Pro cycling’s top circuit, the WorldTour, is set to resume August 1 after an unprecedented 20-week shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, with some lower-circuit races starting July 23 in Spain and Romania. But cycling’s return comes with risks, and it’s not clear whether the sport can handle them.
After halting races on March 14, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s governing body, and organizers of races like the Tour de France, scrambled to create a revised calendar that packs seven months of racing into three. The organization announced the updated race dates on May 5, with a note indicating that the calendar was subject to change.
Six weeks later, on June 19, UCI released its protocols on health and safety around COVID-19. The UCI’s 15-page document sets a broad structure for teams—a bubble strategy similar to what some other sports, like the NBA, are pursuing—outlines a COVID-19 testing protocol for teams, and covers topics like how to assess overall conditions in a geographic region to determine whether races should occur.
But on closer examination, the document has gaps—big ones, which even some members of the advisory panel who helped create it concede may leave the sport unprepared to handle any outbreak of the virus. The guidelines aren’t going to cover every eventuality, but among the more serious omissions or problems are:
A thin testing and surveillance net for catching COVID-19 cases, especially at stage races, which could let the virus spread undetected.
A questionable abdication of responsibility to teams and race organizers, which will result in varying safety plans at different events.
No clear, single protocol for handling a positive coronavirus test.
No guidelines for fans or the communities through which cycling races ride.
“The UCI is terrifyingly behind,” a high-ranking official from one WorldTour team said to me on July 14 when I asked whether the UCI’s guidelines gave them the knowledge and confidence they needed to navigate the sport’s restart. “They’re not engaged enough. They’re relying too heavily on local health authorities to be the guardians of this and similarly on the race organizers and teams. It’s another example of where the sport is a long way behind other sports. It’s been incredibly disappointing.”
Over the past few weeks, I reached out to the UCI to discuss these concerns, first with press officer Louis Chenaille, then via an interview request with Dr. Xavier Bigard, the organization’s medical director and leader of the panel tasked with advising the UCI on its coronavirus guidelines. Chenaille initially answered questions via e-mail but stopped responding. Bigard said he would consider the interview request but did not respond to a follow-up request via email, which also included a detailed list of specific questions.
I also spoke with four members of the UCI’s advisory panel on the guidelines, and several WorldTour team officials and riders. To varying degrees, they all shared concerns about the sport’s guidelines. (Team staff and riders were given anonymity for this story so that they could speak freely about concerns.) The members of the UCI’s advisory panel defended their work, but admitted that more needs to be done to ensure the sport has the roadmap it needs to restart.
Dr. Kevin Sprouse, a team physician for EF Pro Cycling and a member of the advisory panel, said he didn’t feel that they even reflected the panel’s consensus in some places. “We had a good-faith conversation and put in our two cents, and Dr. Bigard did a good job running the process, but ultimately the document was written by the UCI,” he said, making clear that he did not consider himself an author, even though the UCI put his name and those of the other panelists on the document.
Michel Cerfontaine, a Cofidis team physician and member of the UCI's advisory panel, characterized the directives as an imperfect compromise, but a necessary one. “Each stakeholder would certainly like certain measures, but a compromise must be reached, or the process is blocked,” he said.
Marion Clignet, co-president of the association for female French racers (AFCC) and a member of the advisory panel, who generally thinks the protocols are sound, did admit that in the weeks since the document was released she’s had a stream of questions from teams, and has sent her own regular missives to the UCI. The document appears to have created more questions than it answered. “When three people read the protocol and have three different questions, we’ve got to go back and write it a bit differently,” she said.
But conversations with the panel advisors and other sources made clear that there are major unanswered questions and concerns about re-starting the sport.
Scenarios that were hypotheticals just days ago are now becoming reality. Two teams—top women’s team CCC-Liv and the Alpecin-Fenix team of superstar rider Mathieu van der Poel—pulled out of second-tier races on July 23 in Spain and Romania, respectively, citing health and safety concerns about race safety protocols and increases in local cases. (Romania has had a persistent spike in cases, and travelers returning home are urged to quarantine for 14 days.) Organizers canceled the Hamburg Cyclassics over concerns about public health, including fan presence. And the two Canadian WorldTour races, in September, are in jeopardy over logistical and health hurdles to flying in hundreds of riders and staff from Europe.
The Testing Net Has Big Holes
The UCI document is most specific about testing protocols for team personnel. All riders and staff must take a PCR test six days before participating in their first race. Riders are then tested again at least 72 hours before arriving at the race; if both tests are negative, they’ll join their team bubble. The team bubbles fit inside a larger race bubble.
For one-day races, team personnel need a re-test every time they exit and enter a new bubble, or every 10 days if they remain in the bubble (a single bubble might exist across multiple one-day races closely spaced on the calendar). If riders and staff aren’t tested for 14 days, then they need to do the double-test protocol again to enter a team bubble. At stage races, riders won’t be re-tested unless a race is more than 10 stages long (only the three-week Grand Tours fit that description; re-tests would take place on rest days).
