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Flight ban could keep Colombians, Americans at home

Exceptions are likely for athletes with residency cards, but worry grows that top stars might face travel complications returning to Europe.

Uncertainty about flights between Europe and the Americas could throw a major wrench into racing plans across the WorldTour.

The European Union released rules Tuesday outlining which countries that passengers will be allowed to enter the EU zone, and neither Colombia nor the United States made the list.

Although riders with European residency cards face fewer travel restrictions, it’s possible a handful of the peloton’s biggest names could be locked out of Europe.

Colombian authorities have already scheduled a special charter flight on July 19 to bring cyclists and other sport figures from Bogotá to Madrid, with health controls and testing to be carried before anyone travels. It’s likely that health authorities would give the green light to athletes with a clean bill of health, citing rules that allow “essential” workers to make flights that are otherwise banned for tourists.

The uncertainty, however, is the latest wrinkle in how the ever-evolving impacts of the coronavirus is having on bike racing.

“For our own good, we hope that they can come,” EF Pro Cycling sport director Juanma Garate told Biciclismo.com. “It would be a huge pity if the North Americans and the Colombians couldn’t be in the European races.”

The rules could impact several high-profile teams, including Team Ineos, which has defending Tour de France champion Egan Bernal currently in Colombia. Other top riders on the “wrong side” of the Atlantic include Rigoberto Urán and a handful of U.S. riders on EF Pro Cycling, Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) as well as riders from other WorldTour teams and several top women riders.

There’s also concern for riders in nearby Ecuador, including defending Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz (Ineos). Officials are trying to work out an agreement that will allow Carapaz and perhaps other riders to join the Colombian flight, with one media report suggesting that Carapaz is considering riding his bike nearly 1,000km from his hometown to Bogatá in order to board the charter if other transport cannot be arranged.

The latest EU rules will be updated every two weeks depending on prevailing health conditions, but as of right now, riders in the Americas without European residency cards or similar work visas could face a harder time entering Europe in time for racing to resume later this month unless they are able to arrange special clearance from authorities.

Several top North American men’s racers remained in Europe during the lockdown, including Chad Haga (Sunweb) and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), who is in line to make his Tour debut in August. Ben King (NTT Racing) and Larry Warbasse (Ag2r-La Mondiale), two U.S. riders with a longtime presence in Europe, recently returned to Europe before the restrictions were put into place this week.  Several top U.S. women’s racers also remain at home. Canadians are not facing restrictions, and Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) stayed in Europe during the lockdown to recover from a crash.

As a cloak of restrictions was imposed on Europe this spring, many top riders from the Americas decided to return home to wait out the pandemic. Tejay van Garderen and Lawson Craddock both left Paris-Nice early, and Brent Bookwalter (Mitchelton-Scott) also decided to return to the United States before travel bans were imposed in mid-March. Several top Colombians, including Bernal and Quintana, also went home.

As teams across Europe start to organize training camps and schedule early races, several squads are still trying to arrange to get their key athletes back to the continent. With worsening health conditions, especially in the United States, EF Pro Cycling could be among the most heavily impacted teams.

“We’ll be in trouble if our main block of Tour riders cannot be there,” Garate said. “We have three riders in Colombia [Urán, Dani Martínez and Sergio Higuita), and one in Ecuador [Jonathan Caicedo] who are in the same situation, and with the Americans, with Van Garderen and Craddock.”

Garate said the team is structuring a heavy focus on the first part of cycling’s revised calendar, adding, “there is going to be a lot of uncertainty in the second half of the proposed calendar because the global health situation, and we’re thinking that there will be part of the calendar that won’t be able to organize their events.”