It’s the coronavirus scare — not bike racing — that’s everyone is talking about as the European racing calendar falls into disarray. On Friday, Movistar added its name to a growing list of WorldTour pro cycling teams that are putting a temporary halt to their men’s and women’s racing programs.
Other teams, however, are vowing to push on. Although Strade Bianche and other spring Italian races are off the calendar, Paris-Nice is still slated to start Sunday in the outskirts of the French capital.
Israel Start-Up Nation promises to be among those teams to toe up to the starting line in Plaisir for the 154km opening stage.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions about what to do,” said team manager Kjell Carlstrom. “There was a lot of concerns, but in the end, we came to the conclusion that as long as authorities, the UCI and the race organizers are not canceling an event and not imposing restrictions, then we should go on with our normal business — to race our bikes.”
So far, six WorldTour teams — Astana, CCC, Ineos, Mitchelton-Scott, Movistar and UAE Emirates — have decline to start Paris-Nice.
The UCI has resisted canceling any planned races, leaving that decision to local and national authorities. Overnight, organizers of the women’s WorldTour stop slated for late March at Trofeo Binda have rescheduled their event in hopes that conditions will have improved by then. RCS Sport followed suit Friday by canceling Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, and the Giro di Sicilia, with hopes of rescheduling later in the season.
So far, Italy has taken the most drastic measures to stem the virus’s spread: authorities imposed a nationwide ban on large outdoor gatherings, as well as closing schools and universities. Other parts of Europe have not seen such dire conditions, and earlier this week, French authorities confirmed that Paris-Nice could be raced as scheduled.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Carlstrom said in a telephone interview. “Of course, we’ve had cancellations due to bad weather. This is something new for cycling.”
Under such uncertainty, several teams have opted to scale back their racing programs until late March. Fear of a lockdown or quarantine ranks high as well. Israel Start-Up Nation got its riders and staff out of the UAE Tour last month, but three teams still languish in an Abu Dhabi hotel under a forced quarantine.
Israel Start-Up Nation confirmed Thursday that it will race Paris-Nice, with the caveat that health authorities say it’s safe to do so. The team is allowing each staffer and rider to decide if they want to go. Carlstrom said everyone is trying to strike the correct balance between health and safety, and its ambitions to race.
“It’s important to monitor the situation,” he said. “It would be a different story if it would come from an authority to shut down everything.”
There were a series of calls over the past several days under consultation with team doctors, with some staffers and riders expressing their fear of possible infection or quarantine. They’ve also been in contact with organizers, the UCI and other teams. Hot off the team’s first European road victory in 2020 at Le Samyn, on March 3, the team rallied together and pledged to keep racing as long as they can. The decision comes just as the team’s continental squad, Israel Cycling Academy, is currently under a 14-day quarantine in Israel.
“We have had quite a few conference calls on the matter,” Carlstrom said. “There are a lot of different opinions from the various stakeholders. We understand why some teams are stopping. Everyone has their opinion on what’s best to do. The most important thing is to come to a conclusion that will be a good and responsible way of dealing with the current situation.”
Logistically, the team is transferring its bus from the Belgian weekend down to Paris. Another bus that was en route to Italy was stopped short in southern France as everyone awaited word on Strade Bianche, and has since returned to Girona.
The team’s riders are scattered across Europe, but none reside in Italy. With the team’s service course in Girona, many of the team’s staff and riders live there in northeast Spain. Others live in Andorra, Austria, Benelux and Germany, so it’s not a long journey for those slated to race Paris-Nice.
“We have riders here and there, so it’s less complicated,” he said. “In the end, we came to a conclusion that satisfies everyone in reducing risks and still being taking part in the races.”
The team is also worried about how the disarray on the calendar will affect its riders and performances throughout the season. Keeping everyone healthy is the top concern, but the team also doesn’t want to give up on its performance goals.
“It would be huge if we lost the spring classics, but it would be even worse if we lost the grand tours,” Carlstrom said. “That’s why it’s important to make the right decisions. We don’t want to see this to drag on.”
Teams that are committed to racing Paris-Nice are slotting in some of their top riders, with the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) all expected to race. Organizers have reached out to other teams to help fill out the peloton, offering spots to B&B Hotels-Vital Concept and Circus-Wanty Gobert. Race officials are also allowing eight starters, instead of seven, to give more athletes a chance to race, especially riders holding out hope to start the northern classics in a few weeks’ time.
“From our standpoint, so long as there are no limitations, we will go to these races like Paris-Nice,” Carlstrom said. “We will follow the guidelines and recommendations from the authorities. There are a lot of guys who still want to race.”