When it all changed: Inside the UAE Tour COVID outbreak

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As 2020 comes to an end, we’ve all been reflecting on a very unusual year in cycling. For me, the season began with a trip to cover the UAE Tour. It’s a race I’ve covered before, and one that is not usually all that dramatic. This year, however, it made for an experience that I won’t soon forget, as I was caught up in the beginning of the end of cycling’s COVID innocence.

This is the inside story of the last few days of the strangest work trip I’ve ever taken.

Snacking on dessert in a luxury hotel perched on the slopes of the Jebel Hafeet, it was easy to remember why I liked coming to the UAE Tour.

The weeklong WorldTour event attracts some of cycling’s biggest names to a relaxed environment where the optimism for the coming season is always high and the interviews are usually good. And when you’re not chatting up a rider or filing a story, as a journalist covering the race, you’re usually enjoying a scenic desert view, or quality accommodation, or both, as was the case in the press room on stage 5 of this year’s race.

After watching Tadej Pogacar top Alexey Lutsenko and Adam Yates on the event’s signature climb, I started putting together some notes and quotes for a story about the future Tour winner, and then jumped into a media van to head to Abu Dhabi.

My UAE Tour experience was going as well as planned up to that point.

That night, I entered the twilight zone, and I don’t think I’ve really left since. Looking back on it now, it’s hard not to be struck by just how dramatically things shifted in the blink of an eye.

The reality of the coronavirus pandemic hit home for the world of pro cycling – and for me personally – on the night of Thursday, February 27, as I was preparing to get some sleep in a hotel room I’d get to know better than I’d ever wanted.

Inside the gilded cage. Photo: Dane Cash

Our first indication that something was going on came in the form of a cryptic request from the race media coordinator to not leave our hotel. The idea that this might somehow be connected to a virus that was still only sometimes mentioned on the news – having only just started to impact Italy – was far from my mind at the time.

Some time around midnight, I headed down to the hotel lobby, where I ran into several well-connected European bike journos furiously typing on laptops and smartphones. Something was up.

I asked one of those journos in the know if he could clue me in. He did: The race was being cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. Health checks were underway.

As I started sending rapid fire messages to my CyclingTips colleagues, scrambling to report on a story, more news filtered into the UAE Tour journo bubble as sources in the team hotel about a kilometer away began filling in their journalist contacts. Two staff members at the UAE team had tested positive for coronavirus.

As we put a story together, the official word came down from the race, confirming that news. Then things really got crazy.

Among the UAE Team Emirates ranks was Tadej Pogacar, who would go onto much more illustrious results when the season resumed.

Those of us in the lobby noticed security gathering at the main exits, and also starting to block off access to the outdoor bar. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going on. Hotel staff would not give us much information, but it was clear that we would not be allowed out—and “we” included the hotel guests not associated with the race as well.

This was for real. The race media and staff were being confined to our hotel, and the riders were being confined to theirs.

Getting into the wee hours of Friday morning at this point, we were told that we were going to be tested for coronavirus, and would be allowed to leave only pending those results. So began a waiting game that would drag on in some form or another for two and a half days.

My story filed for CyclingTips, I bid the other sleep-deprived journos in the lobby good night and went up to the room to sleep. When I woke up a few hours later, we were being asked to stay in our rooms. Food would be brought to us. That really brought it home that we were in a pretty unusual situation, and it was made all the more distressing by the fact that we were otherwise completely in the dark about what was going on. Were there only two cases? Were they confirmed? Had anyone in the media hotel had contact with those individuals? What would happen if we tested negative? More to the point, what would happen if we tested positive?

Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) swept to the race lead at Jebel Hafeet. With the cancellation of the final two stages, that was where the final GC landed.

For most of the journos covering the race, the only point of contact was the media coordinator, who was swamped with messages from all of us trying to figure out what was going on. There wasn’t much he could tell us, and so, confined to our rooms with no knowledge of what the hell was happening, the many members of the press corps covering the UAE Tour began messaging each other, both individually and all together in one big thread.

Cut off from the outside world in a way that none of us had experienced before, I managed to stay sane mostly thanks to WhatsApp and the collection of journos sitting in their various rooms just down the hall or on another floor, waiting to find out what would happen next. Instead of holding onto potential scoops like precious commodities, we shared what little we knew with each other.

I learned that the riders were basically in the same boat, waiting with little indication of what would happen next. There was uncertainty over the positive cases, but those mentioned were not people I’d had close contact with. The testing was taking time, but officials were gradually cycling riders through over at the other hotel.

After an agonizing wait, we were called down in small groups to be tested for coronavirus. Giro d’Italia director Mauro Vegni himself was handling paperwork as we went in one-by-one for the test, and were then asked to return to our rooms.

What would happen if we tested negative? More to the point, what would happen if we tested positive?

Then, of course, there was more waiting. We’d hoped to get results that night. That didn’t happen. Other than a few minutes spent speaking with a handful of media outlets back home about the wacky experience I was living through, my Friday was spent in a sleep-deprived haze. I watched a season of The Crown on Netflix as I waited to find out whether I had a virus that nobody really knew anything about.

When no news came in that evening, I finally managed to get some sleep.

Saturday brought good news that most of the tests conducted on the riders had turned up negative. Our wait, of course, continued, as did the complete lack of information from anyone who might be able to tell us what was going on, and what was to happen next.

Finally, by Saturday afternoon, negative tests started to roll in. Morale improved as other journalists shared their good news, and then, at last, I got word of my negative result.

Ostensibly, that meant we could leave. As far as I knew, I hadn’t been in close contact with any positive cases.

The race media contact began setting up our departure plan that night, with a shuttle scheduled to take us to the airport early in the morning, but after 48 hours of anxious waiting, I wasn’t keen to stick around any longer than I had to. Connecting with another member of the press corps, I called a cab to come take us to Dubai. Leaving the hotel was yet another terrifying experience; as security checked over our papers, it felt like we might never leave, but we were given the go-ahead, got in the cab, and rolled away.

The peloton makes its way toward the end of the UAE Tour, with a mystery virus lurking out of sight in its ranks.

Not long after we left, both hotels went back into lockdown again. Those still there would ultimately spend at least another day in quarantine. Riders on multiple teams would be there for much longer, such as Fernando Gaviria and Max Richeze, hospitalized for 18 days.

Perpetually wired from the moment we were first asked to stay in the hotel, I don’t think I really calmed down until I arrived back home in Boulder after a multi-stop marathon of flights. I got retested, just in case, which was no small feat considering just how little testing was being done in the United States at the time – and fortunately, things came back negative again.

As I eased back into life at home, the virus turned the world upside down. It’s been that way ever since.

Reflecting on the wild UAE Tour experience that gave me an advanced look at where the whole world was headed this year, I can’t help but think about just how unprepared we all were, and how dramatically things have changed for everyone since then. That word “quarantine” does not sound quite as alien anymore. Staying in is the new normal. But on the night of February 27, I wasn’t so well-adjusted.

Fortunately, even when I was alone in that hotel room, I wasn’t really alone, and that’s something I hope to carry with me into the future. The camaraderie of a sleep-deprived, stressed, and truly scared press corps helped me get through that experience.

Amid all the anxiety, it was vividly clear: we were, and still are, all in this together.

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