Other sport leagues, like the NBA, NFL, and England’s Premier League soccer, partnered with private labs for more-frequent testing. But there’s no sport-wide testing partnership in cycling. Teams are individually responsible for ensuring that riders and staff are tested before races; while at races, event organizers are responsible.
Further, test availability varies widely by country; in the Netherlands, for example, only symptomatic individuals are eligible for testing, so Dutch riders may find it harder to get access to the pre-race tests in the required timeframe. And testing is not always covered by national health insurance; several sources I spoke with estimated it will cost teams as much as €30,000—a huge burden at a time when many teams are facing severe financial pressure.
Several members of the advisory panel suggested that the test frequency was a compromise based partly on cost and accessibility. “The more security you want, the more stringent and difficult the measures will be, and more expensive,” Cerfontaine pointed out in an email.
While the UCI has a €1 million reserve fund, the organization did not reply when asked if it considered using it to help teams defray the cost of testing (it is, however, using the fund for its legal fees in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Velon, a pro teams association).
Well, news coming out of @UCI_cycling PCC meeting just spoiled my good mood. Apparently, @DLappartient intends to earmark €1M from the World Tour emergency fund to fight @VelonCC in court. The intent of this fund is that it be used when teams or races struggle financially.
— Jonathan Vaughters (@Vaughters) January 30, 2020
The UCI is making allowances for new, so-called rapid test protocols that may become an option later this summer or fall for low-cost testing with quick results. But so far, it hasn’t increased the test frequency, even as other sports are testing as often as every other day. Because symptom onset averages five days, but can take up to two weeks, pro cycling’s thin safety net makes it more likely that any cases that do arise could go undetected for a week or more, raising the risk of spread.
The UCI Has Abdicated Too Much Responsibility
The most glaring problem with the testing protocol, however, is that it only applies to teams and UCI staff—what about the hundreds of other credentialed participants at a WorldTour race: race organization staff, course marshals and security, and media? Most sources I spoke with thought testing for other race personnel would be run by each race organizer in connection with health authorities, but didn’t know for sure (the UCI didn’t respond to this question).
In any case, that group seems to be a lower priority. “I think [the UCI] expects that those other people will not really come into contact with the riders or staff, but it’s not clear,” Sprouse said.
The UCI requires every race to appoint an infectious disease specialist as a COVID-19 Coordinator, who is responsible for communicating with teams and health authorities and helping create the race’s safety plan, which must be relayed to teams at least two weeks prior to the event.
But that means every race must devise its own protocol for testing credentialed participants like media, and for fan access—which may work for big promoters like ASO, which runs seven WorldTour races and is part of a larger media company. But others are smaller outfits that run just one or two big events.
August’s Tour of Poland has banned fans from start and finish areas, and there will be no on-site media. The Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which promotes a number of races—including the Tour de France—intends to trial a strict lockdown protocol for August’s Criterium du Dauphine. But ASO hopes for a more traditional Tour, including its fabled publicity caravan, albeit with just over half of the normal parade vehicles with staff tossing trinkets and treats to eager fans. No race has publicly announced its testing protocols for credentialed staff.
“Different organizers are doing things differently, and they don’t all have the same means to put everything together,” Clignet said.
The result is a patchwork of standards and uncertainty for teams, at a time when they’re juggling all manner of challenges, like how to field teams for all the races on the schedule.
Don’t Call It a Bubble
A consequence of the shortened season is that it’s very busy. The men have 23 races and 102 race days in three months, with several races are almost always happening at once. (The women’s calendar is more manageable, with 32 racing days across 15 events, but women’s teams are half the size of men’s.)
It’s a possibly insoluble math problem. Men’s team size is eight riders for Grand Tours, seven for other stage races, and six or seven for one-day races (organizer’s choice). Normally that’s manageable, but the rescheduled 2020 season features near-constant overlap of events. The crux is four weeks starting on September 29, where teams have to enter riders in two sets of one-day races and two three-week Grand Tours. With at least three simultaneous roster bubbles, each team needs 22-23 riders to fill those spots; the average WorldTour team roster is 28.
It’s just barely workable, assuming no one gets hurt or suffers burnout from the intense schedule, and if they manage to get tested in time to join a bubble and don’t test positive. Even then, with riders bouncing between races and linking up with ever-changing combinations of teammates and staff, it’s hard to call it a bubble.
“How are these bubbles going to work with so many races stacked on top of each other,” asked one team official I spoke with. “Under the current calendar, teams will be forced to constantly move staff and riders from country to country.”
Whatever it’s called, positive tests will burst it. No other sport that’s come back has managed to do so without at least a few positive tests; some, like Major League Soccer, have had teams withdraw from tournaments. Pro cycling had one of the earliest outbreaks in any sport at February’s UAE Tour, which prompted cancellation of the race and the strict quarantine of all involved.
“The chance of seeing a positive COVID test is a hundred percent,” Sprouse said. “The whole thing hinges on how we handle that.”
