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Riders relishing relaxed COVID scene at Israel Start-Up Nation camp

Chris Froome and teammates arrive in Israel for what's the first major team camp since COVID shut down everything in 2020.

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JERUSALEM (VN) — Guillaume Boivin admitted he felt a little odd as he pressed in close among his teammates and staffers at Israel Start-Up Nation‘s pre-season training camp that opened Saturday.

In the team’s first get-together ahead of the 2022 season, there were familiar faces and new arrivals catching up after a few short weeks off the bike.

One thing was radically different — no one was wearing face masks. Not inside the team bubble, nowhere else in the hotel, or on the bustling streets of Jerusalem.

It’s almost as if COVID-19 was in the rear-view mirror.

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen the crowds like that,” Boivin told VeloNews. “You’re kind of unsure in the beginning because you’re used to being extra-cautious the last two years. I guess this is the start of getting back to normal.”

Riders, staffers gather for first major team camp since pandemic started

Getting back to normal — that’s what everyone inside professional cycling is hoping for going into 2022.

The raging world pandemic seems to be finally slowing down following an international vaccine campaign. In some countries like Israel or Spain, vaccination rates are above 80 percent, and a third round of boosters is already underway.

That’s allowing governments to ease restrictions that have kept professional cyclists behind masks, sequestered inside “COVID bubbles,” and kept fans at arm’s length since the coronavirus exploded in the spring of 2020.

“It’s like we’ve woken up from a two-year nightmare,” James Piccoli told VeloNews. “It’s been long — two seasons, probably more than 100 PCR tests. Two before every race, some during, and some at home. It’s been endless PCR tests. At my local clinic, they all know us. I don’t have to give my passport anymore. They know who I am.”

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More than 70 riders and staffers, including four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, arrived Friday night in Jerusalem for a 10-day pre-season camp that’s the team’s first official visit to Israel since before the pandemic started.

With Israel going into its third round of boosters, the Israeli government opened up the border this month to international tourism for the first time since 2020.

Requirements are still tight — visitors must prove full vaccination and then test negative for PCR tests before traveling and upon arriving — but the steadily improving situation is allowing the team to hold a team camp in what’s an almost pre-pandemic reality.

“I almost had forgotten about COVID. We’re outside, we went on a training ride, and it’s almost like normal life again,” Piccoli said. “I know Israel was one of the early adopters of vaccines, so it’s nice to come here and almost feel it’s normal.”

Chris Froome camp
Chris Froome signs autographs for Israeli fans during a training ride in Jerusalem. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Pioro)

A sign of better things for 2022?

The camp is the latest sign that things could be transitioning into a new reality for the peloton in 2022.

The UCI and the major race organizations are working up plans on how next season will look. Teams and riders are hopeful that the endless string of PCR testing could be relaxed with near-universal vaccinations across the peloton.

Media and fans are hopeful that the social distancing and “race bubbles” that kept riders behind walls of barriers will finally be popped.

On Saturday, the riders paced through an easy-paced two-hour ride in the hills west of Jerusalem that included a coffee stop at a hilltop café.

Locals were tipped off via social media that the team would be arriving, and the parking lot was jammed with cycling fans, motorcyclists, hikers, and day-trippers.

Fans broke out into applause and pressed in for photos when the riders rolled up. Froome patiently posed for photographs and signed autographs for dozens of fans.

The riders relaxed at picnic tables and then posed for a group photo before zipping away.

Acting so natural almost seemed unnatural after nearly two years of pandemic restrictions.

“At the beginning, you’re not really sure. You think, ‘well, that’s kind of a  big crowd,” Boivin said. “I haven’t been in a big crowd like this for a couple of years. At the same time, it’s nice to see, and to talk to people.”

Just to be sure, Froome and other riders cleaned their hands with disinfectant after shaking hands.

Cycling might be nearing the far end of the COVID tunnel, but it’s not entirely out just yet.