Bora-Hansgrohe did the right thing Tuesday morning, pulling its entire team before the start of the WorldTour Bretagne Classic – Ouest after one of its starters tested positive for COVID-19. Hours later, in follow-up tests with the entire squad, the results came back negative, hinting at a possible false positive.
That comes just days before the Tour de France starts Saturday in Nice with teams facing possible expulsion under strict Tour rules if two or more of their riders and staff test positive for COVID-19.
Team manager Ralph Denk said the case underscores growing doubts among teams and riders about the viability and consistency of COVID-19 controls, and the big stakes for everyone inside the peloton with the Tour de France just days away.
“It looks like my concerns are being confirmed,” Denk said Tuesday. “I think adjustments must be immediately made here. We also require certainty regarding testing procedures and strategy. If we don’t have this, we will soon have serious issues, because who wants to invest in a lottery game as a serious company?”
Teams were already grumbling about some of the COVID-19 mitigation and protocols that were thrust upon them as cycling returned to competition over the past several weeks, with some teams saying they expect to spend up to $100,000 on tests and other protections. Yet everyone agreed to introduce the health measures if that’s what it took to compete safely, but now teams are worried that inconsistency across testing protocols could be producing false positives.
A few riders have produced positive controls only to see follow-up tests return a negative result. Denk pointed out that controls should be a two-part process, similar to anti-doping controls, to make sure there are no false positives.
“It is known that PCR tests have a certain rate of error and thus produce false-positive results,” he said in a team statement Tuesday. “This in itself would not be a problem if there were the possibility to check the results immediately in the case of a positive finding. In the anti-doping regulations, an A Sample and a B Sample are provided, precisely for this reason. If the A Sample is positive, the result is checked with the B Sample. In the UCI’s current testing strategy, this verification is not present.”
Tension is rising even more with the Tour de France looming. ASO rolled out a strict COVID-19 policy, first reported in VeloNews, that states that teams face expulsion if two riders or staffers inside the team’s 30-person “bubble” test positive. With an apparent spike in possible false positives, teams are raising the alarms bells, and insisted on a meeting with Tour officials Tuesday to try to hash out a solution.
The Tour is expected to have a mobile lab on sight on every stage that should allow for quicker follow-up controls, but a clear protocol has not yet been determined.
Denk wondered if the sport’s many labs accredited for anti-doping controls should be tapped to help assure accurate and speedy results.
“Anti-doping labs are also accredited, which means that certain standards are set and checked. That would be one approach,” he said. “A central lab or certain certified labs. We are talking about athletes who have prepared for a race for weeks or months and then might not be allowed to start the event due to a false finding.
“Today we withdrew our entire team from a WordTour race,” he continued. “It’s all about points, but it’s also about presence in the media, in other words, the advertising value upon which the commitments of our sponsors are based. Today, these benefits were unable to be gained. Of course, the health of everyone involved should and must always take priority, however, it is still unsatisfactory that consideration is not given to all other aspects.”