Women’s peloton cautiously optimistic in COVID-19 protocols ahead of Strade Bianche

Last week's racing in northern Spain provided a helpful blueprint for how riders are viewing safety protocols at Strade Bianche and future events.

The question of who can stop Annemiek van Vleuten‘s winning streak is an important one, yet the most pressing concern ahead of Saturday’s Strade Bianche whether or not pro cycling’s COVID-19 protocols will keep the peloton safe enough to race.

In the days before the 2020 Women’s WorldTour season opener, riders told VeloNews that they are confident, if extremely cautious, with the sport’s safety protocols.

“Italy has a really good handle on the virus right now, and I also believe that since it’s a WorldTour race it’s going to be incredibly well-organized,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Tayler Wiles. “I think there’s no question that this race will go forward, but we still have to take everything day by day because anything can happen.”

The three races in Spain last week demonstrated just how seriously teams and race organizers are taking the protocols. CCC-Liv pulled out of two of the races due to concerns that not all teams had met the UCI’s testing requirements, and multiple teams were not allowed to start Thursday’s Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa due to insufficient test results.

Rider union The Cyclist’s Alliance also sounded an alarm over race safety prior to the races in Spain.

Perhaps the most important lesson to emerge from the three Spanish races is that one team’s compliance to COVID-19 protocol does not equate to safety within the peloton. While no one believes that teams are intentionally shirking their responsibilities in terms of testing, the reality is that the procedures are new for everyone — which means there is no blueprint for following them.

Furthermore, there’s more to getting a COVID-19 test than just the painful poke.

Every country has different rules and regulations regarding testing, and laboratories can be hard to come by in rural areas. Then, there is the issue of who signs off on the results to meet the UCI standards. Boels-Dolmans team director Danny Stam says that, in terms of the logistics of getting tested, Spain was a good test run for Strade.

“We knew the protocol in advance but it was still pretty stressful,” he said. “You’re traveling, and it’s pretty hard to get your testing done. We got everything organized and then actually the UCI didn’t take any responsibility for what they needed to do, so everyone started to panic. In the end, the race organization made a good decision: if you don’t deliver a result, you’re not allowed a bib number.”

Fortunately, by the start of Sunday’s Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, every rider who planned to pin on a number had complied with the COVID-19 tests.

Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), who raced all three days in northern Spain, said that although things like wearing face masks at the start and using hand sanitizer before accepting a trophy were indeed strange, she felt safe being at the races.

“I trust my team,” she said. “We’ve been very well educated to the new rules and we respect the inside-team protocol. We also respect the protocol of the race and the other riders. It’s really important to protect yourself but at the same time to respect each other’s health.”

Trust has become more important than ever within the peloton as has the need to proceed confidently with tough decisions. On the men’s side, five riders were pulled before the start of the Vuelta a Burgos, not for having positive test results, but rather for having been in contact with individuals who later recorded positive COVID-19 tests. The responsibility to do what’s right is what will keep riders racing during the already abbreviated season. Stam says that even if the system is not perfect, it’s the one they have.

“I think also we must look ahead and see the positive,” he said. “I think when everybody has organized a healthy protocol, then we also must have confidence in each other and say ‘we can do it.’ Of course, anything is possible still, but I think with this situation you cannot get everything out of the way. I think this should be the safest way that is possible.”

Nevertheless, even with the most rigorous adherence to protocol, uneasiness about racing during the pandemic persists. While team “bubbles” and obsessive hygiene practices greatly reduce the risk of transmission, racing against the backdrop of the health crisis still takes a heavy psychological toll.

“It’s a little surreal to be racing just knowing what’s going on at home,” said Coryn Rivera of Team Sunweb. “But it is different here, and I’m excited to race, just also not sure if it’s the right thing. I think I’m just trying not to take it for granted and make the most of each moment.”