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With coronavirus lockdown easing, pro peloton racing into the unknown

WorldTour cycling teams, riders brace for calendar revival after months of lockdown.

With easing of lockdown conditions across Europe, cycling’s long coronavirus hibernation could start to thaw.

By perhaps as soon as next week, riders across France, Italy, and Spain will be able to train outside for the first time since lockdown conditions were imposed in mid-March.

And if things go as optimistically as race organizers hope, the peloton could click back into gear in August to start racing again.

In what’s already been the unprecedented season, no one knows what to expect or how riders will react if and when the flag is dropped.

“The tactics will be crazy,” said Bahrain-McLaren’s Heinrich Haussler. “Usually, everyone has different goals and different peaks of form, but all the best guys are going to be at the Tour with almost no racing in their legs. It’s going to be absolutely brutal.”

If the Tour de France does begin in late August as part of a new-look calendar, it could set up for some of the most unpredictable and surprising racing the sport has ever seen.

Cycling is known for its meticulous planning and preparation. Following months of upheaval and disruption, however, fitness among the peloton will be wildly uneven. Some riders have been doing little more than indoor training sessions for weeks on end, while athletes in other nations have been able to train unabated.

“It’s going to be strange and weird,” Haussler said. “Usually, the top GC guys would have a steady buildup, do altitude camps and preparation races before to be in their best form. Maybe some of these guys will be going to the Tour without any racing at all.”

Up until coronavirus put the brakes on the international calendar, the sport’s top men and women racers had calibrated their racing and preparation schedules down to the T. Thanks to meticulously planned training programs and ever-improving data from power meters and analysis software, the top riders would work for months to hit a seasonal peak for their most important targets. Riders would camp out for weeks on top of the Teide volcano. Teams would organize training camps ahead of major tours.

All those best-laid plans have now been turned upside down. Since racing ground to a halt in March, many of the sport’s biggest names have been in lockdown and quarantines for six or seven weeks.

A tentative alternative calendar has been drawn up to resume racing in August, giving cyclists potentially up to three months to prepare.

Everything is dependent if pandemic conditions improve, but Strade Bianche, a shortened version of the Critérium du Dauphiné and the national championships across Europe will ideally be held before the Tour starts on August 29. A women’s racing calendar is promised by May 15.

World champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) said the peloton will be happy to race even if it’s under less-than-ideal preparation and training.

“Every athlete will be super-happy to race,” Van Vleuten said. “Maybe it won’t be equal preparation, but I think every athlete will still want to race.”

There’s talk that the Giro Rosa, originally scheduled for late June, will be rescheduled for September.

“I heard rumor of the Giro Rosa, and now that’s in my head,” said the two-time defending champion. “I keep my fingers crossed. I like that I have a goal for September. Now we have hope, and I think that’s what we need.”

Everyone from team owners to riders and staffers to race organizations are hoping that some sort of racing happens in 2020.

The world economic shutdown has put the pinch on teams, with a half-dozen men’s WorldTour teams and at least one women’s team facing budget shortfalls.

Teams and riders have been scrambling since the pandemic took grip across Europe in late February. Once it became obvious that the spring classics, Giro d’Italia and Tour de France couldn’t be raced as scheduled, everyone has gone into a holding pattern with the hopes of racing again later this season.

Even having the hope of racing again will help.

“We’d really need two months to get ready for the Tour, but right now everyone is just riding the trainer,” said Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde. “I don’t know how much time I’m going to need to be in good form for the Tour. No one’s ever seen conditions like these before.”

The sport’s top pros have no idea what to expect if and when racing resumes. There are questions about travel restrictions, possible future quarantines, and the overall safety and practicality of racing during pandemic conditions.

And for the first time in a century, it’s looking likely the Tour de France will be the season’s first grand tour. The men’s peloton could be hitting the season’s most important race with little or perhaps no racing in their legs.

“In the best-case scenario, there could be guys hitting the Tour with 20 days of racing in their legs,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “The Giro has never been [raced] before the Tour … there is going to be a lot of unknowns.”

Yet with so much uncertainty surrounding the future of the pandemic, and the threat that another flare-up could provoke a fresh round of lockdowns and quarantines, riders and teams will be desperate to squeeze the maximum out of any race they might be able to start.

Every race will be contested as if it could be the last race of the year. The pressure will be intense.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Haussler said. “All the big names will be there. All the GC-guys will be on one page. It could be a pretty amazing Tour because no one knows what’s going to happen.”