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Racing in a COVID-19 world

Teams, organizers already moving pieces in place to be ready to compete.

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It’s August 14, and Romain Bardet just won a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

After months of an unprecedented race stoppage, by mid-summer, cycling is taking its first steps into the great unknown of racing in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.

Government officials eased international travel restrictions to allow top pros like Egan Bernal and Tejay van Garderen to enter France. Teams hoping to start the Tour de France in a few weeks have brought together entire staff, riders, and sport directors to live inside a COVID-free, testing-controlled bubble. They will eat, race, sleep, travel, and be tested together inside an insular cocoon from early August until the end of the rescheduled Tour.

Bardet steps up onto the winner’s podium wearing a mask. Due to social distancing, there are no flowers from the podium girls, no handshakes with the local mayor. He waves, but there’s no one in the crowd. This is a virtual race held in real-time, with no fans lining the route, almost no journalists (they’re at a local school waiting for a video feed), and only two pool photographers. A skeleton TV crew is on hand to provide the live feed to beam to fans around the world that are starting to see their first live races in months.

Bardet steps off the podium for post-stage doping controls that now include anti-body tests and a COVID-19 control. If he tests positive for the latter, he and his entire team are removed from the race, and forced into a 14-day quarantine.

Welcome to racing in the COVID-19 world, coming soon to a peloton near you.

Preparing for a COVID-safe race

With Strade Bianche penciled in for August 1 to kick-start a revised calendar that extends into mid-November, the wheels are already turning behind the scenes to prepare for that day.

With a tentative calendar in place since early May, teams, riders, race organizations, and UCI officials have now shifted gears to consider how road racing might look in the coming weeks.

The bottom line? If there is racing at the Dauphiné in August, there is no doubt it’s going to look different than anything cycling has seen before.

2019 Strade Bianche
Alaphilippe (center) won Strade-Bianche in 2019.

“If we would be racing, in my opinion, it should be without public along the road, with testing before we get into the races, and all kinds of things like that,” Jumbo-Visma manager Richard Plugge told VeloNews. “And the smaller the group, the better it is around the race — fewer journalists, less organization people, less people from teams.”

With restrictions easing across Europe following two months of near-total lockdown, there is quiet optimism that some racing will take place in the coming months.

Everyone admits the revised calendar might be little more than a wish list, one that is dependent on health authorities and how health conditions evolve, but it provides an important target for a sport that thrives on a moment that’s been stuck in lockdown mode since mid-March.

Since last week, pros living in quarantine since March across France, Italy, Andorra, and Spain are now allowed to train outside. With a new calendar in place, sport directors and team managers can now map out schedules, and trainers and coaches can resume training calendars.

It’s all about getting the wheels moving again, and building toward a return to racing.

“With the new calendar, we’ve got a light at the end of what was a very dark tunnel,” UAE-Emirates sport director Allan Peiper told VeloNews. “Now people have something to aim for. The races are on the calendar, and now we can work down the checklist of schedules, travel, protocols, and organizing staff and support vehicles. The UCI has done a good job on the calendar, now we can start looking at the other questions.”

Nearly all racing has been on hold since the UAE Tour in February. Teams and officials will need to examine risk before racing.

Laying the groundwork

With August 1 looming, no one is wasting time.

Doctors from top WorldTour teams have created a working group to study how best to mitigate risks, and protect their riders and staff. They’re sharing information and ideas on a regular basis on how teams and the entire peloton can prepare to race under exceptional conditions.

Last week, riders from Lotto-Soudal underwent anti-body tests and COVID-19 controls to measure the health of their riders. That’s part of a larger push to test all riders within the WorldTour before racing resumes on August 1.

“Before any training camp, we are asked that we conduct COVID-9 tests as well as anti-body tests to see if our riders and staff have come in contact with the virus,” Trek-Segafredo doctor Gaetano Daniele told Tuttobiciweb. “If it’s believed that a rider is open to more health risk due to the virus, then a series of more detailed tests will be done to the heart and lungs.”

