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Houle cleared, raising more questions about COVID-19 protocols

Canadian rider tests negative as tension builds ahead of Tour de France about health protocols that could see teams ejected.

Hugo Houle (Astana), who recently came up with a positive COVID-19 control, has since cleared a series of foll0w-up tests, and will be returning shortly to racing, team officials confirmed Monday.

That turn-around comes on the heels of another rider, Inge van der Heijden (777 Team), who also tested positive for COVID-19, and was forced to sit out the Dutch national championships only to be quickly cleared.

Those cases, along with other growing questions about the reliability of current COVID-19 protocols, are raising tensions inside the peloton as the Tour de France is slated to start this weekend with strict rules that could see teams ejected from the race if they see two COVID-19 positives inside their team bubbles.

“I’m happy to announce that after my positive COVID-19 test before I would leave to Il Lombardia, I now tested negative, twice,” Houle posted on his Instagram account Monday morning. “Next to these tests, we also did other tests that confirmed I didn’t have COVID-19 at all. I’m happy I can return back to racing and I’m looking forward to the upcoming races.”

Houle, 29, produced a positive COVID-19 test result in pre-race screenings ahead of Il Lombardia despite being asymptomatic earlier this month. Following health protocols, his Astana team pulled him out of scheduled races. Yet in subsequent testing, Houle has returned negative results in two foll0w-up controls that could suggest a false positive.

Van der Heijden followed a similar pattern — several negative controls, a sudden positive result, then more negative follow-up controls.

The inconsistency reveals questions about the current COVID-19 testing protocol, and raises alarm bells among teams heading to the Tour de France, set to start Saturday in Nice.

Tensions are high after Tour de France officials revealed rules — first reported in VeloNews — that teams will be removed from the race if two people inside a team’s 30-person bubble of riders and staff return COVID-19 positive controls. The rules are part of an 18-page document shared with teams outlining extensive health protocols and rules of conduct for teams and riders for the 2020 Tour.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme later told Reuters that the rule only applies if the two cases come within seven days.

Teams and race officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday via video conference to clarify the health protocols and perhaps search for more flexibility in what Tour officials are trying to impose on the peloton.