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Peloton braces for COVID disruptions as European race calendar draws closer

A wave of early season cancelations and worsening health conditions in Europe have pro teams on edge again.

Just a few weeks ago, when teams made their annual migration to Spain’s Costa Blanca for pre-season training camps, things were looking bright ahead of the 2021 racing calendar.

Riders were training and preparing for the upcoming season as teams booked out entire hotels and re-created the “race bubble” that had saved most of 2020. Early season races across France, Spain, and Portugal were overflowing with interest. With the first vaccines being rolled out, there was real optimism that the worse of the coronavirus pandemic was in the rearview mirror.

And then a third wave of COVID-19 infections slammed into Europe. Hospitals across the continent are once again on the edge of being overwhelmed, and governments and health authorities are tightening restrictions.

A recent string of race cancelations during the past several days is turning that quiet optimism across team camps from the past few weeks into a growing dread just as the 2021 season is about to start.

“I hope the season can go ahead as normal as possible. It doesn’t look great at the moment in Europe,” said Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal). “We still need to be preparing as if they’re going to go ahead … I’m not thinking about it too much, because no one knows what’s going to happen, so there’s no use thinking that the first races of the season might be canceled.”

Coming into the new season, riders, teams, race organizers, and UCI officials were hopeful that the lessons learned from 2020 — when the sport’s key stakeholders circled the wagons to save much of the WorldTour calendar — could be applied to the 2021 season.

Cycling’s “race bubble” concept proved that races could be contested under largely safe conditions. Despite budget cuts and salary reductions on some teams, the men’s WorldTour emerged largely unscathed from 2020, and Team CCC was the only men’s WorldTour team to fold.

“It would have been a disaster for the sport if the Tour de France had not been contested last year,” said Matt White, sport director at Team BikeExchange. “Right now, we’re operating as if all the races are on. We know things can change, but everyone is keen to race.”

Despite the lessons of 2020, worsening health conditions in Europe could throw another wrench into the international racing calendar yet again.

Ahead of this month, there were already a string of high-profile cancelations in South America, the Middle East, and the WorldTour openers at the Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Australia.

Just in the past few days, several early season races across southern Europe that were recently were boasting about their record lineups have been forced to pull the plug. The Mallorca Challenge, the Volta ao Algarve, the Vuelta a Murcia, Ruta del Sol, and the Circuit de la Sarthe have either been canceled or have requested rescheduling later in the season.

Uncertainty building at the start of 2021

UAE Team Emirates riders waiting for Vuelta a Burgos' opening stage to roll out. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
UAE Team Emirates riders waiting for Vuelta a Burgos’ opening stage to roll out. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Riders and teams are hoping this is not the start of a repeat of 2020.

“There is not a fear, but I wouldn’t be surprised if races get postponed,” said Jack Bauer of Team BikeExchange. “I think we’ve all learned over the past 12 months that things can change pretty quickly. Last year, when races were being canceled, and we started to face the reality of the situation, it wasn’t easy. This year, we’re hoping for better, and we’re all training and preparing for a full-gas start to the season.”

So far, the cancelations and postponements have not reach reached into March and the first WorldTour events on the calendar at the UAE Tour, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche. The UCI has not yet publicly commented on the recent cancelations or if it is considering reshuffling dates.

Right now, it’s simply too early to know if races in March and April or the summer’s grand tour season will be impacted, though some suggest it could only be a matter of time.

“I would think everyone is looking for some normality,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven. “I am hoping for a normal classics season. It’s nice to have everything on the calendar, and have everything to work toward. We hope the classics are raced this year in the spring.”

With so much uncertainty, many teams are pivoting to the UAE Tour, which will open the WorldTour on February 21-27. Chris Froome is among several top stars slated to race there in February.

Several early races remain on the schedule. Despite spiking COVID cases in Spain, the UCI-ranked 1.2 Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana 1969 race was contested Sunday, won by Lorrenzo Manzin (Direct Energie).

Officials from the five-day Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana (February 3-7) and the Clásica de Almería (February 14)  still plan on running their races. Early season French races such as GP Marseillaise (January 31), Etoile de Bessèges (February 3-7), and the Tour de la Provence (February 11-14) are all still on the calendar.

“We don’t really know how it’s going to pan out, and we have to be open for changes, and be ready for everything,” said Alexander Kristoff of UAE-Team Emirates. “Last year, it started normal, and suddenly everything shut down. It can also be the case this year. I just hope we can do the major races at least, and this will be important for the sport to survive. This is our job, and if we cannot do it, the sponsors will go away, and it will be difficult for everybody.”