Peiper, who raced in the 1980s and 1990s before becoming a sport director, said cycling has utilized hygiene practices long before coronavirus came along, so adjusting to certain new precautions won’t be too challenging for teams or riders.

“In another three months, race organizers will have a checklist from their side based on local authorities,” Peiper said. “A lot of teams have been looking after hygiene for a number of years. Whether it’s sneezing into elbows, no shaking hands, washing hands, using hand sanitizing, chefs at the races, teams have been doing those things for years to decrease the risk of getting sick.”

Teams are also game-planning how to best organize races to keep everyone safer in the COVID-19 era.

Riders might not be able to attend high-altitude training camps. And due to possible travel restrictions, teams won’t be as flexible in being able to select the strongest, most fit riders for a race. Instead, it might come down to who is closest to the start of any given race.

One idea is to create units within teams in which the same group of riders, staffers, and sport directors will travel, race, sleep, and eat together during a large chunk of the revised schedule. With such a compact racing schedule, that might be the best approach with nearly a season of racing packed into three months.

Team vehicles can be hired on a short-term basis, but navigating travel restrictions is not so easy a problem to solve.

“We will probably have to rent another bus,” Ineos sport director Servais Knaven to Sporza. “We have enough cyclists to do all the races, but it’s another question about the staffers and logistics.”

Riders are also involved in these decisions. Israel Start-Up Nation’s Rory Sutherland, who is also part of the working group at the CPA riders’ union, has been working as a point man within his team to create a COVID plan.

“We have ‘Zoom’ meetings with our DS’s, trainers, and doctors to talk about how the medical side is going to look for us,” Sutherland told VeloNews. “The team came to the riders and said, ‘you guys are riding, and we want to work together to find the best solution.’

“There are so many questions,” he continued. “Who’s in Europe? Who might get quarantined? What’s the protocol for riders who will race together? The management has a lot of work to make it the best situation. What’s right? And what’s correct? It’s an interesting puzzle.”

Racing “behind closed doors”

With teams and riders doing what they can to prepare for racing, race organizers are also planning substantial COVID-specific adjustments.

No one wants to see a race held “behind closed doors” without fans, but organizers are already planning for that option if that remains the only alternative.

“Having a Vuelta without fans is not unfeasible, but it is certainly not desirable, because the race would lose its essence,” said Vuelta a España director Javier Guillén. “A Vuelta with some restrictions on the public is better than no Vuelta at all.”

Guillén, who confirmed last week that two stages planned for Portugal would be rerouted to stay within Spain, said the race is doing all it can to be ready for competition, always recognizing that the ultimate approval must come from Spanish health authorities. Pre-race health screenings, temperature monitoring, and protocols in case of positives will all be part of any race’s game plan.

2019 Vuelta a España
Would it be feasible to hold the Vuelta a España “behind closed doors?”

“If tests have to be done on all the riders we’ll do so,” Guillén said. “The Vuelta peloton is so international. It would be a decisive setback if foreign riders would have to undergo a two-week quarantine upon arrival in Spain. I am confident exceptions would be made.”

Once at the race, just how would the once-familiar caravan look like?

Organizers are outlining a blueprint that would include such measures as having only one rider or staffer per hotel room, instead of sharing under normal conditions. Communal meals would end, with riders either eating in their rooms or at individual tables in the dining room. Only one team will be housed at each hotel, rather than seeing two or sometimes up to four teams in larger hotels.

Riders might have one assigned soigneur, and contact with staffers would be a minimum. The typical beehive of activity around a team bus would be reduced to just riders and a few key sport directors. Mechanics, soigneurs, drivers, and team media personnel would work at a distance.

“One group of riders will follow one line and stay together with the staff to keep the group solid for all of these months and make it a family, more or less,” Jumbo-Visma’s Plugge said. “And that is the way we are looking at it.”

