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Vuelta a Burgos opens cycling’s next chapter

The pro peloton is facing its first major race since March with a mix of nerves and anxiety.

BURGOS, Spain (VN) — The Vuelta a Burgos opens cycling’s next chapter in the midst of a world pandemic starting Tuesday.

Five stages across the sun-parched meseta of northern Spain will be the backdrop for the return of elite men’s racing for many teams and riders for the first time since March.

A lot has changed since Paris-Nice when the coronavirus put the brakes on European racing. The entire sport has undergone an unprecedented makeover to try to carve out a COVID-free niche in a very uncertain and ever-changing landscape.

Teams have invested tens of thousands of euros to create safe “bubbles” that include staffers and riders who’ve all tested negative for COVID-19.

With infections on the upswing in parts of Spain, the immediate area around the Burgos province of northern Spain remains largely under control. Will the race unfold as expected? Everyone is hoping so.

“It’s a very dynamic jigsaw puzzle right now returning to racing,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “I honestly think that the race environment will be one of the safest places to be. Everyone’s been tested to get into the ‘bubbles’ and staff and riders have more chance of catching it at home than at a race.”

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

The Burgos tour — typically sandwiched between the end of the Tour de France and ahead of the Vuelta a España — suddenly finds itself at the center of the cycling universe.

The Spanish race is one of the few races that has not been forced to change its date on the international calendar. Everything from the Tour to the Vuelta and the one-day monuments has been juggled in the new-look calendar, but Burgos remained right where it was.

That coincidence, now placing it ahead of the August 29 start of the Tour de France in Nice, is seeing the race draw its best field ever. Typically only two or three WorldTour teams start. This year, there are 14 WorldTour teams signed on for Tuesday’s start in Burgos.

Some of the biggest names in cycling are converging on the medium-sized city perched along the wide-open northern meseta between Madrid and the Cantabrian mountains.

Mark Cavendish (Bahrain-Merida) made the front page of the local paper as everyone from Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) to world champion Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and 2019 Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz (Ineos) are lining up.

Simon Yates is one of the GC stars on the bumper start-sheet. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

According to White, the peloton is eager to race after an unprecedented four-month race stoppage.

“I expect it to be very competitive racing all the way through to the end,” White said. “Coming off lockdown is not an excuse. Everyone has been in the same conditions, and there has been plenty of time to be ready to race.”

The route features two mountaintop finales — Thursday to Picón Blanco and Saturday to Lagunas de Neila — that typically decide the GC, with three other stages tailored toward sprinters and puncheur-style riders. Warm temperatures in the mid-90s are forecasted, with some winds, meaning it will be physically demanding five days of racing.

Unlike other races, such as the Tour of Poland, which banned fans and media for its WorldTour dates next week, the Burgos tour is allowing the public and media to show up. All media are required to provide a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours to receive a credential, and a series of social distancing rules have been imposed on the race to minimize risk. Journalists won’t be allowed in the team bus area or at the finish lines.

Riders will also undergo other testing and health protocols before and after the race to minimize exposure and assure as much safety as possible.

“The rules have been written, the protocols drawn up, now comes the most difficult part: putting them into practice,” said Trek-Segafredo team doctor Dr. Gaetano Daniele. “Although in many countries the COVID-19 emergency has been reduced in size, the virus has not disappeared. We must all be aware of this and act together. If every component – teams, UCI, and organizers – do their part, we will have the conditions to finish the season smoothly.”

There were some hiccups out of the gate among other races last week that reveal what cycling will look in the COVID-era. Last week, two teams decided not to race the Sibiu Tour in Romania, citing a recent uptick of cases there and the risk that presented.

In three races in Spain over the weekend, the women’s calendar restarted with CCC-Liv pulling out of two races last week after citing concerns about pre-race testing protocols. Teams and riders are discovering that meeting some of the UCI-mandated rules isn’t so easy, especially when it comes to finding laboratories that can turn around results in a timely manner to meet requirements of a negative COVID-19 test three days before competition.

On the bike, however, things went fairly smoothly in Spain. Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) was untouchable, winning all three contested races in dramatic fashion. And most of the fans that lined the course in promising numbers were wearing facemasks.

“I am very happy with the day and also I want to give a shout out to the organization with how they organized it, how they kept it safe, and made sure everyone was tested here,” Van Vleuten said last week. “They were very serious.”

There will be as much attention on the protocols and COVID developments outside the race as on the cycling itself. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The big question mark from Burgos going forward isn’t so much how cycling is dealing with trying to control its exposure to COVID-19, but rather the larger forces beyond the sport.

A recent spike in cases in some parts of Spain has put everyone on edge.

The British government imposed a 14-day at-home quarantine for any travelers returning from Spain. France is warning its citizens not to travel to Catalunya in northeast Spain following recent outbreaks in Lleida and Barcelona.

Burgos, however, is among one of the least affected areas of Spain. Most of northern Spain, not counting nearby Navarra or the Basque Country, has only seen a handful of cases that are being closely monitored by local authorities.

Cycling has done its part to create bubbles, enforce pre-race testing, and dramatically alter how the peloton moves before, during and after competition.

It’s all-systems-go for Burgos. Teams have arrived with buses packed with bikes. Riders are keen to get back into the action. Between now and mid-November, when the current racing calendar runs through, it’s a race against time.