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Teams worried that packed calendar could undermine ‘bubbles’

With racing starting to resume, some question if peloton is stretched too thin.

Next week’s Vuelta a Burgos marks a new starting point for a revamped men’s cycling calendar that’s packed full from late July into mid-November.

With three grand tours, a series of smaller stage races and one-day classics as well as a world championship, some have been raising the alarm bells that the ambitious calendar could undermine the peloton’s efforts to handle growing coronavirus challenges.

Richard Plugge, general manager at Jumbo-Visma, said his team is stretched to the limit as it tries to manage staffing, racing programs, health controls and logistics to meet the demands of a sprawling calendar set against the unprecedented backdrop of a world pandemic.

“The packed calendar makes it logistically very difficult given the COVID situation,” Plugge told VeloNews. “What I am a bit worried about is the amount of racing. The calendar is so packed and full.”

Though races continue to drop off the calendar — the Canadian WorldTour races in Québec and Montréal were the latest to pull the plug on 2020 — there remain an unprecedented number of race days packed into little more than a three-month window.

Counting the men’s WorldTour, there are 105 race days in 19 races, with several of those dates overlapping. There are another 65 days of racing in 17 events at 2.1-ranked and 2.Pro-level races across Europe, plus another dozen or so days with national and world championships.

That’s a lot of racing, and it’s putting additional pressure on teams already straining under the added burden that comes with COVID-19 protocols. Teams are investing heavily in creating COVID-free spaces or “bubbles” that will remain in place until racing begins.

Some fear that too much racing — and the traveling and border crossings that inevitably come with that — could pose a threat to the underlying integrity of the bubble concept.

Plugge said his team already decided to take a pass on certain races and events. Jumbo-Visma won’t be sending riders to the European championships, for example, because it doesn’t want to break its bubbles.

“We will make some choices to keep our bubbles and not break them too much,” Plugge said in a telephone interview. “We will not go to the European championships, because you go out of your team bubble and into a national squad, meet other people and staff, and we don’t want to do that. We want to keep within our bubble as much as possible.”

Jumbo Visma
Jumbo-Visma riders won’t be breaking from their bubbles, ruling them out of the European championships. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images 

Jumbo-Visma, like other teams in the WorldTour, is spending a lot of money to ensure healthy conditions for its riders and staffers. With some tests costing up to $200 per exam, one team said the amount to mitigate COVID-19 could top six figures per team.

Other team officials told VeloNews they are worried that the demands of the calendar will force them to shuttle riders and staffers across the continent. Not all races on the revised calendar are required for WorldTour teams, and many of the lower-tier races are tailored toward ProTeam and Continental-level squads.

“I honestly believe the race environment will be one of the safest places to be,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “The staff and the riders have more of a chance of catching something when they are at home. With the amount of rules and regulations, and the extra safety precautions the teams have created, racing is the safest place to be. It’s going outside that bubble when we can see some issues.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think this is going to be smooth sailing from here until November,” White said.

There were already some hiccups coming out of the gates. Three teams did not start Thursday’s women’s race in Spain due to not having required pre-race COVID screenings and another team refused to race citing worries about health risks. Other teams pulled out of this week’s Sibiu Tour in Romania due to recent spikes of COVID-19.

The integrity of the underlying protocols will have increased importance as racing is poised to return for the first time in nearly four months.

For example, riders must undergo two controls at six and three days before starting a WorldTour race, but one rider pointed out that racers might be forced to travel to an event even after taking a pre-race control, thus opening up more risk.

Because every country and even region has different rules when it comes to the coronavirus, Plugge said the sport should come up with clearer rules than what’s being offered right now under UCI guidelines.

“If you have a good protocol in place, there is more trust by the health authorities,” he said. “We are on the right path, but we are not yet completely there yet. We should do a bit more to clarify the procedures if something happens. I believe we should have a protocol in place that is even stricter than what the local authorities have.”

Israel Start-Up Nation riders used masks when passing through urban areas at their Andorra camp. Photo: ISN

This spring, when the coronavirus pandemic started to spin the wheels off the international calendar, racing stopped and immediately put the peloton in peril.

Without racing, teams, race organizers, riders, journalists, staffers, and even the UCI faced a bleak future. For a sport that thrives on movement, the prospect of losing the entire 2020 season presented a mortal threat to several teams and organizations.

When key stakeholders later circled their wagons to plot out a possible revival of racing, everyone agreed that safety must come first. The UCI, led by its medical team, has been working on its still-evolving health protocols and rules to create safe racing conditions. Not everyone is happy with that document, but at least it provides a larger framework to resume racing.

There was also a tacit agreement that any race organizer that wanted to try to salvage their race would be accommodated. And although there is overlapping of key races in the WorldTour, there was a sense that no race organizer was left behind in the new-look calendar that tries to accommodate racing days for elite men’s and women’s teams across Europe.

Plugge isn’t alone in wondering if the calendar is too crowded. Other teams have told VeloNews that the busy racing schedules could present unexpected health risks and pile on pressure on staffers and riders alike.

Despite protocol rules, everyone agrees it will not be a good look for the sport’s image if races start being canceled or delayed in the coming months.

Plugge, for one, wonders if the sport would be better off if stakeholders were willing to agree on a more streamlined, refined calendar for what’s an exceptional year.

“If we see pro cycling as the game of chess, we should always preserve our kings — the Tour, the grand tours, and the monuments — with a [bubble] lead-up to these highlights. Period,” Plugge said.

“Maybe we should have had sacrificed some pawns,” he said. “Leadership needs to make sure that in times of crisis, the company, the country, the game of chess survives. Instead, pro cycling added some pawns to the chessboards.”