How coronavirus has affected bike racing: An on-the-ground perspective

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After several months without racing, the professional women’s road calendar restarted this past weekend in Spain. Over the course of three races — two in Pamplona and one in Durango — the best in the world got a chance to test their racing legs after such a long lay-off, while also coming to terms with the impact COVID-19 has had on the sport.

Reporter Amy Jones and photographer David Powell were at the two Pamplona races — the UCI 1.1 Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa and Clasica Femenina Navarra — for CyclingTips. As Jones writes, the return to racing was about as chaotic as you might expect if you were to throw hundreds of riders, staff, and race personnel together during a global pandemic.

False starts

On the morning of the first UCI women’s race since February, the riders of CCC-Liv were outside their race hotel ready to ride. They weren’t preparing to warm up for Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, the race they were supposed to be doing; rather they were about to traverse the 150 km to the next race location of Durango after team doctor Tessa Backhuijs suggested they withdraw from the two Pamplona races over coronavirus safety fears. Considering Backhuijs was part of a team that contributed to a report by The Cyclist’s Alliance damning the events as unsafe, CCC-Liv didn’t really have a choice but to stand by its doctor.

CCC-Liv prepare for departure, having decided not to race.

For the riders, COVID-19 protocols might be seen as a necessary but inconvenient new addition to their job, but for the hundreds of staff that go into making a bike race happen, they are an expensive logistical and bureaucratic nightmare.

Speaking on the eve of the first of the two Pamplona races, Ceratizit-WNT soigneur, Megan Earl, outlined the protective measures the team was taking; measures above and beyond UCI requirements. Everything from feed stations to massages and vehicles were re-evaluated. To avoid flying, the team drove from their base in Austria, picking up riders along the way.

“For us to get here I had to fetch our riders in Italy,” Earl said. “So I’ve driven 2,000 km in two days.” The van she was driving then had to be cleaned down. “I wash our camper floor with hot soapy water and then disinfect all the surfaces every day,” she added. “We have to clean the cars every day anyway but we’re now adding more.”

The simple matter of bidons has also become a hygiene minefield: “We have to change the way we do bottles, because now we can’t sterilise and wash bottles — we have to throw them away,” Earl explained. “Normally we would give bottles to fans but we can’t do that.”

Money Matters

The UCI’s hands-off approach to the practical implementation of its own protocols proved costly for the mostly small teams who, having travelled one or two days to the first race, missed out on starting. Their failure to carry out PCR tests for coronavirus required by III(B)(1) of the UCI’s COVID-19 Protocol meant they were turned away from competing in the Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa.

Race organisers worked with the teams to ensure this was rectified for the second race, securing access to the stipulated tests. But with a PCR test coming in at between €150-€200 each time, it was telling that the teams in question were lower-tier outfits. At around €2,000 to test a whole team, it’s impossible to see how smaller teams, or indeed bigger teams with already stretched budgets, will be able to afford a full racing calendar.

“It’s going to be hard for smaller teams to arrange the testing and get it all done,” said Trek-Segafredo DS and decorated former pro Ina-Yoko Teutenberg. “They don’t have the resources, they probably don’t have the contacts other bigger teams have and it will be a challenge for them to be able to follow all the rules and be able to afford all the rules.

“I think rules just have to be more clear too and the latest rule came fairly late before this race so I think it was really hard for teams to run around and get a test done in a day or two day’s time. For sure the less resources teams have the harder these things are going to get.”

In addition to the cost of the tests themselves, new UCI rules indicate that only a medical doctor can submit test results to the governing body. A stipulation for WorldTeam status is that, to qualify for the license, teams must instate a doctor but for smaller teams this is an added expense they cannot afford but must now seek out if they want to race.

This is an issue CCC-Liv doctor Backhuijs highlighted in an interview with VeloNews last week: “Every WorldTeam team needs a team doctor, but for the other teams, a lot of the team doctors are doctors on paper only,” she said. “On urgent matters, you can consult them but they’re not working closely with the team the way I am. That makes it, for other teams, a huge effort to organize.”

Confusion and Contradiction

For all the panic the stringent protocols incited this past weekend, those protocols seemed to lose all meaning at the race itself where they appeared to unravel somewhat in practice. Contradictions were everywhere, a symptom of the confusion that prevailed even after the uncertainty from earlier in the day.

