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COVID-19 flare-ups remind peloton of cycling’s vulnerability

Teams, riders warily eye evolving health conditions as return to racing looms.

The Vuelta a Burgos starts in little more than two weeks along the edges of Spain’s northern meseta, yet recent flare-ups of the coronavirus in parts of the country are reminding everyone just how tenuous cycling’s re-entry might be.

With less than a dozen cases of COVID-19 in the entire province, Burgos officials remain optimistic the five-day stage race — set to run July 28 to August 1 — will go off without a hitch. Some 15 WorldTour teams are slated to start in what will be the first major stage race since Paris-Nice signaled the end of racing at the beginning of the outbreak in March.

Yet recent spikes of the coronavirus — including a major outbreak in Catalunya to the east of Burgos and another smaller one in Galicia to the west — have seen regional health authorities impose new restrictions on impacted areas. Though the region around the Burgos race route remains largely unaffected, the recent breakouts of COVID-19 remind the peloton of the headwinds it will face while trying to race in the middle of a raging world pandemic.

“There is no foolproof way to get through this,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “In general, everyone is pretty pumped to get back to racing. They also realize as well that things could change very quickly if the virus comes back, and to what degree, so there are a lot of clouds about the season.”

White’s comment sums up the disposition of the peloton as the sport tries to ease back into competition after an unprecedented mid-season race stoppage. The mood is buoyant as racers and teams eye racing again, but everyone knows the sport is heading into unchartered territory.

After months of forced lockdowns and quarantines across Europe, teams and riders across the peloton are slowly coming out of its forced hibernation. Teams are hosting training camps and putting the finishing touches on race programs in anticipation of a return to competition just weeks away.

Riders are starting to make travel plans, including South Americans who are navigating through border closures. Photo by Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images.

Health conditions have improved dramatically across Europe, so much so that borders throughout the Schengen zone have re-opened, allowing teams and riders to once again move freely from race to race. Riders who escaped Europe during the shutdown are returning despite travel bans for some tourists. Colombians and Ecuadoran riders have been cleared by Spanish officials and are scheduled to fly in later this month, while most American riders who have residency or work visas have returned.

Teams, organizers and riders will be walking on eggshells in the coming weeks and months, hoping that things stay quiet and racing can resume as scheduled. While health conditions remain promising in Italy, France, and across western Europe, the recent spikes in Spain serve as a reminder that things could change quickly.

Over the weekend, Spanish health authorities reintroduced lockdowns and other restrictions in the Lleida province, about two hours west of Barcelona. In northwest Spain, officials have been limiting travel near Lugo. Both steps are precautionary moves to try to knock back any flareups before cases begin to spread more aggressively. As of Sunday night, there were less than a dozen cases in the Burgos province that will be hosting the race, suggesting that things should be fine for the race to unfold as scheduled.

Everyone in the peloton is watching closely and knows that one severe outbreak could see any attempts at racing shut down by health officials. Or even worse, riders and teams might end up getting trapped somewhere, in a replay of what happened in February at the UAE Tour.

“There is definitely a little bit of concern about races canceling,” Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss told VeloNews. “They have to make sure there’s a lot of measures and testing that no one has it and it creates some sort of domino effect when everybody is racing together.”

Last month, the UCI rolled out its COVID-19 protocol, and races are beginning to reveal steps they will take during their upcoming events. The Tour de France said it will be following a security blueprint introduced in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks, and Tour director Christian Prudhomme said last week that fans should not be expecting to get a lot of autographs as extra fencing, social distancing and possible masking requirements will be introduced.

Peter Sagan
Interactions between riders and fans will be limited at races as organizers look to mitigate risks. Photo: Brian Hodes

Teams are also organizing their own internal protocols and mitigations that follow the UCI suggestions and, in many cases, go even further. Teams are already carrying out extensive COVID-19 tests on riders and staffers as activity resumes. Jumbo-Visma’s Kuss confirmed to VeloNews he underwent COVID-19 testing before rejoining his teammates, and that more tests will be carried out throughout the season.

“We’ve had to do a few COVID checks before we go to the team camp and then we have tests all through racing,” Kuss said. “So yeah, I think they want to do a good job of making sure everything is under control within the group.”

Cycling’s key stakeholders have been working hard to do what they can to control their environment. It’s the larger forces that could derail the peloton.

UCI president David Lappartient admitted that despite all the safety measures the sport has put into place, the ultimate decision on how much racing the peloton ultimately sees this summer and fall will depend on prevailing health conditions and decisions made by health authorities.

“Spring has been very difficult for cycling, but we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the first road races taking place,” Lappartient said last week. “However, as we have always said, the restart of the season, whatever the discipline, will depend on the evolution of the health situation in the organizing countries.”

With so much ambiguity about the coming months, there is a sensation that every race will be contested as if it is the last. One agent told VeloNews that riders are keen to get back to racing despite the uncertainty. With many facing pressure to sign new contracts or stressed about getting results, the general sense among the peloton is that if things are well-organized and safe, the riders will race.

“In general, our guys are upbeat and ready to get back to races,” said White of Mitchelton-Scott. “I’m sure there are people who have reservations about stuff, because there are a lot of unknowns. None of the rules from the UCI or our team or about the ‘bubble’ are foolproof. Unless you keep people at home, in quarantine.”

In the month since Spain was reopened, things have gone fairly smooth and overall rates of new cases has remained relatively low. The two recent outbreaks, however, serve as a reminder that COVID-19 will be very much a part of the remainder of the 2020 racing season.