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Sepp Kuss spoke with his Jumbo-Visma mechanic before the start of stage 2 at this week’s Vuelta a Burgos. Both wore face masks, and each man stood well apart from the other. Kuss then made his way to the sign-in area with his teammates, all of whom also wore face coverings. Officials checked each rider’s temperature, and then each man sprayed his hands with sanitizer. This all occurred before the men stepped onto the podium together.
Few saw this process occur, as fans and media were kept well away from the area behind protective fencing.
Welcome to cycling’s new reality of trying to build a safe race in the midst of a global pandemic.
With just one stage to go at Burgos, cyclists interviewed this week by VeloNews said they were largely impressed with the COVID-19 protocol and other safety measures that have been rolled out, and agreed that they feel it’s as safe as it can be to race.
“I feel safe,” Kuss told VeloNews. “At the hotel, everything is very secure. The whole peloton, we’ve done tests, at least two before this race, and our teams we’ve done more before the training camps. That mitigates a lot of the risks, and I feel safe.”
This week’s Burgos tour, with five stages along the edge of Spain’s northern meseta, provided cycling’s first test of its COVID-19 protocol for the men’s peloton. Race organizers and teams invested heavily for what is cycling’s big experiment of trying to race the coronavirus pandemic.
The race began with an early scare, which saw two riders from Israel Start-Up Nation and then three more from UAE-Emirates sent home as precautionary moves after they had some contact with individuals who had tested positive for COVID-19; all five riders later tested negative for the virus in follow-up controls. Despite that hiccup, the general feeling is that things went fairly smoothly at Burgos.
There were a few complaints that things could have been clamped down a bit tighter, but overall, the general impression was the first race went better than expected.
“I think things are going well,” Ineos’s Richard Carapaz told VeloNews about COVID-19 protocols. “Right now I’d say that all the riders feel pretty good about what we’re seeing. You can see that they are following a lot of protocols, and the team is doing the right things. That gives you confidence that we can keep racing.”
It helped that the race didn’t attract huge crowds, especially with several of the stages starting in rural villages far from major cities. Only the opening stage in Burgos drew large crowds of fans. During the rest of the week, the race entourage out-numbered fans on most days.
“Burgos is a good race to start out with before other races with bigger crowds to come. The guys do feel quite safe at the race,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “When you look at the bubbles inside the race and inside the teams, one of the safest places to be at the moment is a bike race. Because you know the people sitting around you at the dinner table, your teammates, your staff, have all been tested. Most of the general public haven’t had tests, and here we do.”
Riders, staffers, race personnel, and journalists were all required to produce a negative COVID-19 control at least 72 hours before the start of the race. Though there is a risk of contact with someone who might have the coronavirus, the risk right now in the Burgos is quite low, and officials were hopeful the final stage Saturday would unfold without incident.
Medical staff among the teams and the race organization followed a series of health protocols that helped them stay on top of any hint of any possible outbreak of COVID-19. One race official told VeloNews on Friday that no one among the peloton has shown any COVID-19 symptoms this week during racing.
“We feel pretty safe here all week,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Shane Archbold told VeloNews. “I think the Vuelta a Burgos has done a pretty good job handling things. There have been some situations, but they have taken care of, and there’s been no outbursts or cases, so we cannot complain. Every day we feel more confident about how things are going.”
As the WorldTour calendar clicks into gear Saturday with Strade Bianche and more racing resumes in France with the Route d’Occitanie over the weekend, the peloton will have more opportunities to see how other organizers are handling the challenges presented while racing during the coronavirus pandemic.
The larger threat to the peloton and its revised calendar that runs through mid-November is the risk that a fresh outbreak or a second wave of the coronavirus could shut things down again in parts of Europe. While things are looking pretty good in France and Italy, parts of Spain have seen troubling spikes of outbreaks that are prompting officials to reintroduce some restrictions in parts of Catalunya and other areas in Spain.
With that sense of impending doom, riders and teams alike are racing each day as it might be their last.
“I think we have to take it race by race. Everybody is in the same boat,” Kuss said. “Everyone wants to start strong because even though we have a calendar, nothing is for sure. With these safety measures, it’s a big step. You have to stay optimistic at least.”
Saturday’s final mountain stage to the Lagunas de Neila will be an important milestone for the elite men’s peloton. Just a few months ago, the wheels came off the sport when the coronavirus shut everything down.
The relatively smooth ride this week at Burgos is an encouraging sign that if everyone in the peloton follows the health and safety protocols, and if there are no major flare-ups of new infections, that quite a bit of racing just might unfold as hoped for in the coming weeks and months.