Two strikes, team’s out: ASO reveals Tour de France COVID-19 protocols

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Amid growing concern about rising COVID-19 case numbers in France, Tour de France organiser the ASO has detailed the health measures it will take when the race commences in just over a week’s time.

In an 18 page document shared with teams this week, the ASO has revealed the steps it will take in the event of a positive test within the peloton, along with additional screening that will be conducted on the race.

The big question first: if a rider or team staffer shows serious symptoms or tests positive to COVID-19, the individual will be removed from the race. If two people in a team unit are infected, the entire team and its entourage will be removed.

However, in either case, according to the ASO, the race will continue regardless.

A masked-up Team Ineos at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

The document, Velonews reports, specifies that a confirmed positive test is not the sole tipping point: “If two persons or more from the same team present strongly suspect symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19 the team in question will be expelled from the Tour de France. Its riders will not be authorized to start the Tour de France (or the next stage) and the team’s personnel will have their accreditation withdrawn.”

That leaves team doctors and race medical staff with a degree of autonomy in the case of milder symptoms, allowing them to decide whether a rider can take the start of a stage in the absence of a confirmed result.

Any individual that is defined as a ‘close contact’ of a positive case may also be pulled from the Tour – although in the hustle and bustle of the world’s biggest bike race, the boundaries of that definition are a little nebulous.

Testing protocols

The UCI’s testing protocol, which has been in place since the season resumed, outlines the tests a rider must take prior to being allowed to start a race. To enter a team ‘bubble’, any rider must return a negative result six days before a race commences, and again 72 hours prior. Those safeguards have thus far returned positive results for AG2R La Mondiale riders Silvan Dillier and Larry Warbasse, Israel Start-Up Nation’s Omer Goldstein, and Astana’s Hugo Houle.

While the spotlight has been on rider safety, the ASO document provides additional detail around team staff. For the Tour de France, the entire team’s personnel – riders, soigneurs, managers, bus drivers – are required to pass those two COVID-19 tests before the race, and all will be retested on each rest day.

Before and after each stage, team doctors will assess the health of the entire entourage with a checklist outlining possible COVID-19 symptoms – a list that includes coughing, shortness of breath, aches, fever, and abnormal fatigue – which may or may not overlap with the extreme exertion of a three week stage race. These assessments are then to be relayed to the race organiser’s medical team.

The system appears to be predicated on transparency on the part of teams, and it is not immediately clear what safeguards there might be in the face of internal pressures to underreport symptoms.

Maintaining the bubble

‘Bubbles’ are one of the defining terms of the 2020 cycling season, and the safe conduct of this year’s Tour de France relies on them. At the Tour, there will be tighter restrictions on access than have been seen previously in the season, with only riders and essential staff permitted in the team bus area at the stage’s start, and media kept at a distance. Teams will have dedicated floors or wings in race hotels, and there is to be no rider interaction with fans whatsoever, the ASO specifies.

For riders and team staff, face masks will be mandatory at both ends of the stage, as well as in team vehicles. Face masks are also expected to be worn by all roadside spectators – although the enforcement of that is far from straightforward on 3,470 km of roadside.

The measures outlined by the ASO answer many of the lingering questions as the race prepares to commence in the midst of a global pandemic, with measures taken to preserve the health of riders and personnel on the race.

The broader health context in France is less assured. On Thursday, the country recorded 4,771 new cases, its highest number since May and a jump of a thousand over the day before. Deaths and hospitalisations have thus far remained relatively low, with younger people overrepresented in the statistics, although the number of hospitalisations has been rising for three weeks. There has been a 42% rise in new cases since a week ago, with strong growth reported in the regions encompassing Paris and Nice.

The Tour de France begins in Nice on August 28, and is set to finish in Paris on September 20.

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