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Vincenzo Nibali latest case as omicron rips across the peloton

The omicron variant is catching out riders and teams at a much higher pace than during the first two seasons of the pandemic.

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BAEZA, Spain (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali is the latest case as the omicron variant continues to rip across the elite men’s peloton at an alarming pace.

The Astana-Qazaqstan star will miss this week’s Ruta del Sol after coming down with what team officials described Tuesday as an “asymptomatic” case of COVID-19.

Nibali, 37, is the latest big name to be hit by the most recent COVID wave that has been unleashed across the peloton in a dramatically different way than in the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are a few more examples:

Alejandro Valverde misses his home race in his farewell season. Richard Carapaz leaves mid-race at the Tour de la Provence. Human Powered Health lines up with only five starters at the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior. Lachlan Morton touches his road bike for the first time in months.

What do these riders all have in common?

Omicron – and how it’s ripping a hole across the elite men’s peloton.

“I haven’t ridden the road bike in months, but the team needed me to come here,” Morton told VeloNews at the start line Monday in Spain. “I had COVID a few weeks ago, so my form isn’t going to be great.”

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More than a few teams were looking thin Monday for the first edition of the Jaén Paraíso Interior.

The race’s start list included 117 riders, down almost a dozen racers if all the teams had brought a full roster.

“It’s everywhere,” one sport director said. “If this happens like this during the classics or the Giro, it can really hurt a lot of teams.”

Nearly every major team is seeing cases, so much so that COVID-19 cases are not even triggering headlines.

Cycling endured two seasons relatively unscathed, but the more highly contagious omicron variant is changing the landscape as the peloton enters its third calendar year under the coronavirus pandemic.

Teams are struggling to fill rosters

PALM JUMEIRAH, DUBAI - UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - FEBRUARY 26: Start / Movistar Team during the 3rd UAE Tour 2021, Stage 6 a 165km stage from Deira Islands to Palm Jumeirah / Mask / Covid Safety Measures / Detail view / #UAETour / on February 26, 2021 in Palm Jumeirah - Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Many in the peloton were hoping face masks and social distancing will be a thing of the past by 2022. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Just like other sectors of the world, the omicron is proving relentless for the peloton as racing kicks into gear across Europe.

Teams are doing their best to continue to test and monitor their staff and riders, and most teams are doing the right thing to pull out anyone who becomes infected.

Ineos Grenadiers didn’t think twice about yanking out Carapaz at the Tour de la Provence last week after he tested for symptoms following a team-issued health control.

Not even the yellow jersey protects against the virus, and Tadej Pogačar also tested positive last week, but is confirmed to race the UAE Tour this month.

Also read: How will COVID-19 shape the 2022 season?

The UCI continues to require pre-race screenings at the major WorldTour events, but many teams are imposing even stricter rules with more internal controls and vigilance.

Last month, Jumbo-Visma sent home most of its riders and staff from a pre-season training camp in Spain after a few cases popped up.

Riders do what they can to avoid infection, but many worry about exposure while traveling through airports and on crowded planes.

Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), who’s so far avoided infection, said he requested that he sleep alone in team hotels in order to help diminish the risk.

“I cannot complain. I do my best to avoid it. You never know,” Wellens said Monday. “You have to take a lot of time on the airplane, we try to be safe, but it’s not always in our hands. It’s annoying. I ask the team also to sleep alone in the room. That always makes a difference.”

The UCI extended its “race bubble” concept into the first part of 2022, but teams are getting worried about what will happen if omicron continues to churn into the heart of the racing season.

Cycling did a pretty good job managing COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 by imposing strict health controls and protocols. A few riders were forced out of races, including several  at the Tour de France, along with Tour director Christian Prudhomme, but the number of infections was relatively low.

Things changed with the delta variant last fall and grew exponentially worse when omicron struck a few months ago.

After peaking last month, omicron infection rates are dropping, but the highly infectious variant continues to hit team staff and riders who often packed into buses and hotels.

Some teams have the deep bench and riders available to replace infected riders.

On Monday, Michaël Schär tested positive for COVID and was forced to drop out of the Ruta Ciclista del Sol that begins Wednesday. Ag2r-Citroën was able to replace him with Gijs Van Hoecke.

That wasn’t the case for other teams. Human Powered Health was among three teams that lined up with five riders Monday because of a wave of infections.

Movistar’s Valverde, who hails from Murcia, missed his home race over the weekend along with the Clásica de Almería and Monday’s race in what the team described as a “precaution” to avoid the latest wave of omicron infections.

Officials confirmed he will not race the Ruta del Sol on Wednesday.

Luis Ángel Maté (Euskaltel-Euskadi) also recently tested positive for the latest strain of COVID-19 and is trying to ride back into shape in time for his home race at the Ruta del Sol.

“I got COVID, just like many in the peloton,” Maté said with a shrug. “I am just coming back into racing, and this course today [Jaén] is very demanding, so it’s not going to be easy.”

Fortunately, most of the cases are mild. But the high rates of infection mean disruptions to calendars, training schedules, and performance.

Teams are hopeful infection rates will continue to drop, and one director said sardonically that if riders seem destined to become infected, better now than in the middle of the classics or a major race like the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France.