Mathieu van der Poel accepts a medal from a podium robot at E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

UCI to use podium robots to enforce ‘hug ban’

COVID-19 enforcement robots will have a lasting role in the 2021 season, according to a UCI announcement overnight.

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The COVID-19 enforcement robots first rolled out at E3 SaxoBank Classic will have a lasting role in the 2021 season, according to a UCI announcement overnight.

The robots, which were first used at the Belgian cobbled classic last week to check temperatures and ensure spectator compliance with mask regulations, had their first interaction with riders during the podium ceremony. The top three placing athletes at E3 – Kasper Asgreen, Florian Sénéchal and Mathieu van der Poel – accepted their medals from a robot, which wisely scooted out of the way before the boys went to town with the champagne.

The UCI evidently liked what it saw, and has entered into a partnership with Zorabotics, the Belgian firm who created the robots, for the remainder of the season. 

Under the terms of the agreement, the robots will be rolled out across all WorldTour level races for the remainder of the season, with an option to continue on a case-by-case basis as the health situation dictates.

However, instead of ensuring spectator compliance, Zorabotics will adapt and redeploy the robots to police the UCI’s controversial ‘no hugs’ mandate, which was introduced by cycling’s governing body to rein in inter-team physical intimacy and improve optics in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

At the time of the announcement of the contentious ‘hug ban’, the UCI’s Medical Director Xavier Bigard said that “celebratory hugs” were “not a good message for the fans and spectators”, but that it was “no pleasure for the UCI to strongly recommend all concerned to refrain from hugging at the finish.”

However, in the weeks since, the guideline has proven difficult to enforce, with several prominent violations throughout March, including Asgreen and Sénéchal’s forbidden shoulder hug at E3, and Trek-Segafredo’s flagrant whole-team violation at Milan-San Remo, where no fewer than 12 hearty, back-slappy embraces were recorded (and, chillingly, those are just the ones we know about). 

The Zorabotics robots – which by virtue of their ‘Dalek x Mach 1 iPod’ design have a limited range of motion and programmable vocabulary – have been adapted to roll into the midst of a post-victory scrum and repeatedly bump against infringing riders until they are shamed into ceasing any and all undesirable behaviours. 

David Lappartient, UCI president, reiterated that the governing body took “no pleasure” in using robots to break up victory celebrations, but vigorously asserted that to be able to use “futuristic technologies” in this fashion was “a big, big pleasure.”

“Cycling is a sport that is both beautiful and historic, but under my mandate we are proud to have modernised it, too,” he said. “This partnership places the UCI firmly at the bleeding edge of improper embrace enforcement. That is – I will say it again – a very big pleasure.”

The E3 Podium Robots will next appear at Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.

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