Opinion: The UCI’s response to coronavirus is too little and too late

by Matt de Neef


On Sunday, from its base in Switzerland, surrounded by a continent that is shutting down borders and battling a worsening health crisis, the UCI released a self-congratulatory press release outlining the “strong measures” it had taken to combat the spread of COVID-19.

You have to admire the chutzpah. The UCI’s claims — that its measures to combat coronavirus were “decisive” and that athlete health is “a priority mission” — are a marvel of PR spin from an organisation that’s been positively glacial in its response to the pandemic.

In Sunday’s press release, the governing body announced a number of actions in response to the spread of coronavirus. Chief among them, the fact race organisers have been “expressly requested to cancel any cycling event on the UCI International Calendar in territories identified at risk by the WHO [World Health Organisation].” For those playing along at home, that list now features 146 countries around the globe including every major cycling nation.

Let’s be clear: this is absolutely the right call. International cycling races – heck, probably any cycling race – should be cancelled for the foreseeable future until coronavirus is under control. But to put it charitably, the UCI has been a little slow in getting to this point.

It’s nearly two weeks since EF Pro Cycling became the first team to voluntarily pull out of races, prompting a flurry of other teams to do likewise. The following day, the UCI announced that it saw no need to cancel races just yet. Instead it asked organisers to introduce measures that would limit the spread of coronavirus. The UCI probably patted themselves on the back for their efforts there too, which included such stirring public health interventions as asking riders to use their own pen to sign on pre-race.

In the two weeks since, a whole host of races have been cancelled by their organisers, among them Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Italia. But it’s only now that the UCI has introduced what amounts to a racing ban. Only now, after the horror of the UAE Tour and its botched quarantine, only now that half of Europe is seemingly on lockdown and riders in Spain are unable to train outdoors. Only now, after Paris-Nice was bizarrely allowed to continue on for seven of its eight days — albeit without spectators — as sporting events the world over were being cancelled.

In making its announcement now, the UCI presents as reactionary, out of touch, and lacking courage, at a time when the sport desperately needs leadership and a sense of certainty.

There’s not even certainty about the UCI’s newly announced racing hiatus, including how long it’s intended to last. From Sunday’s press release, it looks like it’s perhaps until April 3 at the earliest, but even that’s reading between the lines. It’s hardly forceful communication.

Sure, on one level the UCI’s position – or lack thereof – makes sense. Cancelling races early is hardly desirable. Who would foot the bill for race organisers’ lost income? Would the UCI have been liable if it were the one to make the call? And what if it had cancelled races and coronavirus had come under control sooner than anticipated? The backlash would doubtless have been swift and strident.

But sometimes, leadership means taking risks and making tough decisions, especially in the context of a global health crisis.

WHO’s executive director Dr Michael J. Ryan summed it up nicely: “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Everyone is afraid of making a mistake; everyone is afraid of the consequences of error. But the greatest error is not to move; the greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”

Ultimately, the UCI’s reluctance to act put the onus on others further down the food chain. It fell to race organisers to cancel their own events (when they have every incentive not to do so), and it fell to teams to cancel their participation when cancellations weren’t happening quickly enough. Because of this uncertainty, exacerbated by the UCI’s lack of action, we saw the ludicrous case of riders travelling to race Strade Bianche when it was still slated to run two days later; of riders and teams having to pull out of Paris-Nice midway through because they saw the writing on the wall quicker than the ASO or UCI.

At the time, EF Pro Cycling’s decision to pull out of Italy’s spring races felt close to an overreaction. And yet, we’re already learning that in the face of the virus’ exponential spread, those who acted swiftly and decisively, acted most wisely.

In the Italian province of Lodi, where “social distancing” measures began on February 23, the number of local cases has plateaued at just over 1,100 by mid March. In Bergamo, where social distancing began on March 8, the number of cases shot up to nearly 2,400 by mid March. The two provinces had roughly the same number of reported cases on the day Bergamo’s containment measures were introduced.

To be clear, cycling is far from alone in its questionable handling of coronavirus. Formula 1’s decision to cancel the Melbourne Grand Prix came laughably late — with fans crowded at the gates, and with drivers already on their way home. Australia’s National Rugby League allowed fans to attend this past weekend’s matches, while the majority of sporting codes worldwide either cancelled games or held them in empty arenas.

Government responses to the pandemic in Australia, the USA, the UK and elsewhere have left plenty to be desired as well. And this whole saga is far from over, both in cycling and more generally.

The UCI has already received more than 100 postponement and cancellation requests for international races, “and the list is growing daily”. The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, while yet to officially announce their cancellations, will almost certainly be called off. The Giro d’Italia will not run as scheduled. The Tour de France may well suffer a similar fate. The Tokyo Olympics — the biggest sporting event in the world — could seemingly go either way.

And then comes the challenge of trying to reschedule races that have been postponed rather than cancelled. In its Sunday press release the UCI flagged that it would undertake that process “according to the possibilities offered by the UCI International Calendar but without any guarantee”. Translation: the racing calendar is already filled to bursting point and fitting in all of the postponed races by season’s end simply isn’t going to happen. UCI president David Lappartient said as much even before Strade Bianche was cancelled.

“At the moment the calendar is full,” he said. “If you want to relocate races it’s much later in the season and you won’t have races in November or December.”

The Giro d’Italia creates perhaps the biggest quandary. When could a three-week race conceivably be moved to, particularly if it isn’t the only Grand Tour that needs to be rescheduled? The Olympics makes rescheduling even trickier than normal (assuming that Tokyo even happens). Could the Giro be shortened to two weeks? Could the Tour? And even if it’s possible to find a new date for the biggest races, spare a thought for race organisers who now have the burden of reorganising events that typically take a year or more of planning.

These are uncertain and scary times for everyone. It should go without saying that the racing of bicycles, largely for entertainment’s sake, is a minor concern at a time when thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have been infected, millions are on lockdown, and where the worst is seemingly yet to come.

But even in our little cycling bubble, strong leadership is needed. The world is facing a health crisis that is unprecedented in living memory. The situation needs to be treated with gravity, and the governing body of our sport has a role to play in that. In these uncertain times, the UCI should be doing what it can to bring certainty; to make decisive calls on whether races are happening, to have the fortitude to say that racing is on hold indefinitely, and to communicate it effectively.

The UCI shouldn’t be leaving it to race organisers and teams to make the most important decisions about the health and safety of those in the sport. It shouldn’t be passing the buck, and then patting itself on the back for doing something that’s already been done by others.

Iain Treloar contributed to this article.

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