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Commentary: Improvised calendar is a win for cycling, but safety comes first

A condensed racing program with Tour de France starting in late August will serve as a salve for teams and organizers, but it comes burdened with responsibility.

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Desperate times call for creative solutions, and that’s what cycling’s movers and shakers delivered Wednesday.

Whether the UCI’s condensed calendar is a pathway to redemption, or an overly optimistic road to nowhere remains to be seen.

Is it perfect? Far from it. Will everyone be happy? Some are already complaining. Will it unfold as mapped out? Probably not. Does it come packed with risks? Most certainly.

And the largest caveat remains: No cycling should take place if global authorities on COVID-19 believe that the events will compromise public safety.

Still, the importance of having the Tour de France and other races back on the 2020 calendar cannot be overstated.

First off, it gives hope that some sort of semblance of normalcy might soon be returning to people’s lives across Europe.

And, for professional racing, simply having a target date to resume racing with the Tour de France on the calendar will come as a salve following weeks of race cancelations and lockdown orders.

A revived race calendar will also provide an important lifeline to strapped teams and race organizers. It will act like a line of credit from a bank. They can guarantee to their sponsors and backers, at least in the short term, that racing is back on the table.

Riders will embrace the calendar as well. Many of them who have been sequestered inside their homes across France, Italy, Andorra and Spain for more than a month in some cases now have a fixed goal. Every racer knows that having a clear objective is always better than training for the unknown.

Based on a calculated bet that health conditions will permit racing in at least some form by late summer, the cycling world is quietly hopeful that the most important parts of the 2020 calendar can be salvaged.

Now comes the hard part: pulling it off.

It’s one thing to make a plan, it’s something much more challenging and riskier to organize and safely conduct a three-week moving circus in the throes of a world pandemic.

To say that professional racing is facing an existential threat is no exaggeration. Teams are on the verge of collapse, riders and staffers are facing unemployment, and races that date back a century might not survive until next year. Nearly everyone agrees that if 2020 closes without seeing at least some racing, there might not be much left on the other side.

Of course, this optimistic revival is based on the assumption — and it’s a very big one — that the health crisis currently gripping much of Europe will have improved to such a degree that racing will be allowed.

Any decision to resume racing will ultimately lie with the appropriate health authorities, but the cycling community must also be willing to carry the burden of responsibility that a race can be safely held.

Cycling faces a hard choice: Everyone wants to race, yet no one wants to race irresponsibly.

First off, a lot needs to dramatically improve between now and mid-August before competition can be realistically considered. Travel bans and stay-at-home orders have to be lifted. Racers traveling into Europe can’t be faced with a possible two-week quarantine upon arrival. Riders would have to be able to train outside and ideally race at least once before the Tour. Hotels, gas stations and restaurants would have to be reopened.

France, Italy and Spain, hosts of the three grand tours, have been among the hardest-hit nations by the coronavirus. Racing cannot resume if authorities cannot assure riders, staffers, race officials, media, and fans that a bicycle race can be safely held as well as not put pressure on healthcare systems.

Simply put, cycling cannot put its short-term economic viability ahead of the risk that the resumption of competition could undermine public health.

Can that even happen? Right now, that seems far-fetched, but there is hope that conditions will allow it.

Cycling now has its roadmap to ride out the summer of Covid-19.

For a sport known for its bickering and often times petty turf wars, the UCI and other key stakeholders should be applauded for coming to the table and mapping a way out of today’s bleak reality.

Now those same stakeholders need to take the next step, and create a credible, transparent, and expert-driven plan to safely race during an unprecedented health crisis.

Any decisions made going forward should involve experts. Teams and race organizers should be required to consult with health professionals on ways to minimize risk, be it from sanitizing hotels and teams buses, or ensuring social distancing mitigations remains in place for any fans who might show up.

Additional controls could be imposed on the race caravan to monitor everyone’s health to assure the no one is spreading the virus. Organizers can tap private contractors to run security to limit the drain on first responders. Protocols must be in place on how to deal with a rider or staffer who comes down with COVID-19. No one wants to see a repeat of what happened at the UAE Tour in late February.

Even if officials say the Tour will not be raced “behind closed doors,” racing would look and feel very different than any edition we’ve ever seen before.

It’s likely the Tour would look similar to Paris-Nice, with more barriers, almost no fanfare and podiums, limited media access, and a bare-bones race caravan.

At first glance, as crisis conditions continue to mount across parts of Europe, it almost seems a sacrilege to discuss something as trivial as sport.

It would be negligent for cycling’s key stakeholders to not at least map out a game plan, and be ready to race if and when health authorities give the green light.

It would be equally irresponsible for racing to rush back too early.

It’s an important step that there is now a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel as the peloton enters its second month of an unprecedented “stop.” The return to racing doesn’t stop there.

Cycling will have one shot to get it right. If there are any miscues, a rushed return to racing could blow up in unimaginable ways.

If the Tour does make it from Nice to Paris, it could be one of the most magical and emotional Tours in history. Stakeholders now have four months to create a game plan to make it happen safely and with transparency.