It remains to be seen exactly what restrictions there might be in place, but race organizers are already planning on limiting contact between the larger public and the peloton to the absolute minimum.

At the start, fencing will not only line the bus and sign-on areas, but also circle a larger cordoned zone to keep curious fans from getting too close.

The open roads might be trickier to control, but with the peloton moving along at 50kph, the risk of contagion between the public and peloton would be diminished. Publicity caravans and the number of cars driving on the route will also be slashed, and fencing will be in place during key climbing sections.

At the finish line, the number of people will also be dramatically reduced. Fans will either be absent or kept far back behind a series of barriers, while the number of staffers and journalists would be limited. Podium protocol will be strictly ceremonial, and everyone will be donning facemasks.

“One the things about Europe is that the protocols are coming from health organizations,” Sutherland said. “It’s not from the financial side, or from a sponsor. These are the rules, and this is what will happen. Everyone is trying to work that out.”

The Paris-Nice blueprint of racing without fanfare, or extravagant podium celebrations.

Paris-Nice as blueprint

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you’re right. Paris-Nice was held under similarly, albeit evolving, circumstances in early March. The Race to the Sun served as an important trial run for how organizers.

Bahrain-McLaren’s Heinrich Haussler raced at Paris-Nice, and came away with encouraged by what he saw.

“I felt safer at the race than when I came home,” Haussler told VeloNews. “There is more risk at home — taking the kids to the park or going to the grocery store — than there was at Paris-Nice.

“At Paris-Nice, the only people you had contact with were your teammates, staff members, or the other riders in the race,” he continued. “The buses were blocked off, and there were no spectators at the podium or team areas. It’s a tough situation, but at Paris-Nice, you felt safe. It might be different at a big race like the Tour.”

NTT Pro Cycling was among teams that sent riders to Paris-Nice, which ended one stage early. Team manager Bjarne Riis said Paris-Nice provided a glimpse of what a modified version of the Tour might look like if it starts under conditions of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think Paris-Nice was an excellent test for doing that,” Riis said. “We learned a lot from Paris-Nice, that it was possible to do a race like that. We hope there will be spectators [at the Tour], but if they won’t allow that, they have to do it in a different way and we saw that it was possible.”

Cycling’s biggest test

When the worst wave of COVID-19 was sweeping across Europe two months ago, doomsayers were quick to call for cancelation of the remainder of the 2020 racing season.

The very essence of a stage race, moving from town to town across an entire country, seems at first glance the perfect incubator and transmission motor for something as contagious as coronavirus.

Yet behind the scenes, teams, organizers, riders, and officials refused to give up. For many in professional cycling, COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic quarantines and lockdowns present a direct threat to the sport’s future.

The COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly change racing for the remainder of 2020.

“Now it’s a crisis and everybody needs racing, so let’s be happy with as many races as possible in the calendar,” said Jumbo-Visma’s Plugge. “We will see at the end of the day how many [races] are held because there will be some cancellations coming up.”

Cycling’s racing revival is its biggest challenge in a generation, if not since World War II. The sport’s key stakeholders vow to work together, and make decisions based on science and what health authorities are telling them.

“I cannot imagine [Tour director] Christian Prudhomme would want to start the Tour not feeling it is safe,” Riis said. “I trust these people to take the right decision. We should follow that.”

Everyone in the sport has a collective interest to race again. No one wants to take unnecessary risks, yet everyone believes if there’s an opportunity to race in safe conditions, riders and teams alike will be ready to go.

“Bike racers, by their nature, are resilient. They have to be,” said UAE-Emirates’ Peiper. “They bounce back from crashes when people think they’ll never race again. This is unlike anything anyone’s seen before. There will be some surprises.”

Everyone’s fingers are crossed that events over the next few decisive months tip toward cycling’s favor. Come August, Bardet just may well be standing on that podium.