Geraint Thomas and a masked-up press cohort at Tour de Suisse. (Photo: Vincent Kalut/PN/Cor Vos)

Who’s got COVID, and what does this mean for the Tour de France?

Half of the Tour de Suisse peloton dropped out of the race – and with the Tour starting next week, that causes selection headaches.

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A swathe of COVID infections at last week’s Tour de Suisse have sent a wave of jitters through the peloton – and with just two weeks to go until the Tour de France grand depart in Copenhagen, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for multiple riders who went to Switzerland for a final tune-up and left with a DNF. 

The stats alone paint a brutal picture. Of 152 riders who started the race, just 75 finished (not all dropping out due to COVID, but those were a minority).

While a mild or asymptomatic infection may not rule a rider out of the Tour de France, it likely interferes with training and logistics – and that’s just the mild cases. In turn, that is likely to lead to roster chaos in the lead up to the biggest race of the year.  

Who tested positive?

It all started going wrong midway through the race, when the entirety of Jumbo-Visma – which included riders expected at the Tour de France, like Sepp Kuss and Rohan Dennis – pulled out.

“Despite all precautions, corona(virus) has crept into the team again,” read a taciturn team statement, not disclosing how many riders – or which – were affected.

The Tour de Suisse race director, Olivier Senn, later let it slip that four riders had tested positive. “It’s obviously not nice,” Senn said.

Ineos Grenadiers’ Tour co-leader Adam Yates joined this sad party, along with Tom Pidcock, who had been hoping for a spot on the Tour squad. Marc Hirschi and Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) went positive the same day.

The leader’s yellow jersey was no magical amulet, as Alexander Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) discovered. The Russian tested positive while in the race lead, the day after a stage win – along with his teammate Anton Palzer. 

Team DSM were hit hard – Casper Pedersen, Søren Kragh Andersen, and Cees Bol all delivered positive tests during the race, and stage 2 winner Tobias Leknessund following suit afterward.

 EF Education-Easypost also had a rough trot, with four riders testing positive – including Hugh Carthy and team talisman Rigoberto Urán. The pinkest team in the peloton gallantly soldiered on to the finish with just Neilson Powless and Jonas Rutsch. 

And on Sunday, just days after his first win in almost a year, Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) went positive for the third time in 18 months. The three-time World Champion was, he said, asymptomatic, but it’s unfortunate timing given he was just coming good after a January 2022 infection – and it throws a spanner in the works for a return to the race where he has won a record seven green jerseys. “It’s a pity but that’s the way it is,” Sagan wrote on Instagram.

Along with Jumbo-Visma, three other teams – Bahrain Victorious (three positive riders, including Gino Mäder), Alpecin-Fenix (two positive riders), and UAE Team Emirates (two positive riders) – dropped out of Tour de Suisse entirely as a precaution.

“It’s just crazy,” said eventual Tour de Suisse winner Geraint Thomas. “Kind of thought all of this was behind us now … this rider out; that rider out; this team; whole team; another whole team.”

And it wasn’t just in Switzerland that the walls felt like they were closing in. At the Tour of Slovenia, more riders were testing positive, including Mikkel Bjerg from UAE Team Emirates – a key helper of Tour favourite Tadej Pogačar, riding at the same event. 

CyclingTips understands that several teams have readied multiple reserve riders for the Tour de France and delayed on announcing their squads, conscious of the likelihood of continuing COVID havoc. 

The return of the bubble?

The speed and scale of spread at the Tour de Suisse has ignited calls for increased protocols. UAE Team Emirates performance director Iñigo San-Millán wrote in a series of since-deleted tweets that the Tour’s “largest enemy” was COVID. 

“Selfies, pens from autographs, elevator buttons, door knobs, hand shaking… Without a strict bubble at Le Tour, it will be impossible to control covid and with many teams forced to leave the entire Tour may have to be cancelled. Le Tour please bring strict bubble back,” he wrote. 

An ASO staffer reminding the public of COVID-19 measures at the 2021 Tour de France. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Groupama-FDJ’s sports director, Philippe Mauduit, said that “it feels like coming back in February-March,” when a swell of COVID cases led to dozens of rider withdrawals. There’s a similar sense of precariousness now – “it can happen at any time – you have to accept it, but be more careful,” Mauduit said – but the stakes are higher, given the climactic point of the season.

“We were amazed at not having any bubbles, the end of the masks, the return to life before,” Mauduit said. “We must go back, reapply a strict bubble. It would be irresponsible not to. It’s nobody’s fault, that’s how it is. A bubble is not magic, but it at least limits contamination.”

Ineos sports director Gabriel Rasch told Norway’s TV2 that “everything will be a lottery …  most people do not go and test themselves anymore, so then you can have it without knowing it yourself. Then it is easy for the infection to spread.”

With the most important race of the year just days away, it’s a delicate moment – one in which multiple riders who had punched their tickets to the Tour de France hope that their infection is mild, while the rest of the field hopes that they can navigate the risks until Paris. 

“There will probably be extra stress around this in the Tour de France with masks, isolation and testing,” says Gabriel Rasch.

“This will certainly mean that the organiser, ASO, must step up further. It’s weird. I’m really tired,” he added, giving voice to a global fatigue that we’re still dealing with this, two and a half years into the pandemic.

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