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Pandemic in the peloton: Can cycling turn the page on COVID in 2022?

Part 1: The men's and women's WorldTour endured a world pandemic, but will the sport ever be the same?

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This is the first in a two-part series on how COVID-19 continues to rattle professional cycling, and how the sport hopes to move into a new chapter in 2022.

Israel Start-Up Nation is doing something this week it hasn’t done in two years — bring its riders and staff to Israel for a pre-season bonding camp.

These informal, get-to-know-you events used to be part and parcel of any WorldTour team, at least until COVID-19 and a world pandemic shut down the peloton.

Yet just like anything in today’s new COVID reality, even a team camp months ahead of the Tour de France will come with a few twists that reflect the ongoing pandemic.

“We have our pre-season bonding camp, and every team member to come here must be vaccinated within the past six months,” team owner Sylvan Adams told VeloNews. “We are following the rules set by the Israeli government, and we expect everyone from the team to attend.”

Also read:

Welcome to pro bike racing in a world pandemic.

This week’s camp is a sign that perhaps the peloton is turning the corner on the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak, and teams and race organizers are hopeful health restrictions and mitigation efforts will ease going into 2022.

In Israel, third-round booster shots for the Pfizer vaccine have already been rolled out, and travel restrictions were lifted for the first time in months, opening the door for Adams to bring staffers and riders to Israel.

The upcoming team camp reflects the latest changes and ongoing evolution within the peloton as professional cycling moves out of its second COVID summer.

There’s been plenty of collateral damage in the past 18 months or so, but overall the sport endured better than many could have expected when a veil of quarantines and confinement orders blanketed across the globe in the spring of 2020.

Flash-forward to November 2021, and the peloton is quietly hopeful it can turn the page on the COVID pandemic.

“The sport has proven last year that, even before the vaccines, it was able to function,” Adams said. “We’ve all adapted to the realities of COVID-19, and once we got the race bubbles and protocols in place, we were able to have all three grand tours and the most important races were held. Now with vaccines, things will be even better.”

Face masks and social distancing are the new norm in this COVID era. (Getty Images)

COVID continues to ripple across professional cycling

Teams are starting to tip-toe back toward a new reality, one that’s based on the ongoing challenges but with the expectation that the worst could be in the rear-view mirror.

Just as Israel Start-Up Nation is bringing its riders to Israel, other teams are putting things in place to return to relative normality going into 2022.

Remco Evenepoel raced gravel this weekend as part of a trip to the United States to meet with sponsors, and other teams are putting the finishing touches on early season camps in Spain.

The bigger question is: Will cycling ever be the same?

“Cycling’s done a great job to get through this challenging period, but we still have challenges. It won’t just disappear,” Brent Copeland, general manager at Team BikeExchange to VeloNews. “Everyone adjusted to get through it, and everyone is hoping we can get back a little bit to normal next year.”

The sport can breathe a collective sigh of relief it made it through another COVID season, with 2021 rolling out with even less impact and drama than in 2020.

It wasn’t easy, and there were certainly many teams and races taking hits. After a busy racing season, however, the sport takes stock ahead of a new season when everyone is quietly hopeful a sustained vaccination program across Europe and the globe will pay dividends in 2022.

“There were winners and losers throughout the crisis,” Adams told VeloNews. “It’s been great for bike manufacturers, one of the most important sponsors in our sport. Certain companies took a hit. It depends on who your sponsors were.”

The pandemic certainly hit teams hard in the pocketbook.

In the darkest days of the pandemic, some squads froze wages or even temporarily reduced salaries. As racing resumed under the UCI’s “race bubble” mitigation plan, required health controls and pre-race screenings cost teams hundreds of thousands of dollars (see below), and some teams and races struggled to make the numbers work.

Also read: Can Qhubeka-NextHash find a new sponsor in time?

Team CCC went down in flames in 2020 after its main backer — a Polish shoe manufacturer — was hit hard by the pandemic. This year, Qhubeka-NextHash is also struggling to secure its 2022 budget, with team management citing the pandemic as one of the principal challenges in shoring up its finances for next year.

