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BAZA, Spain (VN) — When a Human Powered Health rider woke up Friday morning with a sore throat, a quick swab test confirmed the worst fears.
The team decided to test the other riders and staff, and after another rider screened for COVID-19, the ProTeam squad decided to pack its bags and leave the Ruta del Sol.
“We just decided to play it safe and do the right thing,” Human Powered Health team manager Pat McCarty told VeloNews. “We talked to everyone, and we agreed the most responsible thing to do was to stop, recover, and plan for the next races on the calendar.
“We didn’t want to risk more exposure to our staff or to riders from other teams.”
With two of the team’s four remaining riders in the race testing positive, McCarty said it was a pretty easy call to make.
And when the team decided to pack up and head back to its European base in Girona, Spain, the other team staying in the same hotel overnight — Gazprom — was doing the same thing.
Unfortunately, we need to withdraw from Vuelta a Andalucia due to the positive covid tests of some of the team members.
— Gazprom-RusVelo (@RusveloTeam) February 18, 2022
The Russian ProTeam squad also saw COVID cases, and decided to exit the race as well.
‘It was the right thing to do’
When McCarty takes a call from VeloNews on Saturday morning, he was just entering his apartment in Girona, Spain.
“We just got out of there,” McCarty said in a telephone call. “We drove straight through nine hours yesterday. Everyone made it home last night. It’s kind of crazy, but it was the right thing to do.”
— Human Powered Health (@HumanPwrdHealth) February 18, 2022
The dramatic exit of both teams Friday is the latest in a rash of infections that is sweeping the peloton.
Riders seemed resigned to the growing number of cases. One rider told VeloNews they spotted another rider in the peloton hacking with what was described as a “death cough,” and looked “sick as hell.”
Teams are doing the best they can to patch things together, and there’s a growing fear that the latest spike could reach into the major races in March and April.
“If you test positive in March or April, your classics season could be over,” Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider Zdenek Stybar told VeloNews. “You miss training, you miss races. It would be very hard to come back from that to be competitive in a race like Paris-Roubaix.”
The bigger WorldTour teams are better able to fill in gaps on their rosters simply because they have more riders.
Smaller teams like Gazprom and Human Powered Health are under more pressure to find warm bodies.
Human Powered Health’s 16-rider roster was already stretched thin.
Two riders are not yet in Europe, and two more are injured, including Joey Rosskopf with an elbow injury suffered at the Volta a Valenciana, and Nate Brown, who fractured a finger in a fall in stage 1 at the Ruta del Sol.
The team started Ruta del Sol with five riders instead of the full seven-rider allotment.
With two more cases of COVID-19, McCarty said the team needs to regroup before its next big races. The team also has riders at the Volta ao Algarve this week.
Up next are the new Spanish stage race at Gran Camiño in northwest Spain as well as Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Le Samyn in Belgium.
“We have to see who is healthy, who can be healthy, and who on the staff can go,” he said. “It’s tough to put in all the hard work and leave a race like this. We already nearly won a stage [with second in stage 1], so the best thing to do was to head home and stay safe.”
Despite the hiccup this week in Spain, McCarty said he’s more optimistic about the current overall health situation than he was in 2020 or 2021.
Right now, nearly all of the team’s riders and staff are already in Europe, there are no travel restrictions, and races are back to their traditional spots on the calendar.
And most importantly, so far there haven’t been any serious health implications despite a recent spike in omicron infections.
“The smartest thing we could do was not push it and take any more risks,” he said. “The season is long, and it’s only February. We feel like this thing will blow through the peloton pretty fast. It already has.”