Sibiu Tour riders blocked from racing Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo

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Last week marked an important milestone, with the first stirrings of the resumed cycling season. For the first time since the abrupt halt of Paris-Nice in mid-March, UCI-sanctioned international racing returned to the roads of Europe. A packed calendar stretches from now until November, trying to cram most of a season into the space of three months, with UCI and team guidelines attempting to keep riders safe from the invisible spectre of pandemic swirling around them.

So, one weekend down, how are things looking? Should we feel optimistic that we’ll see the racing calendar we yearn for, or are the wheels already starting to fall off?

Early signs aren’t positive. The first women’s race of the resumed season in Spain saw 10 of 26 teams unable to start due to failure to meet new COVID-19 protocols, and CCC-Liv pull out due to concerns for their riders’ safety. As Amy Jones reported for CyclingTips from the Spanish races, the implementation of the new testing regime has the potential to be an expensive logistical and bureaucratic nightmare.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that much of the onus of compliance with the UCI’s coronavirus protocol rests on the organisers of the race and local governments, rather than on the sport’s governing body itself.

The Sibiu Tour, which concluded in Romania on Sunday, illustrates the risks of this approach. A 2.1-classified event, the race has a list of past winners including Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa – both while racing for Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec – but tends to attract a line-up of Pro Continental- and Continental-level teams.

With the upheaval to the calendar as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the race received an unlikely boost in its standing as a primer for the resumption of WorldTour races in August. Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec and Mathieu Van der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix were on the startlist, as were WorldTour squads Bora-Hansgrohe and Israel Start-Up Nation.

Romania, which has one of the weakest public health systems in Europe, was already beleaguered by a stubbornly high case load when the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that it was illegal to mandate COVID-positive patients to stay in hospital or confinement. As a result, there is now no mandatory 14-day quarantine in Romania.

Overnight, 757 active carriers of the virus discharged themselves – some because they’re reluctant to expose themselves to the health risk of the hospital system, some because fake news and conspiracy theories are widespread in the country.

The Friday before the Sibiu Tour began, there were 799 cases reported – the highest number in Romania in the pandemic to that point. Alpecin-Fenix pulled out of the race after the Dutch government changed its travel guidance on Romania to ‘only necessary travel’. “We had to conclude travelling to Romania is not an option,” the team wrote. “The health of our riders, staff members but also public health is of primary importance. We want to strictly follow all recommendations to eliminate any risk.” The winning team of the last three editions, Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, followed suit.

Race organisers outlined the steps that they had taken to conduct a safe race prior to the commencement of the Tour, and attending media reported that the race was well-run, but photographs from stage finishes appear to show moments with limited use of face masks and a lack of social distancing.

For every single day of the Sibiu Tour, there were more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases in Romania, an increase of at least 20% over a week prior.

With the WorldTour calendar set to resume with Strade Bianche on August 1, the implications of the Sibiu Tour are starting to make themselves known.

The Italian health minister, Roberto Speranza, has since signed a decree “ordering quarantine for those who have been in Romania and Bulgaria for the last 14 days … The virus is not defeated and continues to circulate.”

For Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo a week later, that rules out any of the Bora-Hansgrohe, Bardiani-CSF-Faizane, and Israel Start-Up Nation riders and support staff who were in Romania. It also means that Alpecin-Fenix and Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec’s caution was well-founded.

The 2020 season is set to be short and intense, but the fact that there are concerning trends in Flanders, in Spain and in France suggests that it might be shorter and more intense even than that.

The sport of cycling walks a knife edge. For the sake of the riders, the infrastructure around the races, and the communities they pass through, let’s hope nobody loses balance.

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