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In some ways it’s still surprising the Tour de France even got started. That as the number of coronavirus cases surged around France, sport’s biggest annual circus was allowed to set off from a COVID-19 hotspot and embark on a nationwide journey.
And yet, the Tour did start, and nine stages have now been completed without incident. In fact, as the first week of the Tour unfolded and thrilling racing took centre stage, the spectre of coronavirus seemed to retreat into the shadows. But that’s all about to change.
As the Tour heads into a rest day many thought it would never reach, COVID-19 is back on the radar of all involved in the race. On Sunday and Monday, roughly 650 riders and team staff will be tested for coronavirus. The outcome of that testing could well decide the fate of this year’s race.
There’s been no coronavirus testing at the Tour since before the race began. Riders and team staff were each required to pass two tests in order to enter their team “bubble” and then another round of testing before taking the start in Nice. Four Lotto Soudal staffers were sent home after two returned “non-negative” tests on the eve of the Tour.
According to AFP, the next round of PCR testing got underway ahead of schedule — before Sunday’s stage 9 even began. Team staff were tested on Sunday evening, and testing of riders will follow on Monday. Results are expected on Tuesday morning, just hours before the start of stage 10 in Île d’Oléron.
Belgian news agency Belga reports that anyone who tests positive over the coming days will have the opportunity to be tested again on Tuesday morning, to eliminate the possibility of a false positive. A mobile testing lab in the Tour caravan can reportedly return results in less than two hours.
Anyone with a confirmed positive test after that — whether rider or team staff — will be required to leave the race. Any team with two positive tests in the space of a week will be ejected from the Tour. That rule was eased on the eve of the race after consultation with teams, but was reinstated before the race began, at the instruction of the French government.
In short, this year’s Tour continues to exist on a precipice. Any rider could be ejected at a moment’s notice; any team could have its entire entourage sent home. The overall leader, Primoz Roglic, and his Jumbo-Visma team are not exempt from this. It’s conceivable that this year’s Tour could be decided in the lab rather than out on the road.
It’s little surprise then, that a cloud of trepidation hangs over the Tour as the first rest day approaches. Riders, team managers and race organisers will all be hoping the measures they’ve put in place are enough to prevent COVID-19 from impregnating the Tour bubble.
There’s little doubt the threat is being taken seriously by those at the race, as UAE-Team Emirates’ head of medical Jeroen Swart explained to Cyclingnews.
“We do everything from the typical measures – the ones that everybody knows about, like masks and hand-sanitising solutions in multiple places in the bus and vehicles – to extra measures, like having an air filtration unit installed in the bus to help eliminate viruses and other contamination,” he said. “Then we have other protocols, from how we manage preparation of food, to massages, and pretty much everything else that goes on on a daily basis.”
But as the teams are aware, there’s only so much they can do. Even with all the precautions they’re taking, it’s impossible to prevent exposure to the virus entirely.
“We took all the procedures to avoid being caught by COVID — it’s true we are a little bit cautious,” said Cofidis manager Cedric Vasseur on Thursday. “Even if we are confident, we cannot be 100% sure that nobody will be infected.”
Perhaps the biggest variable in the COVID equation is the roadside crowds. On Saturday’s stage 8, on the slopes of the Col de Peyresourde, fans crowded the riders, many within touching distance, an alarming number without masks. It wasn’t hard to imagine an overzealous fan passing the virus into the Tour bubble.
Understandably, many riders and teams expressed their frustration. “We were riding through a [wall of people] — that’s not what we need right now,” said Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma). “We want the Tour to get to Paris. Please wear a mask, and even more important, respect social distancing.” Andre Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation) tweeted a similar sentiment.
Movistar added its voice to the chorus as well. “As most of you, we’re concerned by the current situation in the world,” the Spanish team tweeted. “It’s taken so much effort to restart the season – and we all don’t want it to end. Please wear a mask, use it correctly, and keep some distance. Do it for us and the rest of the field.”
Their concerns are well-founded. The day before the Peyresourde stage, France recorded its highest tally of new cases since coronavirus emerged at the start of the year — a total of 8,975 new cases. Saturday’s tally was only slightly lower, at 8,550.
And yet, there’s an unwavering desire to keep the race running. Tour organiser ASO remains committed to ending the race in Paris, as planned. Meanwhile, French prime minister Jean Castex, a guest in the lead car of race director Christian Prudhomme on the Peyresourde stage, praised ASO’s efforts to protect the race against the throngs of roadside supporters. “I am really very happy with what I saw today,” Castex said. One has to wonder how much attention Castex was paying.
As testing as the opening ‘week’ of the 2020 Tour de France has been, perhaps the race’s biggest test is about to begin. Who knows what the Tour will look like on Tuesday morning once all coronavirus tests have been completed. We can only hope there are no positive tests, and that the race’s trajectory is not affected by coronavirus. At this point though, given all that 2020 has delivered so far, it would hardly be a surprise for riders or whole teams to be sent home prematurely.
Prudhomme said before the Tour began that there are no guidelines in place for the race’s cancellation should COVID make it into the Tour bubble; no requisite number of teams ejected before the race itself is scuppered. Likewise, there’s no clarity about if and when a winner can be declared should the race end prematurely.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.