There’s No Concrete Plan For a Positive Test
Once someone inside a team bubble does test positive, the UCI is oddly vague on what happens then. The safety document recommends teams be grouped to separate floors or wings of a hotel, with separate dining areas. But for quarantine, the guidance only says that races should “consider designating a single room per team, known as ‘isolation’ for anyone who presents COVID-19 symptoms…” before starting contact tracing.
As for contact tracing, the UCI says in its guidelines that each event’s COVID-19 Coordinator will set the criteria for identifying those who came in close contact with the person who tested positive, according to exposure risk. In short, the UCI again deflects responsibility, and as a result, the process may vary from race to race.
In an e-mail, Chenaille, the UCI’s press officer, defined “close contact” as anyone who was one meter or less from the patient for more than 15 minutes without a mask. But masks aren’t magic shields against longer exposure. Riders and staff stay two to a room at hotels, some of which are cramped and lack good ventilation. Teams eat together (Sprouse mentioned some hotels may still offer buffets). Riders get massages daily from soigneurs. And they ride together on the team bus to and from stages on transfers that are routinely an hour long or more (not to mention racing close together for hours without masks, although outdoor transmission is likely less common than in enclosed spaces). “Close contact” could conceivably apply to the whole team.
The UCI didn’t respond to questions about managing positive cases (aside from the COVID-19 coordinator who manages contact tracing, the document says a race group will be assembled to manage positive cases, but only after one occurs) and the panel members weren’t clear, outside of following public health guidelines that aren’t always neatly applicable in elite sports.
One team official I spoke with said they can’t get answers from the UCI on even basic logistical questions about isolation procedures. “How do you identify the contacts? Is the team or race allowed to continue? What happens if anyone [tests positive and] gets stuck in that country a few weeks? There’s a huge amount of frustration the past couple of weeks with the lack of information and responsiveness from the UCI.”
What About the Fans?
Perhaps the biggest unaddressed point is community risk. The UCI’s main concern seems to be preventing the virus from breaching the sport’s bubble. But what if it’s already there? Cycling is unique in that it takes place in unsecured public space, where fans can literally reach out and touch the athletes. And stage racing is by design itinerant, with 500-1,000 riders, team staff, and race personnel, who hail from all over the world, moving from town to town each day.
Bike racing’s accessibility and intimacy are part of what make the sport great. But amid a global pandemic, it also presents a risk profile for spreading the virus into communities that no other sport has, if not from teams, then from other race staff, or fans who travel to watch who bring the virus with them. Some races clearly expect roadside fans, and even tacitly invite them; they're the whole focus of publicity caravans.
“The UCI is really deferring a lot to local government, and quite honestly there’s a lack of forethought into how these things will be handled,” Sprouse said.
It’s important to note that the European Union, where the heart of the road season happens, has done far better at controlling the spread of the virus than countries like the United States or Brazil. But in terms of community risk, an outbreak in pro cycling could have a massive impact. One rider I spoke with said the possibility of the sport becoming a vector for the disease is one of his biggest fears.
If pro cycling somehow becomes a super-spreader event, it could be a public health disaster. It might also be a nightmare for the sport: the greedy fools who put a town or a region or a country at risk so they could race some damn bikes.
TL;DR: There Are Too Many Unaddressed Risks
Members of the advisory panel were ambivalent about the UCI’s approach to racing’s return. Universally, they welcomed the opportunity to take part in the process and offer guidance, felt the panel had worked well together, and that it had produced solid advice for the UCI to create a baseline framework for safe racing.
Some said the UCI might offer more protocols to cover missing elements (the UCI did not respond to my question about this). And all pointed out, as the document does, that the guidelines are not written in stone. They can and will shift with new events and facts, as conditions on the ground change, and as our understanding of the virus evolves.
Already, the UCI released an updated version of the protocols on July 10 and a third revision is said to be near final (this story reflects the second version). The team officials I spoke with mentioned they were in direct communication with other teams and race organizers, which speaks to their ability to self-organize and coordinate plans without top-down direction.
And while cycling is behind many sports, it’s still better off than some. NFL players roundly criticized the league’s move to start training camp this week without a firm testing protocol in place. (Subsequently, the NFL announced daily testing for the first two weeks of camp, and every other day after that).
Even absent a worst-case scenario, the vague guidance suggests that the re-start may be a rough ride. “My personal estimate of whether the season happens as written is maybe slightly better than zero percent,” Sprouse said. “I don’t predict it’s going to be a giant catastrophe, but I don’t think all the races will go off.” (I spoke with Sprouse before Hamburg was cancelled.)
More teams may back out of races if they don’t trust the health protocols. Races may cancel if enough teams don’t show. And if positives ripple through the peloton, teams may have to forfeit race starts or shut down operations entirely. The whole season is as fragile as an over-tensioned wheel; if a spoke breaks, it stresses the others, and more may follow until it simply collapses under the strain.
There may still be time before the heart of the rescheduled season to improve the plan further, with more robust testing, more help for teams to make it happen, and more concrete guidance for organizers. But with every day that passes, every question unanswered, that window closes a little. Pro cycling is back. But it’s far from ready.
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