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Q&A: Iris Slappendel on the COVID compliance crisis in women’s cycling

Leader of the riders' alliance on teams' Catch-22 between compliance to COVID regulations and financial burden they impose.

The Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa on Thursday marked both a bright day and dark warning for women’s pro cycling.

The Spanish race was the first women’s professional competition since the coronavirus racing pause; the light that had motivated riders through a long spring in lockdown. However, it also highlighted the newest and biggest challenge impacting both the men’s and women’s peloton – the ability to race safely in a world still battling COVID-19.

Just the night before Thursday’s race, The Cyclists’ Alliance, the independent group supporting the female peloton, sounded an alarm bell over failings by race organizers to prove the UCI’s new COVID protocol had been followed.

Soon afterward, CCC-Liv stepped out of Thursday’s race and Friday’s Clasica Femenina Navarra for concerns over safety. Shortly after that, a swathe of teams were withdrawn from Thursday’s Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa due to a lack of compliance with the coronavirus guidance.

While Thursday’s race may have suggested business as usual, with Annameik Van Vleuten scooping a solo win, the events before it could tell a story for the season to come.

VeloNews spoke to Iris Slappendel, director of The Cyclists’ Alliance, about what can be learned from Thursday’s events, the operational and financial implications that health measures can place on already-underfunded women’s teams, and what the TCA is doing to try to help.

Women’s racing is back – but it’s not going to be an easy ride in 2020. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images.

VeloNews: Just the night before the Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, the TCA raised a warning about compliance to health protocol at the race. What led to that?

Iris Slappendel: We weren’t specifically investigating that one race. The last few weeks we’ve been studying the UCI guidelines to be able to ask questions, give input and explain it to the riders in webinars that we are running.

The days before the race, Claire Rose [the TCA’s doctor and medical point of contact] and Tessa Backhuijs [CCC-Liv’s doctor] were preparing the webinars we’re running to help riders understand the UCI’s COVID guidance. Tessa raised a lot of concerns about the lack of proof that all guidelines had been followed by teams and race organizers.

That, combined with messages we got in the past few days from riders as well as some DS’s, made us try to find out more about the conditions.

VN: Are you satisfied with the support and guidance the UCI is giving teams and race organizers around COVID? 

IS: The question is, what is UCI’s role in this area? They’ve created a calendar, they’ve set the guidelines. That’s it. But is it their responsibility to do the testing for example, or to help teams to get to race safely or help race organizers? Common sense would say yes, but at the same time they’re just a governing body – they’re just there to set regulations.

Maybe we expect a bit too much from the UCI. They are doing what they can. I think that the resources of the UCI are too limited right now to support the women’s peloton as well as the men.

VN: The UCI issued its COVID guidance last week. Are you satisfied that it was fit for purpose?

IS: The COVID guidelines really are a balance. It’s a difficult document because it covers men’s and women’s cycling, and there is a difference.

Probably if you would ask a doctor, they would say the guidelines aren’t good enough for a rider while a race organizer would say the guidance makes it impossible to organize a race – and there’s a sense they’re struggling to keep up with it. And if you would ask a team, they would say it’s a massive extra amount of work and costs on them. So you know, probably no one’s happy with it because it’s trying to balance every stakeholder. And that is a difficult task.

VN: Are you concerned about the financial burdens that keeping up with coronavirus protocol will place on teams?  

IS: I am. And that’s also a discussion we had with the CPA and UCI.

Teams are responsible for their riders, but maybe there is now a bit too much responsibility on them. For example, we asked the UCI about how every team needs a doctor to follow the guidance. A lot of continental teams don’t have a doctor, so they have to hire one to do the tests or to process the results. And that’s next to the cost of doing the actual test. And I think maybe the UCI wasn’t even aware of the fact that Continental teams don’t have the obligation to have a doctor according to their rules. So it’s been maybe quite an eye-opener for them as well.

Talking to a lot of teams, they do have a lot of problems and they don’t have the resources to comply to all these rules. And the risk is now that only the teams who have a big budget are able to comply to the rules and are able to race. The problem is the UCI had to set a guideline that is safe for everyone to race – they cannot set one guideline for smaller teams but then that’s not safe for everyone else. And they’ve done their best to be thorough, but that costs.

VN: TCA ran a series of webinars earlier this week to help the women’s peloton digest the protocol. Can you explain what led to the decision to create these sessions?

IS: The COVID guidelines are such a comprehensive document, even for me it’s a lot to read and get my head around. So we thought probably most riders are not going to read it or not understand half of it, so the two webinars we’re doing are really explaining the guidelines and highlighting what is important for riders to know.

There is a sense that the protocol has overwhelmed people. There’s such a big disparity in professionalism within the women’s peloton. I think a lot of riders don’t get the information passed from their team – I think some teams don’t really communicate down to their riders very well. And that’s kind of understandable because these guidelines came through at such short notice and also there is so much stuff in it that is quite complicated.

We thought if a team doesn’t have a doctor – and a lot of Continental teams don’t have one – is the guidance understandable for them? So we’re trying to help highlight with our sessions what the team is responsible for, what the race organizer is responsible for, and bullet-point the guidelines so the riders can make sure whether the team or they personally have applied them.

There was also input from the doctor from CCC-Liv and Sunweb that focuses on what a rider personally can do to ensure they’re healthy and safe, covering hygiene, travel, using protective equipment. A lot of that is based on questions that we got from the riders in the past few weeks because they’re really worried about getting sick and how to protect themselves.

VN: How do you feel about what happened at the Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa Thursday, and what does it mean for the season to come?

IS: In a strange way, it’s made me optimistic. It shows that the teams were aware enough of the health protocol to act, and I think the work we’re doing and the statement we made earlier this week helped.

The actions of CCC-Liv really helped to raise the topic and make everyone aware that most importantly, races need to publish a risk assessment, to confirm that the COVID protocols have been followed and that all riders have been tested. I think it’s important to realize that’s the minimum needed to have a safe race.

I think that everyone was maybe a little bit, ‘Well, you know, it’s not a real WorldTour race. So we’ll see what happens.’ And I think we’re living at a time now where we shouldn’t think, ‘We’ll see what happens.’ If we do that it could be the end of the season right away if it goes wrong here in Spain.