‘The circus continues’ as Covid testing becomes latest frontier of marginal gains

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Better bikes, equipment that’s more aero, the latest training and nutritional advancements; all to squeeze out extra watts and improve performance. But the latest marginal gain to emerge in the peloton is much simpler. It’s all about keeping your rider in the race.

The UCI rules allow, as they did at the Tour de France, riders who test positive for Covid-19 at the Vuelta a España to remain in the race if their viral load is proven to be below a certain level of infectiousness. A panel consisting of the team doctor of the infected athlete, the Vuelta’s Covid-19 doctor and the UCI medical director make the ultimate decision, using all the available information.

The ability to process the viral load of a positive PCR test, some riders have said, isn’t instantaneous and can potentially not arrive before the start of the next stage, meaning a false positive or a less-infectious positive could unfairly end your race prematurely. But if you have your own PCR testing equipment you can make your own analysis of the viral load and make a case to the triumvirate of Covid gatekeepers to allow you to carry on.

This is the case of UAE Team Emirates’ Juan Ayuso, currently 5th overall at his home Grand Tour. The Spaniard complained of a fever and sore throat after Tuesday’s stage 10 time trial, assumed he had Covid but tested negative. Three days later Ayuso had tested positive, and his team were able to find out his viral load in time to make their case to the doctors and keep him in the race before stage 13 rolled out from Ronda.

“The situation is complicated, we test everyone every two days, in addition to those carried out by the [race] organisation,” UAE Team Emirates’ team manager Matxin told AS. “In the internal test, Ayuso returned a mild antigen with a low-intensity line. We did another antigen and it doesn’t matter. We have a PCR machine where we can check everything, it gives green numbers above the contagious load and what we always consider is the health of the cyclist first, the health of the group second and the established regulations third. Our doctor speaks with Xavier Vidart [UCI], explains the numbers and sends him all the data. He gives the OK, I contact Javier Guillén [Vuelta director], he gives us the OK.”

UAE Team Emirates were forced to send home the likes George Bennett and Vegard Stake Laengen from the Tour de France after testing positive, unhelpful to Tadej Pogačar’s yellow jersey hopes, while Rafal Majka continued on despite a positive Covid test, his viral load having been deemed low enough. Bob Jungels (Ag2r Citroën) was another who remained in the Tour following a positive test.

“When we have had red numbers like the cases of Laengen, Bennett, Trentin or Almeida at the Giro, which if they show a contagious load, there is no discussion possible,” Rottunno clarified. 

“Well, I feel good,” Ayuso said before the start, his Covid positive now asymptomatic, having returned numerous negative tests this week as he experienced symptoms. “What happened this morning was a surprise, but I want to continue in the race and I’m going to keep fighting. I’m looking forward to it.”

Cofidis’ José Herrada was forced out of the race before the stage 10 time trial, another of a long list of riders forced out after testing positive. The Spaniard is less than impressed, accusing riders of continuing to race knowing they are positive but awaiting viral load results.

“One home without knowing viral load. Others racing knowing they are positive while waiting for viral load result. Let the circus continue,” Herrada tweeted before the start of stage 13. “And no, I’m not talking about Ayuso as someone has already commented. Mostly because I don’t know his case in depth to talk about it.

“If since you test positive or doubtful in antigens there is no time to make viral load until the finish of the next stage? What is the protocol to follow? Do you leave even knowing that you are positive until you wait for the load?”

“I had a simple positive antigen and I was asymptomatic,” replied Burgos-BH’s Manuel Peñalver, who left the Vuelta before the start of stage 1. “And they sent me home a few hours before the start of the race – without being able to do PCR and look at viral load. 48 hours later I was negative at home.”

As UAE Team Emirates found out painfully at the Tour, keeping your riders in the race is as good an advantage as any.

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