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Q&A: Team doctor on why CCC-Liv withdrew from two Spanish races

CCC-Liv's team doctor Tessa Backhuijs says decision wasn't made hastily.

On the eve of Thursday’s Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, women’s WorldTour team CCC-Liv announced it was withdrawing from the event due to the race’s COVID-19 safety measures. Team physician Tessa Backhuijs helped make that decision from her home in The Netherlands. Backhuijs said the decision to withdraw came from a combination of factors, namely discrepancies between the race organizer and the UCI’s protocols for COVID-19 test results. Three other teams — Bizkaia-Durango, Sopela Team and Massi-Tactic — also did not start in today’s race, due to not getting results back in time.

CCC-Liv has also backed out of Friday’s Clasica Femenina Navarra event. We spoke with Backhuijs about the team’s decision, as well as the implications for the season ahead.

VeloNews: When did the alarm sound for you that competing today and tomorrow was not a good idea?

Tessa Backhuijs: This decision is not made overnight, it seems like it is, but it’s not. The first phase is that we focused on meeting the requirements of the UCI protocol as a team. We did all we needed to do to show up in a safe way. It was quite a bit of work, but we made it.

Meanwhile I was monitoring the situation in Spain and trying to get protocols. I couldn’t find protocols from the race organizer, but it appeared that it was sent to our staff, so eventually I got them. There was a huge difference between the protocols that I saw a week ago and the team presentation that was given this afternoon.

It seemed to me that I saw a few pages of the whole story. I kept asking, ‘there must be more to it, can you send it to me?’ I never got it, so we needed a Plan B. Part of the UCI protocol is that there need to be a risk assessment, but we never got it, so we made it ourselves. I went on local government website in Spain to see the number of cases to get an idea. I saw that cases are rising, especially compared to last Monday through Wednesday. So, it was ‘OK, we’re looking here at a race situation in Phase Four, meaning it’s not a pandemic but it’s close to it.’ Moderate to high risk. That is why we felt, we really need to make an effort that all teams make the same requirements because that’s the only way to make a safe bubble.

VN: Was it that what the UCI was asking and what the race organizers were communicating was not compatible?

TB: It’s a possibility that they [the race organizers] did organize the whole lot, but they couldn’t write it down in the protocol and show it. Or, in the other case, they organized it yesterday. I don’t know how that works. In some way, there was a miscommunication in information, and maybe also no one thought that teams would make the call that if they didn’t consider it safe that they would pull out, maybe no one thought it would happen.

VN: So, really, you and team leadership had to make this decision the day before racing was to begin. 

TB: Yes. I had the idea over the weekend, but I didn’t have enough evidence to support my idea. You need to be really sure to make this kind of decision. That’s why I kept emailing the race organizers, the UCI. That’s why I attended the UCI meeting last Wednesday to see what they would say there. 

VN: Were you also worried that it would be too difficult for the UCI to enforce of all of protocols? 

TB: I think I had believed that they could. The final protocol we’d gotten was quite clear. There was certain criteria that if you didn’t meet you couldn’t start. They also talked about platforms to share information, but the medical platform was only to be used by medical doctors. I realized that to make such a platform was quite difficult because of the regulations to protect personal information. I believe they did their best. With all the team doctors, we had a lot of contact with the medical head of the UCI. I really believe they put forth an effort to make it happen and to try to check it themselves, but then maybe the race was too soon to get everything done. 

VN: It also seems like some of the protocol might have been too much for smaller teams who don’t have a doctor on staff.

TB: Well, we had a UCI meeting yesterday, and it became clear that only team doctors could upload the test results from PCR test. A lot of teams did the test but don’t have a doctor to share the documents. So, the UCI said, please organize a team doctor. 

Every WorldTeam team needs a team doctor, but for the other teams, a lot of the team doctors are doctors on paper only. On urgent matters, you can consult them but they’re not working closely with team the way I am. That makes it, for other teams, a huge effort to organize.

In your home country, testing takes effort, but it’s doable. But to find a laboratory in a foreign country… I don’t speak Spanish enough to phone just anyone. It took a lot of effort to get this done and to get the results in the right time. 

And, if it’s a UCI-safe platform for only medical doctors, then only I could upload them. 

VN: At the moment, the team is planning to race on Sunday. Why? 

TB: We found it a hard decision to make yesterday for the Navarra races. At that time we felt we cannot decide for Sunday yet because we saw some parts of the protocol from Sunday’s race. It’s somewhat more clear and more specific. We thought there might be lessons learned from theses two races that everyone can use and that we can possibly have a safe situation on Sunday.

We would have been in our right to decide two weeks ago to not race in Navarra because they didn’t have things in place. But we knew that everyone is in a new situation, and it’s a lot for race organizers to make the effort. We wanted to respect their efforts. We’ll prepare, show up, we really want to race, and we think things will be fine. We didn’t want to be so strict on the two week mark because it’s the first time anyone has gone through this. We wanted to be flexible with that. But then, we expected it to be organized. 

For the coming races, I’m sure we will make decisions earlier, but for the first time we wanted to give everyone enough time to show us that everything was organized. Now that we’ve heard that three teams were not allowed to start, it seems that the rumors were right, some teams were not tested. For Sunday, they made it very clear to us that the only teams that are welcome can show results. I’ve heard that even some teams that couldn’t start today made sure they were tested today. 

Basically, I think everyone really tried hard in a protocol that is really hard to fulfill. But then again, cycling is a high risk sport when it comes to COVID-19 because of the specifics of the sport. Moving from one place to the other. It’s not one stadium and you can control the one stadium. It’s not like that.

VN: How challenging has it been to apply COVID-19 best practices to cycling? 

TB: My usual work in hospital is different with different challenges. It helps a lot that our hospital had a lot of cases during the pandemic. So I’ve seen what it can do, that’s why a lot of my information is from the hospital and first-hand.

I’d like to focus on what we can learn from today, how it can improve for the next races. I don’t like to finger point on who didn’t do what because it is very challenging. I have respect for all the work that the UCI and the race organizers did. 

VN: What can we learn from this? What does it tell us about the rest of the race calendar?

TB: What I hope that everyone learns is that this protocol is a serious protocol and the only way to be able to race in a time that COVID is still around us. It’s either, everyone take their responsibility to race in the safest possible way or we don’t race. And that’s something that everyone needs to take seriously, from the teams to the organizers to the spectators.

When it comes to rest of races, COVID cases are rising in all countries, so I’m not sure whether we can get the whole schedule done. But that’s out of our hands, the race organizers, the UCI, the teams. It’s just something happening in the world today.