduled Paris-Roubaix.
“We want to keep it out,” Plugge said of COVID-19. “Everyone’s done an incredibly big effort, not only from the teams but the organizers as well. People have said from the beginning that this is something we have to learn to live with.”
Though vaccinations rates — as high as 70 percent in Spain — continue to improve, the Delta variant is proving a new challenge for governments and health institutions across Europe.
There are no vaccination requirements within the WorldTour, though many teams say nearly all of their respective staff and riders have been vaccinated.
The Vuelta will be racing against the clock yet again as the coronavirus continues to make its presence felt in the international peloton.