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Lotto-Soudal splits team, staffers into units to reduce contamination risks

Belgian team splits squad based on grand tour rosters, with each unit due to almost exclusively travel, train, and race together in restarted 2020 season.

Lotto-Soudal has begun to implement plans to maximize rider health and safety in the post-coronavirus racing season.

In a bid to avoid potential cross-contamination among its riders and staffers, the Belgian outfit has divided its team into three clear units that will operate almost independently of each other through the 14-week August-October season.

“Our 28 riders and all staff will be divided over three bubbles, [and] each group gets a different color and follows its own race agenda,” team doctor and Jens De Decker told Het Laatste Nieuws. “The aim is to keep the gradient between the bubbles as limited as possible. The less rotation, the smaller the chance of mutual contamination.”

“Anyone who enters a bubble is tested beforehand,” De Decker continued. “For each group, we can also subject each member to serial tests, daily questionnaires and / or medical check-ups.”

The team’s three units are primarily based on rider selections for the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, and will see each sub-team almost exclusively training, traveling and racing in its own unit. There are talks of each having its own supply of equipment and materials.

De Decker acknowledges that as the season plays out, riders will need to transfer across Lotto-Soudal’s ‘bubbles,’ particularly in an October period stacked with overlapping and clashing races.

“We have to remain a little flexible, and can allow exceptions,” De Decker said. “An important condition is that the rider in question is then retested.”

Lotto-Soudal has been active in laying the groundwork for an unprecedented 2020 season that could see racing behind closed doors, heightened medical testing for riders, and teams having to take on extra vehicles and support crew to manage racing across up to three schedules at once. Earlier this month, the team imposed its own antibody tests and COVID-19 controls on its riders to ensure a clean slate before the resumption of focused training.

De Decker is hoping that teams across the peloton implement similar systems to those being adopted by Lotto-Soudal. While teams will do all they can to reduce cross-contamination among their own riders and race organizers can prohibit roadside fans and limit media presence, riders from across the globe will still be brushing shoulders and digging elbows as the racing unfolds later this year.

“Team doctors are in constant consultation with each other and with the UCI,” De Decker said. “Solidarity is great. It is nice to be able to exchange ideas about exactly how to organize it. It would therefore be a shame if certain teams break through solidarity and wipe their feet on the whole approach.”