Of course, it helped if a team is backed by deep financial pockets. Ineos Grenadiers, owned by the UK’s wealthiest businessman Jim Ratcliffe, actually saw its budget increase going into 2021. And for Adams, a billionaire developer from Canada who now resides in Israel, the coronavirus did not present a direct danger to his team.

“In our case, I am the team’s main backer, and as a result, and my activities were not as directly affected by COVID compared to other teams,” Adams said. “We didn’t have any drama on the team. We’re steady as she goes.”

As teams look to 2022, everyone’s gaze turns to the UCI.

Can cycling let down its mask in 2022? Many are hopeful. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Teams waiting on UCI update on COVID policies

Sources told VeloNews that the UCI’s medical team is working to update the COVID policies that were introduced in the wake of the earliest days of the pandemic in the summer of 2020.

The prescribed “race bubble,” with its series of pre-event PCR screenings for all staffers and riders — six days and three days out, respectively — and a series of other social distancing and mitigation efforts were effective.

By all measures, it was a stunning success. Most of the major WorldTour events were contested in 2020 and 2021, including all three grand tours and most of the major one-day races and weeklong stage races on both the men’s and women’s calendars.

Of course, there were a few glitches, and some big races on both calendars were canceled, and some individual racers and even entire teams were forced to leave some races. Globally, things were bleaker, but within the heartland of European racing, things went better than many could have imagined.

“Cyclists are already very strict with their hygiene,” Jumbo-Visma general manager Richard Plugge told VeloNews. “So not shaking hands, that’s nothing new for us. We were already a bit of a habit of many of these things before. Everyone is very cautious. No one wants to be the one who sees a team leave a race.”

Also read: How has COVID-19 changed cycling?

A scare this summer with the Delta variant, which saw another spike in infections across Europe, only served as a reminder that the sport cannot let its collective guard down too soon.

“During the Giro and Tour, it was almost as life was returning to normal,” Plugge said. “The Delta variant reminded everyone this isn’t just going away.”

Flash forward nearly two seasons of racing under the COVID cloud, and teams are hopeful for a change in health protocols for 2022 to help usher in a new chapter in what everyone hopes is a post-pandemic era.

Right now, the UCI confirmed the current regulations will remain in place through at least February 2022.

Teams are hoping in light of a near-universal vaccination across the international peloton that the UCI will ease its pre-race screening policies. One reason is cost. Most big teams said they’ve spent well into six figures to run and organize the PCR tests, which run from $75 to $150 per control.

It’s easy to see how the bill runs up quite quickly. With two tests per race per rider and staffer, that’s about $100 to $150 per person per event. Multiply that out to hundreds of race days across a staff of 60, and the number quickly adds up.

“It’s been a big dent in the budget, and every team has felt that,” Copeland said. “If there’s a new protocol and more leniency with screenings, that would make a big difference. When you have men’s and women’s teams, and everyone needs to be tested twice before a race, it runs into a lot of money very fast.”

Teams are hopeful that once riders and staffers are double-vaccinated and sometimes even with a booster, that the UCI can ease some of its pre-race PCR screening rules.

Race organizers, who’ve also carried as much financial burden as the teams, are also hopeful of a new protocol for 2022.

Also read: Will the Tour de France media ever be the same?

Media outlets as well are also expectant that journalists and TV crews will have a wider range to move beyond the COVID-designated mixed zones at start and finish lines, and regain traditional access to riders, coaches, sport directors, and team managers at team buses and hotels before the start and finish of races.

The Women’s Tour in Britain, at the start of October, was a brief view into what cycling used to be like. With almost all COVID-19 restrictions lifted in the UK, there was no confinement to mixed zones and the media could speak to riders and staff at team busses.

It was an outlier within the 2022 season, though, and tight restrictions were the norm at most events.

Some are worried that the sport will never be the same as it was before. Mitigation efforts such as social distancing, with more fencing and limited media and fan access at the start and finish areas, may never return to pre-COVID conditions.

Others are optimistic the eternal resilience of professional racing will carry the day.

What’s certain is that some of the COVID scars will take a long time to heal.

Can cycling finally turn the corner on COVID-19? Tomorrow, VeloNews looks at the tricky issues surrounding vaccine mandates and how 2022 could be different than the past two seasons of pandemic in the peloton.