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Pro cycling teams left scrambling as races cancelled due to coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus presenting unprecedented challenges for pro cyclists, governing bodies, and cycling fans.

Cycling has endured wars, natural disasters, strikes and extreme weather, but health emergencies are something relatively new.

Pro cycling teams across the globe are scrambling to deal with a growing coronavirus crisis, one that is already putting the pinch on the international racing calendar. The UAE Tour was stopped in its tracks, and three teams remain in quarantine. On Thursday, RCS Sport canceled Strade Bianche, the first major European race to be affected by the fast-moving health emergency.

“Cycling is a uniquely mobile sport,” said Team Ineos principal Dave Brailsford after the team pulled out of racing this week. “We have a duty of care both to our riders and staff, but also to the people living in the areas we race. We do not want to be in a position where our riders become potentially infected or quarantined on race as has already happened.”

The coronavirus scare has reconfirmed cycling’s disjointed business model makes it challenging to confront global challenges in a unified voice. Its hodgepodge collection of races, teams, associations and governing bodies means that decisions are being made individually. Just a week ago, it seemed outrageous to consider that Strade Bianche might be canceled. Now, there is a nationwide ban on large public gatherings in Italy, and there are growing worries that Paris-Nice and the spring classics could be next.

On Wednesday, the UCI decided it’s best for races to make locally based decisions after consultations with regional and national authorities and experts. As that drama is playing out in real time in Abu Dhabi and in Italy, men’s and women’s cycling teams across the globe are contemplating participation in races. Several have suspended part of their racing programs for much of March, including EF Pro Cycling, UAE-Emirates, Astana, Team Ineos, Mitchelton-Scott and Parkhotel-Valkenburg.

As of publication, ASO still plans for Paris-Nice to be contested. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Others are trying to stay in the game. Deceuninck-Quick-Step is one team committed to racing when and where it safely can. After Strade Bianche was canceled, the Belgian squad is reshuffling its Paris-Nice lineup and sending its top classics riders to France instead of Italy.

Zdenek Stybar, Kasper Asgreen and Bob Jungels, all slated to race in Italy, are being shipped to France for Sunday’s start of Paris-Nice. The team also added GP Denain to its racing calendar.

“Our selection for Paris-Nice is being changed, with our classics riders being given priority,” sport director Wilfried Peeters told Sporza. Dries Devenyns, Rémi Cavagna and Tim Declercq are off the Paris-Nice roster, but Julian Alaphilippe, Yves Lampaert, Michael Morkov and Sam Bennett remain.

“We saw this coming,” Peeters said of the Strade Bianche cancelation. “Every race wants it competition to continue, but the risk was too great.”

That’s assuming Paris-Nice, set to start Sunday on the outskirts of France, will unfold as scheduled.

The implications will play out for weeks and months, both on and off the bike. Carefully calibrated fitness and racing goals are being derailed just as the season’s first major dates are approaching. A winter of preparation and training could be down the tubes for everyone from classics riders to GC specialists.

Riders still stuck in Abu Dhabi were only allowed to have their bikes delivered to their hotel rooms Thursday after being quarantined a week. It’s uncertain when they will be allowed to leave, and top stars, such as Tadej Pogacar and Fernando Gaviria under a voluntarily lockdown from its UAE-Emirates team, will face a daunting task to regain form once they’re cleared to train and race again.

Lorena Wiebes Team Parkhotel Valkenburg at the 2019 Women’s Gent-Wevelgem. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

“Finally we have exercise, and I expect even though we’ll be here until the March 14, I can see the light now, now that I can use my body and keep my brain sane,” said Cofidis rider Nathan Haas on social media, who got the OK to train on his bike inside the hotel room after a week of lockdown.

With Strade Bianche canceled for now — officials are hoping to reschedule the race later this season if the virus breaks — and the remainder of the Italian calendar looking tenuous at best, riders and teams are looking to races where the virus has not taken such a strong hold.

CCC Team is shifting Greg Van Avermaet from his Italian spring calendar to race at Paris-Nice. NTT Pro Cycling also said it is committed to race, and confirmed it will line up for Paris-Nice as well.

As of publication, Spain has not seen the level of contagion as Italy, and teams will be sizing up to such races as the Volta a Catalunya, in late March, and Itzulia Basque Country, in early April, to give its stage-race leaders a chance to compete ahead of the season’s first grand tours.

In France, ASO is hoping Paris-Nice can begin this week, though officials were huddling Thursday to make a final decision. France’s sport minister gave the race the go-ahead on Tuesday.

There are growing concerns that other major races on the calendar could be sidelined, including the northern classics which are slated to start in just a weeks. So far, there are only a smattering of coronavirus cases in Belgium, and the opening weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne were held without incident.

But as Italy has revealed, things can change quickly. Thomas Van den Spiegel, CEO of Flanders Classics, said his bundle of races, which includes Gent-Wevelgem (March 29) and Tour of Flanders (April 5), is monitoring the circumstances.

“The situation changes every day,” Van den Spiegel told Het Laaste Nieuws. “The problem now is Italy and maybe Paris-Nice. Next it’s us. We don’t have an emergency scenario yet.”

The coronavirus scare is revealing the unique vulnerabilities in professional cycling unlike any challenge the sport has faced so far. Pro racing’s pack-like mentality, with rail-thin riders sandwiched into hotels and team buses, means that pro cycling is particularly susceptible to a highly contagious virus. By its very nature, cycling is about being on the open road, close to the public yet riding in a pack. All of those elements of cycling’s outdoor stadium are facing an unseen enemy.

“As the team manager, I cannot risk the health and integrity of our staff when the health situation is so unstable in Italy, and many legitimate questions have been raised within the team,” said Ag2r-La Mondiale Vincent Lavenu after pulling out of Italy’s March races. “Sporting interests should not overshadow prudence and wisdom when it comes to public health. We are very sorry for the organizers of these legendary races and we have informed them this morning of our decision.”