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How I got home: American pros return stateside to avoid COVID-19 quarantine abroad

Many American cyclists recount a hurried departure from Europe, often just days after things seemed 'pretty relaxed.'

After a challenging year of adapting to living and racing in Europe last year, Leah Thomas was finally starting to feel like Girona could be home. Last week, the Bigla-Katusha rider was on the hunt for the perfect houseplant, a symbol of her desire to put down roots in Spain.

“There’s a big plant sale on Saturdays on the Rambla, and I was all excited about finding the perfect plant,” Thomas told VeloNews. “It was all about establishing a home in Girona.”

Instead, Thomas’ Saturday was spent in internal dialogue with herself, trying to decide if she needed to leave the country as concerns about the spread of the coronavirus escalated at an unimaginable pace.

“Literally, Friday was normal, everyone walking around,” Thomas said. “Saturday, we went outside to get groceries, and everybody was in line for bread, standing six feet apart. If you had to go to the pharmacy, you had to talk through the metal grates that they put down at night. We had woken up and learned that the president of Catalunya had wanted to shut down that region. You could feel a shift, more fear and uncertainty.”

While Thomas had considered leaving Spain after the cancellation of the Strade Bianche in early March like her roommate, Katie Hall (Boels-Dolmans), her concern had little to do with a fear of not being able to leave Europe but rather of not being able to come back. At the time, Thomas said, she still held onto hope that there might be a spring classics season, and she didn’t want to get stuck in California if she could be racing.

Leah Thomas (Team Bigla) during the 30th Tour of Italy 2019. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Even as races were being slashed from the calendar on an almost daily basis, the dramatic lockdown measures that are currently in place in countries like Spain, Italy, and Andorra didn’t come until just last weekend.

Coryn Rivera of the Netherlands’ Team Sunweb was in Mallorca a week ago, enjoying a self-directed “mini training camp,” which was to be her last block of training before the rest of the spring. Unaware of the gravity of the situation at the time, she joked that the Mediterranean island wouldn’t be such a bad place to get stuck. Even when she returned home to the Netherlands Wednesday, she said that the atmosphere was “pretty relaxed.” It wasn’t until she received a text message from her fiancé Thursday morning that the tenor shifted.

“First thing I saw when I woke up was a text from my fiancé that Trump had announced a travel ban for Friday at midnight,” Rivera said. “Nate had planned on coming out in April. Immediately I thought, worst case scenario, I’m stuck in the Netherlands and Nate can’t come over and I can’t go home. Luckily, we got more info, and all day I looked at options for heading back home. By Friday I had a flight option to head home, Amsterdam to London to LAX Sunday morning.”

The timeline for Thomas’ return to the US was even shorter.

Coryn Rivera made a hasty departure home — and made it. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

“I bought the ticket at 4 p.m. on Saturday, got on the train to Barcelona at 7 p.m. and was on a flight Sunday morning” she said.

Across Europe, other pros were scrambling to deal with the potential travel bottleneck.

EF Pro Cycling’s Tejay van Garderen pulled out of Paris-Nice mid-race, once he got wind of a possible shutdown of flights between Europe and North America. Teammate Lawson Craddock said he flew home to Texas a few days later without any drama.

“Obviously this is a tough decision,” van Garderen said. “My wife and kids had plans to travel from the U.S. to Nice for the final, but given the current circumstances I couldn’t risk being separated from them with no options of seeing them.”

World champion Annemiek van Vlueten (Mitchelton-Scott) and Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma) were training at the top of the Teide volcano on Spain’s Tenerife island and also managed to get home before the weekend restrictions were imposed.

“Had to go back home very quick to avoid to get stuck at Tenerife for weeks,” wrote van Vleuten on Instagram. “Hotels are closed and [we are] not allowed to train on the road. Felt extra-strange to leave El Teide because I felt very safe with very low risks of getting infected at the volcano… now at home.”

Many athletes that have left Europe for their home nations are now in 14-day quarantine.

Van Garderen exited the 2020 Paris-Nice to avoid getting stuck in Europe, as countries were closing borders, and travel restrictions were put into place. Photo: Greg Erwin

Both Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), winner of the final stage of Paris-Nice on Saturday, and Sergio Higuita (EF Pro Cycling), who placed third overall, are facing two weeks in isolation after returning to Colombia, per the directive of the Colombian government.

Thomas and Rivera, who both call California home, began their voluntary quarantines on Monday, upon returning back to the U.S. on Sunday. Both women say they have not left their homes since they returned, except to ride bikes, alone. After seeing how rapidly the Spanish government moved to ban cycling, Thomas said she will take advantage of the quiet time on the trails while she can.

“Sometimes I talk with people here, I don’t think they grasp how quickly it changes,” Thomas said. “It just shifts so quickly. It’s fine until it’s not.”

While some American athletes have elected to remain in their European home cities, they are all faced with similar questions regarding the future of the 2020 cycling season. What hope remained even after the UAE Tour was shut down after the fifth stage seems to have largely disappeared at this point.

“I’m preparing for the worst,” Rivera said. “I think that it could go that way, for sure. But, what’s there to be upset about it?”

Rivera, who entered the 2020 season in a good position to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, suffers to lose a lot if the qualification period, which was supposed to go through the end of May, is canceled in its entirety. Rivera’s only result to date would be her 34th place finish at late February’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, something she was hoping to rectify with better performances at races like the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, which she won in 2017. Nevertheless, Rivera is completely at peace with the unknown.

“If it turns out I don’t make it [the Olympics] because I had a bad race at Nieuwsblad, then whatever. I’m not gonna fight it,” Rivera said. “For me, it just shows that bike racing is actually just a luxury. Life goes on without it. It’s not the most important thing in the world.”