Lockdowns, travel restrictions and races without fans — welcome to the brave new world of European bike racing.
Teams across the peloton are bracing for the latest impacts on the calendar in light of the ongoing coronavirus health crisis gripping Europe.
“This is all new, but we have to find a way to not collapse everything,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels told VeloNews. “The classics, the Giro, everything is uncertain.”
A pair of races this weekend in northern Netherlands are still slated to go at the Ronde van Drenthe, with the men racing Saturday and the women on Sunday. The women’s race would be the first WorldTour race since Australia after two scheduled races in Italy have been scrapped or rescheduled. Yet in a sign of the times, there are reports that defending champion Marta Bastianelli (Alé BTC Ljubljana) cannot travel out of Italy to attend the race.
Seven WorldTour teams that opted out of Paris-Nice are also waiting to see what happens in the coming days before committing to resume racing. CCC Team, which did not race Paris-Nice, returns to action in Drenthe this weekend.
“This has been a complicated time and it is clear the evolving COVID-19 situation will continue to have an impact on professional cycling,” CCC Team President Jim Ochowicz said Thursday. “Our priority throughout this time has been the health and safety of our riders and staff. At a one-day race, where the team has more control over the environment, we believe we can take the necessary precautions to race in a safe environment for all parties.”
Those teams that hit the pause button earlier this month ahead of a wave of cancelations across the Italian calendar are hoping to resume racing at the Volta a Catalunya, set to begin March 23 in northern Spain. Team Ineos officials told Velonews on Thursday the team, which also sidelined its racing program in the wake of the passing of sport director Nicolas Portal last week, remains flexible in light of the fast-changing situation.
“We won’t be putting a timeline on our decision,” a team official said. “Clearly our first priority is the health and well-being of our riders and staff, as well as our responsibility to minimize the spread of the virus.”
There are mixed reports coming out of Spain about the status of the race. Officials denied rumors Thursday that the race is canceled; telling Ciclo21.com no decision has been made about the race.
“We are monitoring every race,” Jumbo-Visma Merijn Zeeman told VeloNews. “Things are changing constantly. Normally we are a team that plans things carefully. But now we have to take time to see how things are.”
Conditions are worsening in Spain, however, which ranks second to Italy with the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, and government officials have imposed a series of restrictions, including the banning of large indoor gatherings and even postponed the Las Fallas festival in Valencia.
Stars such as Chris Froome, Egan Bernal (both Ineos) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) were among riders hoping to start the Catalunya tour next week. None have raced since at least the ill-fated UAE Tour nearly a month ago. Dutchman Tom Dumoulin had been planning on starting his season at the race having already suffered setbacks to his schedule from illness.
In the meantime, teams are doing what they can to keep their riders active and race-ready. Mitchelton-Scott currently has a group of its men’s team at a training camp in northern Spain, while world champion Annemiek van Vleuten traveled to Teide, Tenerife, to train at altitude.
“People want to get back to racing, but we want to do it in a safe environment for our riders and staff,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “These are not normal circumstances. We have to wait to see what develops.”
There are increasing alarm bells about the northern classics as well. Officials from the E3 Binckbank Classic, set for March 27, said they are holding off constructing the VIP tents along the course and at the start and finish areas.
Flanders Classics officials assured teams this week that their quiver of races, including Tour of Flanders, are still being planned to be held.
Officials across Benelux are starting to impose more restrictions, and there’s a growing likelihood that large groups of fans will not be allowed at start and finish areas, or in lucrative VIP zones that help create the unique ambiance at the classics.
The uncertainty and fast-changing situation makes it challenging for teams to plan, but Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Steels said the team hopes to keep racing so long as it’s deemed safe by appropriate health officials.
“There are a lot of rumors,” Steels told VeloNews. “It’s all up to the government. If they say so, we just go home. The environment of cycling is different. We don’t have thousands and thousands of people, not like a stadium. It’s working here at Paris-Nice. It’s a bit strange, but once the race starts, the riders don’t notice [no fans].”
Paris-Nice started Thursday’s fifth stage without mishap, and pushes closer toward its finish line Sunday in Nice.
Paris-Nice could be a model for upcoming races on the calendar under the veil of coronavirus — no fans, no podiums and no VIP tents, but intense racing on the road.