From Milan-San Remo to manufacturing: How coronavirus is affecting cycling

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In China, almost 80,000 people are currently infected with novel coronavirus – mostly in Hubei province, where 60 million people have been in lockdown for more than a month. On the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, another 691 infected individuals are quarantined in what has turned into a floating hospital. And over the weekend, there were major spikes in infection rates in South Korea, Iran and Italy, forcing the closure of borders and the suspension of travel.

What does all this have to do with cycling? Quite a lot, as it turns out … and we might just be getting started.

Since January, COVID-19 – more commonly known as coronavirus – has spread from Wuhan to the world, with cases now reported in 37 countries and an upward-trending number of deaths. The virus has, understandably, been a major news story for weeks, with reporting in turn sparking growing fear about the spread of the virus.

Although the infection rate of COVID-19 is lower than the common flu, that’s not necessarily cause for comfort: there is no human immunity to the virus, no vaccine (yet), and although most victims are the elderly and ill, an ominous mortality rate is impacting even the relatively young and healthy. As a result, governments and health organisations aren’t messing around in their measures to contain the spread of coronavirus – flights are being grounded, cities are in lockdown, and major events are being cancelled.

On Monday, following a spike in reported cases of coronavirus in the northern Italian province of Lombardy, a question mark was placed over the running of the March monument, Milan-San Remo. If that event does get scrapped, it would be the highest profile cancellation of a sporting event yet – but it’s far from the only bike race to have been compromised as a result of the virus.

Could coronavirus be the end of the line for the 2020 Milan-San Remo?

Since the emergence of COVID-19, the UCI calendar has taken a hefty hit, with the postponement of all races in China in April and May. Among these is the Women’s WorldTour race, the Tour of Chongming Island, which was scheduled to run from May 7-9; the UCI is working to find an alternative timeslot to run the race later in the season.

Other races impacted by coronavirus include the 2.Pro-rated men’s race, the Tour of Hainan – which would have been underway now, if it wasn’t cancelled by organisers in late January – and women’s races the Tour of Zhoushan Island and the Tour of Taiyuan. The UCI will be keeping an eye on the viability of the season-ending Tour of Guangxi, too, which hosts the annual UCI Gala.

Meanwhile, Chinese teams and riders are already subject to travel bans to many countries around the world, as increasingly stringent measures are implemented in order to minimise the spread of infection.

The cancellation of relatively minor races in Asia is a little abstract to many fans of cycling, but with the situation now beginning to deteriorate in one of the sport’s heartlands – and with some of the most-beloved events in the cycling calendar under threat – it’s starting to feel a touch more real.

The Italian context

Monday brought the surreal sight of a near-deserted square at the front of Milan’s Duomo, patrolled by Italian military wearing facemasks and holding rifles. Milan is the capital of Lombardy and Italy’s second-most populous city; a hub of business, fashion and sport. It’s also the starting point of Milan-San Remo, which for more than a century has been a major landmark of the cycling season.

As of this writing, 10 villages across Lombardy are in lockdown, and in Milan, non-essential services have been suspended for a week. The Australian Institute of Sport has shuttered its Italian facility, Serie A football games have been cancelled, Giorgio Armani’s Fashion Week showcase was live-streamed rather than held in front of a live audience, and the world’s largest eyewear exhibition has been postponed until June.

Even with a concerted public health response, the spread of the virus in Italy has not yet been contained, with a sharp rise in cases reported over the past few days. More than 320 individuals have reportedly been infected, with the majority of cases in the Lombardy region, but some also reported in Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Veneto and Piedmont; reports prior to publication suggested the first confirmed case of the virus in the country’s south. Officials will be watching cities like Venice closely; four infected individuals were there at the time of the world-famous Venice carnival, along with many thousands of tourists.

To date, there have been 11 deaths in the north of Italy as a result of the virus, but that figure is expected to rise. Italy is the European epicentre of coronavirus, and the cat appears to be out of the bag – Italians carrying the virus have since travelled to Spain, Austria and Switzerland. CyclingTips is also aware of professional riders currently conducting training camps on Tenerife, where a resort has been placed in lockdown as a result of two infected guests from Italy’s north.

That’s the bleak landscape that faces RCS Sport, the organisers of many of Italy’s most important bike races scheduled over the coming weeks and months – Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Giro d’Italia. Speaking to Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, RCS’ cycling head Mauro Vegni acknowledged that “the situation in Italy is really difficult. Our first concerns are the Tirreno-Adriatico and above all, Milan-San Remo scheduled in less than a month. There is no plan B.”

