The curious case of Bruno Armirail, quarantine escape-artist

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In the days and weeks since the 2020 UAE Tour screeched to a premature halt, wild stories of the race and its aftermath have slowly emerged.

In these stories, there has been both light and shade. There have been smuggled Playstations and teams entertaining themselves with hotel corridor Olympics; there have been vivid reports of a fever-wracked person shivering in the corner of a makeshift quarantine facility in a hotel laundry. The journalists that had been held in the media hotel have now all been allowed to return home, and so have most of the riders – only Gazprom and Team UAE remain, with several of their riders under suspicion of having contracted coronavirus.

It has, putting it mildly, been a bizarre couple of weeks for professional cycling.

Late last week surfaced one of the most bizarre stories yet from the UAE Tour. It’s not the story of a team’s quarantine… it’s the much stranger story of the rider that escaped it.

The cold and the quarantine

Bruno Armirail – a tall, lean rouleur from Occitanie, France – has a palmares including an U23 national TT championship, but in the years since joining Groupama-FDJ has had few opportunities to ride for himself. His 2020 season, however, got off to a promising start: at the Tour Down Under, Armirail slipped into the breakaway on the climactic Willunga Hill stage, survived the first ascent, watched Richie Porte fly past, and hung on for fourth on the stage and third on the KOM classification.

Bruno Armirail (France / Team Groupama FdJ) drives the breakaway on the final stage of the 2020 Tour Down Under.

From the sunshine of Australia to the sand and haze of the Middle East, where Armirail strung together a respectable series of rides at the UAE Tour in loyal support of FDJ’s designated GC leader for the race, David Gaudu, who finished in fourth overall.

At the top of the UAE Tour’s second ascent of Jebel Hafeet, on the race’s deciding stage, Armirail noticed a minor cold developing – something that in any other circumstance would have been a total non-issue. But in the fast-developing climate of fear and hypervigilance bred by coronavirus, that’s not how the local authorities saw it.

Less than 12 hours later, the W Hotel hosting the riders of the UAE Tour had been placed in lockdown, “two positive cases of coronavirus” had been reported in the UAE-Team Emirates support staff, and Armirail had been hauled off by the local police. His destination: a disused hospital and four days of solitary confinement.

Marc Madiot, the team boss of Groupama-FDJ, wears his heart on his sleeve, and when recounting Armirail’s tale to l’Equipe, he is typically forthcoming. “The authorities came to look for Bruno to take him to a hospital that was not even operational anymore, which he found himself in for four days, all by himself. He was tested, retested, retested and every time the result was negative,” Madiot said. “He ended up wondering what the hell he was doing there.”

While Armirail was confined to hospital, the situation at the race hotel was becoming increasingly concerning, alternating between riders being placed in complete lockdown and mingling with each other in common areas.

In the early hours of the Friday morning, the peloton was systematically tested for coronavirus; a few days later they were retested. Early last week, most of the peloton was finally allowed to leave, without any screening on departure – all those except the riders unfortunate enough to have been allocated rooms on the fourth floor of the hotel where the outbreak was: teams including Cofidis, Gazprom, and Armirail’s squad, Groupama-FDJ.

In hospital, the non-coronavirus-carrying Armirail was becoming increasingly agitated, and demanded to be allowed out. For days, he was rebuffed – “and then suddenly, without explanation, they let him go,” Madiot said.

Armirail, entirely isolated and without means of communication, returned to the quarantined W Hotel to be reunited with his teammates, only to find himself barred from entry. You can imagine the bewilderment he must have felt in that moment – cut off from support, without any possessions beside the clothes on his back, and in a repressive foreign country whose police had just thrown him in a decommissioned hospital for four days.

What is there left to do in that situation but to get away from it?

Image: Groupama-FDJ.

A different type of escape

Alone, in shorts and a t-shirt and without his suitcase, Armirail made his escape through the dusty fog of Yas Island to Abu Dhabi airport, boarded a flight to Paris, and then continued south to Pau to reflect on a baffling few days and try to regain some normalcy.

Meanwhile, back in the UAE, the world of his teammates had shrunk to the confines of their hotel rooms. David Gaudu told l’Equipe that food was delivered to the door by hotel staff in hazmat suits, who then “run off in the corridor not to be in contact with us”.

Arnaud Démare, quarantined down the corridor, sat and stagnated as his early-season goal of Milan-San Remo disappeared into vapour. “It’s strange. We eat, we watch TV, series on the internet, bicycle races. We go to bed later than usual,” he told l’Equipe. It took days for the team to get access to bikes and indoor trainers – until then, they were making use of whatever they could in the room for exercise, turning irons into skipping ropes.

In France, Madiot worried about the safety of his riders. “What I’m afraid of is that by dint of rubbing shoulders with people who have been more or less declared positive, one of my guys ends up catching the virus in turn,” he said. “It’s been screwed up from the start.”

The team’s support staff were also grappling with how to manage the impacts of the lengthy quarantine on the riders – physiologically, and psychologically. Frédéric Grappe, the team’s performance director, told l’Equipe that “for us, this is totally new. When an athlete is sick, it is not ideal, but he is at home – he has a social life, a way of eating, a rhythm which belongs to him and which he controls. [But for the riders in the UAE], it is as if you immerse a goldfish in a bowl that he does not know. He is lost, he is asking questions, but the problem is that we do not have the answers.”

Finally, after three negative batches of COVID-19 testing, Groupama-FDJ was allowed to leave, returning to Europe to salvage whatever they could of their early-season condition.

As the squad flew out of Abu Dhabi airport, just as Bruno Armirail had a week earlier, they were bound for an uncertain future and hoping to close a troubling chapter defined by a race cancellation and a lengthy quarantine. They landed in Europe to a cycling calendar wracked by cancellations and a continent blotted with quarantine zones.

That must have felt like coming home.

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