Larry Warbasse was getting ready for a training ride Friday when — ping! — the email hit his inbox on his smartphone.
The former U.S. champion didn’t expect anything different this time. After taking a series of PCR tests ahead of competition since returning to Europe this summer, it was almost becoming routine. The Ag2r-La Mondiale rider had been tested without incident before racing at Strade Bianche, and again at Il Lombardia.
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A required pre-race test ahead of the Bretagne Classic-Ouest-France taken Wednesday seemed almost ordinary in cycling’s new reality — until it wasn’t.
“This was my sixth test I’ve done. It was just part of our new routine,” Warbasse told VeloNews. “I was opening up the email, and expecting it to be negative like all the others. And then I see positive — oh sh*t.”
And just like that, the Michigan native is the latest WorldTour professional to test positive for COVID-19.
The implications of the email were immediate. Under team protocol, he’d be sidelined for his upcoming races — Bretagne Classic-Ouest-France on August 25 and the Tour Poitou-Charentes en Nouvelle Aquitaine on August 27-30.
“I’ve been feeling great and just smashing it in training,” Warbasse said in a telephone interview. “It’s surprising, because I have no symptoms at all. I feel like no one really knows anything for sure about this virus.”
Team officials quickly reacted to the news, pulling riders who had been with Warbasse at last week’s races in Italy out of Friday’s stage at the Tour de Limousin, and removing others from the start list from this weekend’s French national championships.
Warbasse and none of the riders were on Ag2r-La Mondiale’s long list to start the Tour de France on August 29, so the team’s Tour effort will not be compromised.
Warbasse is the second Ag2r rider to test positive, along with teammate Sylvan Dillier ahead of Strade Bianche. Israel Start-Up Nation’s Omer Goldstein tested positive upon return to Europe in July, and Hugo Houle (Astana) tested positive after the Tour of Poland. Fernando Gaviria and Max Richeze (UAE-Emirates) also tested positive in February.
The news was a shock for the 30-year-old, who lives alone in an apartment in Villefranche-sur-Mer along France’s Côte d’Azur.
“I’ve been so careful,” Warbasse said. “When I got back from Lombardia, I didn’t leave the house except to train. I only went to the grocery store once. It’s strange. I have no clue where I might have gotten it.
“I would not have expected to have a positive test because I am one of the most cautious people,” he said. “This just shows it can happen to anyone.”
Warbasse will undergo more testing, likely within the week, and he’s hoping there is an outside chance of a false positive. Under team protocol, however, he will sit out his next races until he clears two controls with a negative result.
“Everyone around me has gotten tested, and everyone around has come back negative,” he said. “It was a bit of a surprise when I came back positive from that test Wednesday.”
Warbasse is still hopeful he will be able to race is top targets in the truncated 2020 racing season, with Tirreno-Adriatico in September, and the Giro d’Italia in October.
“I’m lucky I wasn’t going to the Tour. I would have been devastated,” he said. “If you miss two small races, it’s not the end of the world. It just sucks that you can’t race, because I feel great.
“If the Tour de France can make it, the Giro can, too,” he said. “It’s all wait-and-see right now. To be honest, I was pretty scared going back to the first races, but when you see the protocols and protections that have been put in place, it’s given me a lot more confidence.”
Like many pros, Warbasse has been very cautious about limiting his possible exposure to the coronavirus. At races, he only stays with his teammates and staffers, who all had tested negative for COVID-19. And at home, he said he rarely ventures outside expect to train or to go to the local market for food.
In March, Warbasse returned to the United States to ride out the European lockdown, and returned in June with an eye toward returning to racing. His first race back was Strade Bianche, and he’s put in four race days in the one-days across Italy.
“Our protocol requires me to sit out my next races,” he said. “It’s better to be cautious and wait. It still sucks. Well, it’s 2020.”
The pressure is also off a bit because Warbasse already signed a two-year contract extension to stay with Ag2r-La Mondiale through 2022. A pro since 2012, Warbasse joined the French outfit last year, and took intensive French-language lessons to be able to fit in.
“I am also lucky I that regard. If I was fighting for a contract, I would be 10 times as stressed,” he said. “Everyone is just walking a tight-rope right now.”