There’s no denying that the out-of-the-saddle events at the Giro since the grande partenza in Sicily have been a concern. The Tour de France ran amid a mixture of understandable scepticism and general delight for its three-week duration in September without any of its principal protagonists – bar race director Christian Pruhomme, the man with the most busy handshake in cycling – requiring a week’s quarantine.
But the Giro d’Italia has now seen two of its favourites test positive for Covid-19, plus one of the top tier sprinters, not to mention a medley of staff from three teams.
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Subsequent videos have surfaced showing members of up to four teams mixing with journalists, race staff and members of the public over hotel buffets; riders have spoken out of the inadequacies of the team bubbles; Eurosport’s Orla Chennaoui on The Breakaway spoke of widespread suspicion amid the peloton and revealed how one of those to test positive, Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates, was in fact sharing a room with a teammate earlier in the race, contrary to the assurances given by his own team.
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And yet, when Jumbo-Visma took collective responsibility and pulled themselves from the race ahead of Stage 10 following Steven Kruijsiwjk’s positive test, the Giro director Mauro Vegni admitted his surprise to Italian television. The Dutch team had not been asked to leave, he confirmed; they had done so of their own accord.
“We didn’t discover Covid today,” he admitted. “We have to live with it and not give in to this problem,” he said, vouching that RCS, the race organisers, would move heaven and earth to ensure the Giro ran its course and reached Milan.
While ASO, the Tour de France organisers, acted quickly in calling off this month’s Paris-Roubaix because of the growing number of Covid cases in northern France, many riders have been critical of RCS and their apparently bullish stance to get to Milan at all costs.
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Dutch veteran Jos van Emden, a Jumbo-Visma teammate of Kruijswijk, told the Cycling Podcast before his compatriot’s positive test that he felt RSC Sport and the UCI should take some of the flack for allowing teams to mix with the other race personal and the public during the grande partenza. Van Emden said that he had no doubt where Yates picked up the virus; the bubble was burst as early as Sicily, he claimed.
Other riders have been even more outspoken, the American Alex Howes taking to Twitter to claim that the sport’s governing body had “washed their hands of any liability” with regards to the virus.
Sensibly, RCS’s initial regulation of testing for the virus only on rest days has now been overturned. In the wake of last Monday’s positive tests and the possibilities of a potential outbreak within the race bubble, there will be some interim re-testing this week – a far better measure than simply waiting until when it could be too late.
But it’s true to say that, since the peloton rolled out of Lanciano on Tuesday, there has been an air of finality about things, the sense of this Giro being a race with no tomorrow. The way Peter Sagan attacked in Stage 10 was a return to form for the Slovakian showman, but it was also, perhaps, an all-in affair from someone with little consideration for the remainder of the race.
During Wednesday’s Stage 11, Eurosport’s lead commentator Rob Hatch told Brian Smith how he felt the race had the feel of Paris-Nice about it, recalling the corona-curtailed race in March and the last screech of brakes before the global lockdown called a time-out not just for the sport, but for all our lives in general.
Both cycling and the Giro are microcosms of society during this crisis and similar considerations deserve to be looked at when it comes to making big decisions. General calls to lock everything down to stop the spread come up against genuine fears for the economic impact of bringing society to a standstill. In cycling, it’s no different.
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The sport’s precarious business model is a struggle for most teams at the best of times; ending all racing could be the final nail in the coffin – not just for some of the smaller pro-continental outfits, but even some of the established WorldTour teams. Just look at CCC: they face losing their sponsor with no one yet stepping into the breach.
And, yet, those calling for the Giro to be cancelled have every reason to do so. After all, we have no idea of the long-term effects of Covid-19 on spindly cyclists with suppressed immune systems in the middle of a three-week race. Look at what Epstein Barr did to Mark Cavendish and Esteban Chaves – two big-hitters now but shadows of their former selves.
Fernando Gaviria, who stuttered to seventh place in Stage 11 (his highest finish of the Giro) in his latest disappointment for UAE-Team Emirates, has not been the same sprinting force since he was the first WorldTour rider to contract the virus back in February.
So those preaching caution over continuation – just like those urging their respective heads of state to shut down their countries again – have every reason to feel scared.
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But try telling that to Alex Dowsett, whose heroic ride on the weekend could well have earned him a new contract at Israel Start-Up Nation.
Try telling that to 34-year-old Sander Armée, the last man standing of Wednesday’s breakaway, whose contract with Lotto Soudal ends in a matter of weeks.
Try telling that to the always-genuinely-delighted Arnaud Démare, who triumphed in Rimini after Armée was reeled in, and who was overlooked by his team for the Tour de France despite being in the form of his life, and whose four wins in this Giro have seen him gain the recognition he deserves.
Try telling any of the above riders that the Giro should have been cancelled, that their wins or potentially career-saving rides should not have happened. Just as in wider life, people need to work – not simply for reasons of selfishness or glory, but to safeguard their futures and, in the words of Dowsett, “to put food on the table” for a family that’s about to get 33 per cent bigger.
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And what of those calling for more consistency – those saying Team Sunweb should have walked, like Jumbo-Visma and Mitchelton-Scott, following the positive test returned by Michael Matthews; that they didn’t purely because of the high position of their riders Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley in the general classification?
Well, yes, there does seem to be scope for double standards in Sunweb’s decision. There can be no over-vigilance when it comes to dealing with a global pandemic: as Richard Plugge, Jumbo-Visma’s general manager, made clear – we’re all in it together and we all have to make sacrifices.
In Matthews’ case, it’s not even as if the personal sacrifice was huge: the Australian has not really been at the races in this year’s Giro, but he has the luxury – unlike Dowsett or Armée – of a two-year deal with Mitchelton-Scott awaiting him in 2021.
For the latest news is that Matthews returned a negative coronavirus test result one day after testing positive and withdrawing from the Giro. We all know that false positives are widespread, and should this be verified after a third test, it puts an entirely different sheen on Sunweb’s situation.
How unjust would it have been for Kelderman to have been forced out of his best ever chance of winning the pink jersey, or for Hindley to be denied his own opportunity of taking the white jersey and a breakthrough top 10?
We don’t know where we stand with this virus especially when we don’t yet know how to test for it. What would help is a set-in-stone pandemic protocol to which race organisers, teams and riders could adhere, so they know exactly where they stand. But as yet, none of us know where we stand with coronavirus, and that’s not going to change any time soon.
On announcing its cancellation this week, Paris-Roubaix promised fans that it would be back in April 2021. For many people, that is grossly optimistic. It may take much longer than a few more months to see the back of this.
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