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Epidemiologist warns of rider contamination within peloton

Dutch medic says 'cycling in a peloton is more risky than playing soccer on a large field.'

Forget racing “behind closed doors.” The threat of coronavirus contamination is just as problematic within the peloton, according to a Dutch expert.

Patricia Bruijning of the University Medical Center Utrecht has warned that “cycling in a peloton is more risky than playing soccer on a large field.”

Bruijning spoke to Dutch outlet NOS Friday about the return of elite competition to Europe, which has already seen the German Bundesliga resume soccer with games without fans, with the UK’s Premier League due to follow suit in coming weeks.

But what of cycling, whether at an amateur or elite level?

“It is different,” Bruijning said. “Because in a peloton you ride in the same position for a long time compared to your predecessor. We also know from research that when you are in a certain line, you get exactly the breath of your predecessor. Theoretically, this therefore creates circumstances in which a transfer [of contaminated air] can take place.

“It is theory, of course, it has never happened in practice,” she continued. “But you could say that cycling in a peloton is more risky than playing football on a large field.”

With the WorldTour season due to resume in two months, August 1, there has been a lot of discussion of whether races will play out in a stripped back format without roadside fans and limited media presence. While Vuelta a España boss Javier Guillén is prepared to hold his race “behind closed doors” as a last resort, Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, has indicated his fierce opposition of such measures. Mauro Vegni, the director of the Giro d’Italia, made similar comments this week, telling Tuttobiciweb “We’re working only on one hypothesis: An ‘open doors’ Giro d’Italia.”

Little has been said so far about risks of coronavirus infection within members of the peloton itself, though teams have already begun to implement their own protocols to ensure riders’ safety from one another. Lotto-Soudal and Mitchelton-Scott have started creating protocol that sees riders and staff split into isolated working units that will have little contact with each other through the race season. The peloton is expected to face a battery of COVID-19 tests and anti-body controls, steps to help insure that the peloton remains a controlled bubble.

Bruijning concluded that bunch riding comes down to individual appetite for risk – something that places pro cyclists with careers and finances dependent on racing in a tricky dilemma. One that everyone in society will eventually have to make, she said.

“Ultimately it is a trade-off of risks,” Bruijning said. “You can now see that we relax a number of rules in the Netherlands because the risk is small. Not nil, but small. So we think it’s okay again to eat at a restaurant, for example. So in the end, you have to make such a trade-off before cycling.”

With much of Europe now seemingly past the peak of coronavirus cases, hopefully the trade-off referred to by Bruijning begins to lean in favor of cycling being 100 percent safe. However, for now, teams and riders are braced for anything, with a second peak in cases being seen as a potential nail in the coffin of the season.