In a separate interview with Cyclingnews, Vegni stressed that the race organisers would follow the lead of authorities in whether it was safe to run its events. He also pointed out that as much of Milan-San Remo runs through Lombardy, it wasn’t going to be possible to come up with an alternative route. “Milan-San Remo is the one that worries me most,” Vegni said. “It would make no sense to cut three quarters of the race”.

For now, RCS appears optimistic that Tirreno-Adriatico and Strade Bianche – which take place in neighbouring regions to those hardest hit by coronavirus – may be able to proceed. At time of publication, RCS were yet to respond to specific questions from CyclingTips about whether these events, too, would follow regional and national government lines on their safety, or whether the organiser would take unilateral steps in the interests of public health by cancelling or postponing them, as was the case at the Tour of Hainan.

Based on the spread of the virus in China and the measures necessary to contain it there, it’s not much of a stretch to see both Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico coming under threat. Indeed, there’s already a ban in place on live sporting events in six northern Italian regions, leading to the surreal situation of football matches being played in empty stadiums. But cycling’s stadium is the road and the countryside, and you can’t so easily control hundreds of kilometres of roadside.

Epidemiologists are warning of the potential of “multiple chains of as-yet undetected human-to-human transmission outside mainland China”, and suggesting that the chance to contain the spread of coronavirus may have passed, especially in locations like Italy that are already suffering uncontained outbreaks. If this proves to be the case, RCS’ optimism looks more like wishful thinking.

And from there, you don’t have to draw a particularly long bow to consider a scenario in which other major races are impacted – including RCS’ crown jewel, the Giro d’Italia. In fact, there’s even a cloud hanging over the Olympics, with a senior IOC member saying that if coronavirus isn’t under control by the end of May, the Tokyo Games may be cancelled altogether.

Julian Alaphilippe tackles the last gravel sector before Siena on his way to the win at the 2019 Strade Bianche. Photo: Kristof Ramon.

Industry in limbo

As it stands, the current toll on cycling extends beyond the potential or actual cancellation of races. There are likely to already be significant costs to the manufacturing side of the industry, too. This is a critical time in the cycling industry’s production run, directly following the Chinese New Year break where many workers travel home for the holiday and where millions may have become unwittingly ensnared in quarantine. The Chinese government officially extended the New Year break for a week, but some estimates have the Chinese manufacturing sector as being reduced in capacity by as much as 50% over the last three weeks as well. Already, 60% of Chinese firms are reporting operational difficulties as a result of the virus, and 6% are staring down the barrel of bankruptcy.

There are an estimated five million companies globally that have Chinese suppliers, according to commercial analysts Dun & Bradstreet, and there are obvious implications for cycling as well, with vast swathes of the industry’s manufacturing capacity in limbo. As a result, the cycling industry is bracing for shortages in their supply chains and an accompanying downturn. For brands with a predominantly Chinese market, the situation is even bleaker, with weak sales and consumer uncertainty leading into the summer likely to take a heavy toll.

All of this is compounded by the postponement of major industry events like the Taipei Cycle Show, which was bumped from March to May and in turn could push planning for coming seasons – particularly for smaller brands – back by a corresponding timeframe. That’s not the only thing getting bumped; CyclingTips is aware of at least one major product launch that has been delayed as a result of the outbreak.

With a majority of cycling’s manufacturing based in China and its neighbouring countries, the true financial cost of coronavirus on the cycling industry is as yet unknown.

An unseen foe

There are countless ways to measure the impact of COVID-19. One is in the tragic loss of human life, and those left behind to grieve. Another is in the thousands of people that are fighting for their lives in hospitals. Another still is the millions who are stuck in their homes, unable to leave for fear of an unseen foe outside. As coronavirus spreads, the number of people affected by it – directly and indirectly – continues to increase. It’s a guessing game as to how far this might go, but based on the spread of the virus and the scale of the response to date, all bets are off.

In less than two weeks from now, the cream of men’s and women’s cycling may be racing along the white gravel roads of Tuscany at Strade Bianche. In less than four weeks, the men’s peloton may be cresting the Poggio and carving down the descent to one of the sport’s great finishes.

Then again, they may not. And if that’s the case, the cancellation of a bike race or two – even one with as much heritage as Milan-San Remo – may be the least of our worries.

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