The scourge that is COVID-19 has turned the sporting world on its head in 2020. Practically every major competition around the globe closed shop around March this year, with some only re-emerging in the past few weeks.
The way that most sports have chosen to re-emerge is through some variation of the ‘bubble’ model, whereby a league centers itself in a single or sometimes a few carefully selected locales, free from fans, to minimize contact that players, staff, and officials have with the outside world.
The Tour de France is different. By its very nature, as an outdoor, unticketed public event can take place past someone’s front garden. It’s not impossible to place Le Tour under ‘traditional’ bubble arrangements. So how does the world’s biggest annual sporting event operate in such an open and public setting without opening itself up to unreasonable COVID risks?
Cycling as a sport knows that it is in an unusual position in that it can’t control who turns up to watch an event, nor – on the whole – how close they get to the riders. Jumbo-Visma’s Dutch star Tom Dumoulin was one of many riders to voice their concern about the proximity of riders to the crowds. Many were disappointingly not wearing masks.
“The last few kilometers was like the (Col de) Peyresourde of always. But the Corona-virus is here, and we want the Tour to get to Paris”.Dumoulin said at the end of stage eight
Unlike the NBA, for example, where athletes and support staff are tested every second day, the tour is taking advantage of the rest days built into the schedule to test en masse all the riders and support staff – 30 people per team – taking part in the race.
Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has implemented strict measures in an attempt to restrict any outbreaks. Obviously, should a rider or support crew member test positive, they’ll immediately leave, but if a team records two positive cases amongst its crew of 30, then the entire team will be forced to say au revoir to the 2020 race. In that sense, the most stressful days on this year’s tour will come without a single bike on the road.
The potential implications of this first round of testing are, of course, massive. Should a team or two find themselves with multiple positive cases, what does that say for the rest of the peloton?
Away from the actual racing, teams are making every effort possible to mitigate risk. Each team has a 40+ page manual that provides detailed protocols covering every aspect of team activities, from the preparation of food to massages, to sleeping arrangements on team buses, to the use of tools by team mechanics. Each team’s manual is individually prepared by their medical staff, in line with both UCI and French government requirements. Doctors from all of the teams meet regularly to compare notes and ideas, so it’s fair to say that the teams at this year’s tour are doing all they can.
Over 170 men, sweating it up near each other for five hours a day, can lead to issues. There is simply no amount of data, protocols, or sharing of ideas that can compensate for that. If one team falls, how quickly will another team have to withdraw? If nothing else, this virus has proven itself extremely transmittable. While the riders are not physically touching as they would in basketball or soccer, they are in close quarters for a far more extended period.
Before the start of Le Tour, there were rumors that teams would look to be aggressive early. It was an attempt to hold a significant jersey before the first scheduled rest day, just in case the worst happened: enough teams forced to withdraw, resulting in the cancellation of the race. Through the first week of racing, however, it appears that those fears were misplaced, with teams setting out their stalls as per usual for the three-week event.
Given the potential catastrophe of teams withdrawing en masse, the prospect of the false positive is strong. Tour organizers are using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, which as well as usually providing results within two hours – vital for such a large number of tests in such a short time – they’ve also proven to be remarkably accurate.
There are no formal rules around the awarding of race results should Le Tour be halted, simply because the Tour de France has never once failed to finish. Considering some of the awful conditions of past eras, and the fact that some combination of nicotine and brandy powered many of the riders of the pre-PED age, is remarkable.
Should all teams and riders emerged unscathed from this first round of testing, there will be another test scheduled in a week at the next scheduled rest day before the teams head into the Alps. From there, another week of racing to the Champs Elysse.
With luck, we’ll continue to see excellent racing on the way to Paris. What we won’t see is the battle behind the scenes as teams keep working on emerging from the tour clean – for a sport so embroiled in PED scandals, this is a new variation of ‘clean.’
That battle will be just as fierce as the one in the peloton.