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Teams shuffling schedules in face of calendar uncertainty

Dutch races this weekend seeing increasingly-powerful line ups as teams scramble to find opportunities for riders scheduled to start northern classics.

As Paris-Nice continues its slow march toward the Cote d’Azur, teams across the peloton continue to shuffle their respective racing schedules against an uncertain backdrop.

With coronavirus expanding its reach across Europe, race organizers are working to try to hold events if and when possible. A spike in cases in Spain is casting doubt on the Volta a Catalunya (March 23-29) and officials are mulling the option of forbidding VIP tents across Belgium for the upcoming northern classics.

This weekend, all eyes will be on a pair races in the Netherlands as an important test ahead of the upcoming cobblestone classics.

“We are monitoring every race,” Jumbo-Visma Merijn Zeeman told VeloNews. “Things are changing constantly. Normally we are a team that plans things carefully. But now we have to take time to see how things are.”

The Ronde van Drenthe in northern Holland see the men race Saturday with three WorldTour teams in the field, while the women’s race on Sunday will be the first women’s WorldTour event since Australia.

CCC Team, Jumbo-Visma and Sunweb will bring riders to Drenthe this weekend, with the Danilith Nokere Koerse next Wednesday in Belgium. Both races are seeing higher quality start fields as teams are anxious to let their riders race, especially with the northern classics slated to begin in just a few weeks. The women’s WorldTour, which saw removal of two races in Italy this month, will continue Sunday as teams and riders begin to arrive.

Following cancelation of races across Italy in the wake of a growing coronavirus scare, some of the seven WorldTour teams that opted to skip Paris-Nice are remaining on the sidelines while others are testing the waters.

Jumbo-Visma, which sidelined its racing program this week at Paris-Nice as well as in the Italian races before they were canceled, is sending Dylan Groenewegen to Drenthe, and Wout Van Aert to Nokere Koerse next week. CCC Team, another team that skipped Paris-Nice, will race for the first time since Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Van Aert will be back in action this weekend having not raced since Omloop last month. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

In light of the fast-changing conditions, teams are doing the best they can to keep their riders busy with training camps. Jumbo-Visma’s top stage-race stars have been attending altitude camps to try to maintain fitness and motivation in what everyone agrees is a challenging situation.

“Tom [Dumoulin] is on Teide, and Primoz [Roglic] is at home in Monaco. We all want to race because that is what we are working for,” Zeeman said. “We believe we can reach a high level in training and we will be competitive when we return to racing. We are waiting for this weekend to decide what to do.”

Most of the seven WorldTour teams that opted out of Paris-Nice are eyeing a possible return at the weeklong Volta a Catalunya race starting March 23. Conditions in Spain, however, have worsened during the past week, and officials are expected to introduce more stringent measures to try to limit the growing spread of the coronavirus. Spain is second to Italy with the number of confirmed cases in Europe. Overnight, officials postponed the famous Las Fallas festival in Valencia and top soccer matches are being held inside closed stadiums.

With the double-barreled threat of contagion and risk of quarantine, Mitchelton-Scott was among several teams that decided to pull its men’s and women’s teams temporarily out of competition for much of March. White said the team wants to assure the health of its riders and staff before resuming its race schedule.

“The situation is continuing to change, so we have to be flexible,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “We are working on a time line to get back to competition in late March. We decided it was better to step back and see how things develop.”

Tour of Catalunya may offer a number of teams a return to racing – though there is now an increased coronavirus threat in Spain. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

After the Italian races were canceled, other teams sent their stars to Paris-Nice. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) all headed to France instead.

The French race is trying to defy the odds, and bring the race to its conclusion on Sunday. French health authorities have imposed new restrictions, including limiting the number of fans allowed at starts and finishes, but have stopped short of stopping the race so far.

Paris-Nice has successfully completed three stages, and races an individual time trial Wednesday. Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven was quoted in the Belgian media as saying that “90 percent” of the peloton doesn’t believe the race will make it to Nice on Sunday.

Riders who are racing this week at Paris-Nice could have a physical advantage over the teams that opted not to race. White, however, said that won’t be as big of a factor for grand tour specialists as it would be for the classics-bound riders.

2020 Paris-Nice.
Paris-Nice has survived the axe, though stringent health and safety measures have been imposed. Photo: James Startt

“Some guys might have Paris-Nice in their legs, but racing isn’t the be all and end all like it used to be,” White said. “It’s training camps and altitude where you win grand tours. It will be a different story if we miss all of March and April. Everyone is keen to get back to racing in a safe environment, whenever that is.”

Under such uncertainty, teams say it’s hard to look too far down the calendar. Many hope the spring classics will be saved, but there are growing fears the Giro d’Italia could be canceled, especially in light of a national lockdown across Italy that’s in place until early April. Though still months away, July’s Tour de France could be in the crosshairs as well if the crisis does not subside in the coming weeks and months.

Speaking to Reuters, UCI president David Lappartient said he’s alarmed at the prospect of more cancelations.

“That would be a disaster for our sport of course if we can’t have the Giro D’Italia or the Tour de France,” Lappartient told Reuters. “Maybe the gap of two months in between (the Giro and Tour de France) will have also some consequences on the virus. So we hope that these races will be able to take place. But we are, due to the situation in Italy, a little more worried today with the situation with the Giro d’Italia.”