Vincent Lavenu is the longtime manager of the French AG2R-La Mondiale team, and his organization, like several others, announced today that, due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis, it was suspending part of its upcoming calendar, including Strade Bianche (which has since been cancelled for this weekend), Tirreno-Adriatico, and the legendary Milan-Sanremo. While the team is still slated to start Paris-Nice, Lavenu readily admits that the situation could change instantly. We talked to Lavenu, who explained the many unforeseen challenges a pro cycling team is confronted with in such a crisis, and the many reasons that led them to withdraw from some of the greatest races on the international calendar.
VeloNews: Vincent, this has to be one of the most complicated moments we’ve ever experienced in cycling. You just announced that the AG2R-La Mondiale team would not be participating in the upcoming Italian races. And while you were not the only team to come to such a decision, it was not an easy decision to make. How did you come to such a decision. Was it just based on conversations with your medical staff, or were there other factors?
Vincent Lavenu: No, it was a decision that came along with the evolution of several factors. Firstly there were the diverse updates and actions, be it updates regarding sanitary conditions or whatever. Right now the focus is on Italy, but we could well be confronted with the same situation in France. We also had to take into consideration the riders and staff that come from many different countries, each of which is handling the situation differently. Some of them are simply scared to go to Italy at this time. Some are scared that, if they go, they may end up quarantined in a hotel for two weeks. And there are other reasons as well. I have two riders, for example, whose wives are pregnant, and they simply don’t want to risk picking up a sickness that could affect the pregnancy. And then I have another rider who, if he goes to race in Italy, once he returns, his child can no longer go to day care. These are the sort of situations every team is being confronted with at one level or another.
And then of course we have to follow the decisions made by authorities, and the Italians have opted to react rather radically to the situation regarding the COVID-19 outbreak in their country. We have the utmost respect for the race organizers. These are some of the most beautiful races in the world and they have been working for months to prepare for them. And for us, not to go to those races really tears us up, but the situation is simply very complex and very troubling.
VN: Regarding the UCI and the World Tour rules, is there no risk of penalty? Obviously if a race is cancelled like the Strade Bianche then there is no penalty, but if the race is not cancelled and you simply refuse to participate, well, at least on paper, that is different, as World Tour teams are obliged to send a team to World Tour events. Obviously these are extreme situations, but is such a scenario part of the conversation?
VL: No I don’t think so. I think the UCI understands that if a team is simply not able to field a full team with full staff for races because of such health issues, they can’t be penalized. You can’t force people to go to a place that they’re afraid to go to. There are [French and European] labor laws in place that actually stipulate that you cannot force someone to work in the location which presents sanitary risks—especially when such a situation has been confirmed by the authorities in the country in question.
VN: That is true, but there are also teams that will not participate in Paris-Nice for example, and the situation here in France, at least for the moment, is different as the country is not at the same level in terms of health risks. Obviously the sport is confronted with an unprecedented situation, but I am just curious about the possible ramifications, of which there are many.
VL: Every team must make a decision based on their perception of the situation. Firstly, every country has the responsibility to protect the public health. Today the situation in France is not the same as in Italy, but I underscore that I am talking about today. The situation continues to evolve, and we have to remain attentive. What is happening in Italy today, could happen in France, tomorrow. If the government decides that the situation has moved from level two to level three and sporting events are cancelled, well, we will be in the same situation. These are decisions that are being taken at every level of government. And we are simply taking it day by day, hour by hour.
VN: I imagine that you are also in contact with your sponsors, because obviously they are being penalized as well when it comes to visibility.
VL: Yes obviously we work transparently with our partners, but they understand that our first priority is to assure the health of our riders and staff. But I can tell you that these are not easy decisions for any of us to take. We are very committed to racing in Italy. Our team is based close to Italy (i.e. Chambery) and our riders love racing there. Two years ago, Romain Bardet finished second in the Strade, and last year  Oliver Naesen finished second in Milan-San Remo. These races are huge objectives for our riders.
VN: And then, obviously, the situation is having a real impact on the riders who, simply from a sporting level, are missing key racing days. For some, races like Strade Bianche or Tirreno-Adriatico are a goal in themselves, but for others, stepping stones to other objectives. How do you navigate around this on a sporting level.
VL: Clearly it is having an impact on our riders from a sporting level, but it is having an impact on other teams as well. We simply have to adapt our racing calendar, but the fact is we just don’t know where we will be in three weeks or in a month. We all hope that this epidemic will calm down in the weeks to come, but we just don’t know. Perhaps in two months we will be at a complete standstill. All we can do is to follow each situation closely and to adapt to each situation.
VN: As it stands today, we have certain teams and riders quarantined in their hotel rooms, others have cancelled all racing for the next month. All of this coming at the beginning of the heart of the pro cycling season, and there could obviously be serious effects on the peloton, as peoples’ conditions will be so varied. We could have racing as very different speeds in a sense.
VL: Absolutely, but it is an exceptional situation. We’ve never seen anything like this. And on a sporting level it will be up to the UCI to find the best compromise. But again, we’ve never been confronted with anything like this.
VN: Are you afraid that Paris-Nice may now be cancelled?
VL: Afraid? No I am not afraid, but we do not know. We do not know what will happen in France in the upcoming days, just like we don’t know what will happen in Spain. Today the situation is okay, but it is up to the authorities to decide as they try to assure the sanitary decisions of their country. Perhaps in two, three, four or five days the authorities will simply say “stop!” and the race will be cancelled mid-way through. All we can do is stay up to follow the situation and try to respond as best we can.