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Barta and Warbasse abandon European altitude camp as home, family take priority

American pair returned to their respective homes in the U.S. this weekend as they struggle to find balance between the desire to train and race, and concerns for health, family and safety.

American pair Will Barta (CCC Team) and Larry Warbasse (Ag2r-La Mondiale) are back on American soil after cutting short a long-planned altitude camp in the French Alps.

Barta, 24, and Warbasse, 29, had spent the past week at French ski station Isola 2000, waiting out the coronavirus lockdowns sweeping through Europe. After the pair’s individual hopes of racing the Giro d’Italia in May had gone up in smoke after all racing through the spring canceled or re-scheduled earlier this month, they had decided to stay in Europe and keep the engines simmering on indoor trainers, holding out hopes that racing would resume in summer.

“We had planned this in January to come up to altitude,” Warbasse said on Saturday. “And then when all this crisis arose, I thought maybe it’s not the worst place to be stuck, up here on top of a mountain. Far better than being in the stress of the city. And being here means we’re available to race when things start again.”

However, by Saturday night, the all-too-human concerns around personal and familial health and security came to the fore. The zenlike isolation camp in the secluded mountains was hastily abandoned. By Sunday night Barta and Warbasse were back on American soil, heading to homes in Boise and Traverse City, respectively.

VeloNews had spoken to the pair Saturday from their shared apartment atop Isola 2000, as they attempted to maintain some sense of structure and normalcy in a world turned upside down. They both sounded content with their decisions to sit tight in Europe and hope that the world would return to safety, and the race season would resume with the Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de Suisse still set to go ahead in early June.

Warbasse and Barta are two of many riders that make their homes in Nice, France. However, as the coronavirus crisis swept though Europe, the pair were faced with the decision of returning home to the States, staying in Nice, or continuing with their plan to head to the mountains.

“I thought about going home,” Warbasse told VeloNews. “But you just don’t know when flights are going to be canceled, or when flights are going to be going again. And the big fear I think a lot of guys have is if we went back to the U.S. and then get stuck there, and you can’t get back to Europe once the racing starts.”

Barta was of similar sentiment. After season a winter of hard training and hopes of a debut at the Giro d’Italia go go off the rails in his sophomore season, Barta had hoped to impose some sort of order on chaos.

Will Barta
Barta, in his second WorldTour season with CCC Team, had been on the long-list for the Giro. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“The target that I think we’re all hoping for is, you know, June-July to re-start racing,” Barta had said. “But I think also it’s it is quite hard mentally to train. Because there’s so much going on, it’s hard to focus on anything right now. I’ve been trying to figure out if I should go to the U.S. or not most of the time. But I’m starting to feel more settled now I’ve decided to stay here in France.”

Like the rest of the pro peloton, Warbasse and Barta had found months of workouts and carefully-planned race and training plans go down in flames during the past tumultuous weeks. The coronavirus crisis has wiped out racing through May, with the prospects of marquee summer events such as the Tour de France and Olympic Games now looking in doubt.

With uncertainties over race schedules and ever-tightening government restrictions on travel through the world, the Americans in the peloton have taken different decisions. EF Pro Cycling pair Tejay van Garderen and Lawson Craddock boarded flights to the States as soon as they could, with van Garderen pulling out of Paris-Nice mid-race to ensure a safe departure. Meanwhile Warbasse, Barta and NTT Pro Cycling’s Ben King had decided to wait it out in their makeshift European homes. All three face the added pressure of contract year as they race for their future in the WorldTour.

“I figured if I’m gonna be stuck somewhere, I might as well get stuck somewhere where I’m getting a benefit – at altitude,” Warbasse said on Saturday. “We may not be training outside, but we’re still training [on indoor trainers], and getting the payoff. Plus it’s easy for me to get to any races when I’m here.”

Barta too had rationalized that the pre-planned trip would pay dividends later in the season. “I mainly wanted to do this for later races and also just to kind of build the chronic altitude,” he said. “I struggle with altitude a bit. So I just wanted to spend some time up here, even if I’m just training inside.”

Though they weren’t able to train outdoors, the pair had spoken of “a pretty chill” set-up in the French Alps. Warbasse was putting in long hours on the trainer racing around virtual world Zwift, while Barta was easing in to the physical demands of altitude with long lay-ins and shorter indoor sessions. After calls home, the pair would come together to watch movies and play Mortal Kombat on the Nintendo 64. They had both described their daily lives as being much the same as before the coronavirus crisis – except that riding was now an indoor, rather than outdoor pursuit.

Having spoken with Warbasse and Barta Saturday afternoon, the riders checked in with VeloNews that night. Growing fears over the duration of the pandemic, the extent of lockdown measures, and the possibility of returning home in the foreseeable future had come to the fore.

“We didn’t want to risk being stuck here without riding or races for a potentially very long time,” Warbasse said. “I’d rather be safe than sorry… even if nothing changes, I’d rather not risk it.”

Warbasse had initially chosen to stay in Europe to enable easy access to races when – and if – they resume later this year. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Barta said similar, adding that the desire to be with family and ensure personal safety during such a stressful time had become paramount.

Many WorldTour riders have moved from where they once called home as they looked to locate themselves in favorable locations for training and near to team resources, with pros clustering in locations such as Girona, Nice, Andorra, and Monaco. The decision facing Barta and Warbasse – to stay in Europe or return to their native countries – is one shared by many, and another stress to add to the pressure of balance fitness and freshness for races that may not happen and the concerns for family and friends in a time of global pandemic.

When speaking from Isola on Saturday, Barta had framed the difficulties of maintaining motivation during such a period of uncertainty in the context of the bigger picture.

“Yeh, it’s a bummer. You spend the whole winter working hard for those races, and now it’s all gone,” Barta said. “I mean, for me, my motivation is a bit low to train right now. But it’s nothing compared to you know, what a lot of people are going through. So you just have to keep it in perspective.”

Warbasse and Barta’s difficult decisions and no-win dilemmas are playing out throughout the cycling community, and are just a niche example of the difficulties inherent to a world we once only saw in movies. Seeking to find the correct decision in a health crisis that develops, twists and turns by the day is nigh on impossible. Riders are worried about contracts and results, teams are concerned about sponsorship, and race organizers fear for the future of their events. The world is an uncertain place, and it could go on some time yet.