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Roundtable: Coronavirus shakes up the season: What are the longer-term impacts?

Milano-Sanremo being raced in fall, major teams sitting out March racing, Paris-Nice carrying on regardless - VeloNews debates the big issues from the last week in pro cycling.

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The coronavirus crisis hit the world of pro racing hard last week, with Italian races being canceled and teams withdrawing from races through March.

What will the impacts be on the season as a whole? Will we be feeling the effects of the changes through the rest of the year?

Let’s roundtable!

How will the re-scheduling of Milano-Sanremo to a likely Autumn date impact monument-hunters’ seasons?

Milano-Sanremo, scheduled for 21 March, has been canceled, leaving organizers looking to re-schedule for later in the year. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images 

Fred Dreier @freddreier: It goes without saying that I hope the global COVID-19 crisis comes to a quick end, and that the loss of life is minimum, and that those afflicted by the disease make a full recovery.

OK, on to bike racing. I truly hope that Milano-Sanremo and the other races do, in fact, get a new date, and that they aren’t simply canceled. If these races are placed in the late fall, perhaps after the usual end to the WorldTour season, I think this could make for a really exciting shakeup to the status quo. The biggest teams and riders know how to dial everything in for the March date for Milano-Sanremo, so part of me is enticed by an unannounced shakeup, to see if it brings a new rider to the fore, especially in an Olympic year. I could see riders opting to start the Vuelta and perhaps pull out early to avoid fatigue. Or, I could see the Tour de France favorites coming back for one more peak. We just don’t know, and that’s enticing.

Andrew Hood @eurohoody: If the race is canceled altogether, the big loss is for the sprinters, and, of course, Philippe Gilbert. Phil-Gil is just one Milano-Sanremo win away from becoming the first modern rider to win all five monuments. However, if race organizers actually end up moving the race to the fall, that could play into Gilbert’s favor because he typically goes well at the end of the season.

The sprinters lose out on their only chance to win a “big one” but the fact that Sanremo isn’t there shouldn’t impact the classics-bound riders too much. Milano-Sanremo is so early that most riders who are looking for magic in the Flanders-Roubaix window still are not at 100 percent anyway.

James Startt: That is obviously going to be a huge change and one that will impact the race and the riders. One of the things that makes Sanremo so interesting is that it comes so early in the season and riders are not used to going such long distances. As a result, climbs like the Poggio can still make a difference after such a long race. But at the end of the season, the peloton is just so much more road-fit. My knee-jerk reaction is that this will play into the hands of the sprinters.

Christian Prudhomme said at Paris-Nice that perhaps the changes being made to Sanremo are for the better and perhaps some will remain. Perhaps we will see that Milan-Sanremo is actually great at the end of the year and complements Il Lombardia, making for an ‘Italian Autumn’ of sorts.

Will the likes of Ineos, Mitchelton-Scott, CCC Team and Jumbo-Visma lose out by sitting out March racing? Will it impact their spring campaigns?

Ineos is one of many teams pulling out of racing through March. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Fred: It will undeniably impact their spring campaigns since you cannot replicate Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice at training camps. My assumption is that a lot of weight has now been placed on the Tour of Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps we will see these teams drop into a few UCI Europe Tour stage races, like the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe, Olympia’s Tour, or even the Tour of Turkey, in an effort to get more racing kilometers in their legs.

James: Most definitely. In terms of pure health, the teams sitting out March may avoid possible contamination from the virus, but in terms of racing fitness, it will certainly handicap certain riders. Guys like Greg Van Avermaet will be at a real disadvantage against the guys that are racing in Paris-Nice. Van Avermaet is highly experienced and knows his body really well, and maybe for just one season he can duplicate the racing in training, but not everyone can do that.

Paris-Nice is a grueling race, one that will make riders that much stronger going into the monuments. Pros may race less than they did 20-30 years ago, but they still need to race.

Andrew: That is the big question. The implications could be important. Though there are still several weeks to the northern classics, anyone trying to find fitness doing rides on Zwift or training at home will be at a disadvantage against riders racing this week at Paris-Nice.

It’s not by accident that Deceuninck-Quick-Step and other teams in the race loaded up their Paris-Nice rosters with their classics-bound riders. Riders on teams that side-stepped much of March could be nearly a month without racing as they head toward Belgium. With the level so high in the peloton today, those who opted not to race will be at a major disadvantage.

Should Paris-Nice have continued given the health concerns?

Paris-Nice kicked off Sunday, while Italian races canceled amid health concerns. Photo: James Startt

Andrew: Rather than look at it in such black and white terms, it should be framed with a measure of balance. Yes, coronavirus presents a clear risk, but what is the larger cost of shutting everything down? With appropriate measures to limit exposure, bike races on open roads aren’t necessarily a high-risk activity. The higher danger comes inside the team buses, the hotels and the closed areas when everyone is packed in.

Teams and organizers have taken several steps to try to minimize risk for both teams and the public. Having said that, Paris-Nice is trying to thread the needle on this one. With the ever-changing situation unfolding in Europe, arriving to Nice next Sunday will be a major victory.

Fred: I’ve reported on endurance event promotion long enough to feel that you should never blame a promoter for wanting to hold their event, so long as the proper authorities (governments, governing bodies, etc) give them the green light. So much effort, coordination, money, and work goes into making sure an event goes off on that very day, and it’s rare that there’s any wiggle room to delay or reschedule. You can’t just wave a magic wand and make Paris-Nice run a month later. And the financial agreements riding on these events with sponsors and local communities are sizable. Once you cancel, everyone is upset. So, the authorities gave Paris-Nice the green light, and I do not fault the organizer for continuing.

James: I think it was totally right. Christian Prudhomme stressed again and again at Paris-Nice that all health measures here are in accord with French health authorities.  While the severity of the virus is increasing in France, the centers of highest contamination are never closer than 100 kilometers from the race route. And then there is the fact that riders and team simply want to race. And many know they need to race.

That said, there is still no guarantee that the race will finish. French authorities Sunday night put into place new restrictions that affect gatherings of more than one thousand people. Academic conferences could be canceled. Upcoming soccer matches may be held without fans. And perhaps in the upcoming days, a popular bike race like Paris-Nice will simply be too great a health risk.