The spectrum of the COVID-19 virus, the spread of which has begun to grow again in Europe this summer, has loomed large over the Tour de France peloton this month as teams, riders, and staff prepare for the Grand Départ in Denmark on Friday.
At the recent Tour de Suisse, the platoon was decimated by outbreaks and mass withdrawalsand the effects of COVID-19 have continued to be felt during the lead-in to the Tour this week.
AG2R Citroën rider Bob Jungels for example, will be facing a tense wait on Wednesday night after testing positive for the virus during the round of tests earlier in the day. His 2022 Tour participation hinges on another test on Thursday having returned a sample with a “slight viral load” according to team doctor Serge Niamke.
On Tuesday, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl were forced to replaces Belgian workhorse Tim Declercq with Florian Sénéchal, while on Wednesday morning, UAE Team Emirates called up Marc Hirschi after Matteo Trentin tested positive.
In accordance with the UCI’s newly updated COVID-19 protocols issued on Tuesday, riders and staff will be required to present a negative antigen test two days before the start of the Tour, meaning today.
“It’s not something new – it’s something we’ve been going through the last two years,” Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert said about the protocols at the team presentation on Wednesday.
“I’d say within the team it’s not a big difference to the feelings we had the last couple years. Of course it’s a bit more in the news with that happened in Switzerland so everyone is more worried again.
“We never released all restrictions; we were always really careful, until now, knock the wood. Everyone is healthy. We do everything in our hands to keep it that way, so hopefully we can soon focus on the race.”
Ineos Grenadiers’ GC contender Geraint Thomas said that the UCI’s change to the COVID-19 protocols was a constructive move, pointing out that teams no longer have to leave the race in the event of two positive tests.
“The main thing is that if you have two positives, the team can stay in,” he said. “That’s the biggest positive to it. Teams will be less stressed. Imagine having the jersey, two go positive, and you all have to go home. It’s good that’s gone.
“Personally, I feel quite relaxed about it. It is what it is. It’s the world we live in. It seems to be a lot less deadly especially with all boosters and all that jazz. It’s all good.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the round of testing saw another case emerge, with Astana Qazaqstan calling up Alexandr Riabushenko to replace their COVID-19-positive rider Samuel Battistella.
Israel-Premier Tech have switched their roster, too, with Omer Goldstein deemed a “high risk close contact” while traveling to Denmark. Guillaume Boivin has been called up, while a decision will be made on Daryl Impey’s participation on Thursday morning after he too was deemed a close contact earlier this week. The South African has yet to join the team bubble and missed the teams presentation in Tivoli.
Team sporting manager Rik Verbrugghe also tested positive while traveling to Denmark, while Jumbo-Visma sporting manager Merijn Zeeman has also been sidelined before making it out to the race.
In a pre-race press conference, Ineos Grenadiers co-leader Adam Yates admitted that catching the virus at the Tour de Suisse severely affected his Tour preparation.
He said that he’ll find out in the opening time trial how his form is doing, noting that, “I’m much better now, obviously, but I had maybe three or four days quite bad, to be honest.
“I had a proper fever and chills. I also missed the really crucial stages in Switzerland. I was waiting for the weekend there to have a real test, so it’s not ideal.”
Yates was among numerous riders to catch COVID-19 in Switzerland, with Ineos teammates Tom Pidcock also doing so. Fellow GC contender Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) left the race while in the the overall lead due to the virus, while the EF Education-EasyPost trio of Stefan Bissegger, Rigoberto Urán, and Alberto Bettiol also tested positive during the race.
So, then, while some riders await news on their Tour de France future and several teams have had to re-jig their plans ahead of the race, it remains to be seen how those who have recently suffered the virus have recovered ahead of the Tour .