Riders signing on left their bikes at the barriers where any curious member of the public could touch them. Race personnel milled about seemingly confused themselves about what the extent of their powers were, sometimes shooing photographers away, sometimes standing by as their lenses and therefore faces got uncomfortably close to riders.

Riders waited in line slathering on hand sanitiser ready to stand on the stage for presentations. Once on stage certain members of the peloton were asked to give an interview, and handed a microphone to hold to do so. Portaloos were installed next to the stage and there was no visible sign of them being disinfected or anything stopping Joe Public from using them.

The most visible example of the protocols actually being heeded came in the form of masks. On the whole, riders and staff all had their faces covered when around the start and finish and riders wore their masks on the start line.

Officially, they were supposed to keep them on until a minute before the start when they would put them in their pockets. What came to pass, however, was a hodgepodge of approaches, from riders passing masks to soigneurs who then placed them in individual plastic bags, to the indiscriminate throwing of disposable masks at race staff or onto the stage next to the line, often via teammates who would pass them down to the edge of the barrier. Only a few seemed to actually keep their masks in their own pockets.

A detail that wasn’t missed was the opportunity for sponsors to provide yet more coverage of the rider’s kit in the form of team-branded sponsor-correct masks — a symbol, if ever there was one, of the so-called ‘new normal’.

One Degree of Separation

What proved somewhat confusing and difficult to police, however, was the presence of media and the public at the open start and finish areas, and at podium presentations. At both races fans crowded at the finish line, something which, in normal times, would be seen as a win for a lower-tier women’s race but in a pandemic felt more like something to wince at. The podium area of the first race was held in a busy town square through which riders had to walk to reach the team buses.

In a sport where part of the appeal is the openness for fans, keeping them away would seem both counterintuitive and impossible to enforce. When we saw Ceratizit-WNT soigneur Megan Earl again at the race she looked exasperated. “It’s impossible to try to stop fans from coming near,” she said, as behind her back one of her riders handed a bottle to a young fan. The back of the team van was open, showing an array of cleaning and disinfecting products that would put a hotel cleaning cart to shame.

Later on, at the finish, Earl stood at least 200 metres further from the line than her counterparts, upholding the team’s stringent protocol to the last. Her soigneur colleagues, for their part, were wearing masks and gloves and were standing well apart from one another. Canyon-SRAM’s staff, ever on-brand, even had purple latex gloves to match their branded masks. All this seems somewhat futile, though, when a sweaty rider, having been elbow-to-elbow with colleagues from outside their own team ‘bubble’, rides right up to them with a heaving chest and no mask.

A Backwards Step?

For their part, race organisers seemed to do their best to rectify any failings, scrambling for tests when the UCI released its last-minute measures — no mean feat in light of how difficult some riders found it to get tested. “I can tell you that it’s really hard to find a place where they can do a PCR test because they don’t have so many,” said Elena Cecchini of Canyon-SRAM, speaking of her native Italy. “If you are not positive through a blood test they won’t do a PCR test because they say they want to keep them for those who really need them, so it’s really hard to explain that you are an athlete and you need this to do your job.”

The question of whether a cyclist heading to a bike race is a feasible use of a valuable COVID-19 test in the middle of a global health crisis is surely a contentious one.

In the end, the only way racing seemed to be unaffected by the pandemic was in the results. Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) took solo victories in both of the Pamplona races, and then again in Durango a few days later — three wins in four days. Those wins come five months after claiming her first win in the rainbow bands at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, leaving the world champion with four wins from four races so far this year.

Many reports have emerged during the pandemic outlining the ways in which gender inequalities have been laid bare; how the extra burdens of home responsibilities have set equality back to a time when women didn’t go to work. It would be a huge shame to see women’s cycling take a similar step backwards after years of hard-won incremental change. Given the added financial and logistical burdens on women’s teams — who have considerably smaller budgets than men’s teams — and with the looming threat of an altogether-cancelled race calendar if a COVID-19 case re-emerges, it’s hard to see how there won’t be a similar impact.

The real test of the UCI’s COVID-19 protocols will surely come at next week’s Strade Bianche, where the men’s and women’s pelotons and their entourages will descend on the same race location on the same weekend. Perhaps the Spanish races of the past few days have helped work through the teething problems for the women, or perhaps the first WorldTour race will exacerbate the flaws and failings of managing the travelling circus of bike racing in a global pandemic. Time will surely tell.

For now, real-life racing is here again and brings with it as much in the way of challenges as it does excitement for the racing itself.

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