David Lappartient was at Strade Bianche to see the return of men's and women's WorldTour racing, and despite growing number of COVID-19 cases in some European locations and the return of some restrictive measures, the UCI president remains quietly optimistic that the full rescheduled race calendar can go ahead, including the Tour de France.
As the mayor of the small French commune Sarzeau, Lappartient understands the problems and dangers of the coronavirus pandemic but is mixing his optimism with pragmatism.
Last week several teams pulled riders from races after the risk of possible infection emerged, but Lappartient confirmed that, in theory, races can continue even if a rider tests positive for coronavirus.
"I remain optimistic that the Tour de France will go ahead," Lappartient told Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview in Siena after watching the start of the men's and women's Strade bianche races.
"Of course, zero risk doesn't exist; we could have a big cluster in Nice or a fast second wave. I follow things closely with the race organisers and so, at least today, I'm optimistic the Tour de France will take place."
Lappartient and UCI staff ensured that the protective protocols were carefully respected by Strade Bianche organiser RCS Sport, the teams, riders and fans. Lappartient, like riders on the podium and all race staff and media, wore protective face masks, underwent temperature checks and respected social-distancing measures.
"We're all happy to see that racing is back. It feels like the start of a new life, of a new 2020 season," he said.
"The first part of the season seems so far in the past, and unfortunately the world is completely different now. But I'm happy to see that men and women's cycling is back. It's important to see racing back in Italy, too, because Italy has suffered a lot. Now we hope the next three months of racing can be delivered. It's vital for the sport and for the economy of our sport."
To be able to race, teams have to test their riders before and during races, and create protective bubbles around them. Even the UCI president is kept on the outside of the bubble, to limit the risk of a rider, or anyone else, catching COVID-19.
"I think it's as safe to race as is possible. I'm more concerned about some parts of Europe than the risk in the peloton," Lappartient admitted.
"We've seen the new problems in Spain and the new challenges in Belgium. The virus is spreading, and there are clusters emerging, and they could emerge in a city where a race is due to be held. We can't control those aspects, so we can only keep our fingers crossed and respect the very strong protocol we created. I have to thank everyone who is involved: the teams, riders, race organisers and everyone in the sport. We've all worked hard to ensure that the sport goes on."
What happens if a rider tests positive?
The UCI has drawn up a protocol for if a case of COVID-19 emerges in the peloton at races. However, it has refused to make it public, with only race organisers obliged to inform teams two weeks before a race. Understandably, any national health regulations overrule any team or UCI protocols to protect public health and will decide what happens at races.
"It's a big question, and not easy to answer. A race will not stop if there's one positive case, even if nobody knows if the race will go on to the end," Lappartient revealed.
"Of course, any rider who tests positive in a race will go out of the race. Then we need to check the contact cases, those who had close contact with the rider, following the World Heath Organisation rules. Maybe some of them will have to leave a race, too.
"We also have to talk with local authorities because they decide the national health rules for virus cases. Under rules in some countries, the rest of a team may be able to continue, but perhaps not in other countries. We have the UCI protocol, but the laws of the countries are overruling," he said.
"Teams are in protective bubbles. They share the same bunch but the individual team bubbles are separate. Some national authorities are trying to understand if they are OK with that structure. It's something we are following and managing thanks to the hard work of UCI medical director Professor Xavier Bigard and everyone who has worked on the protocol."
Some teams have struggled to respect the double pro-race testing protocol due to cost and complex nature of securing COVID-19 tests in different countries in the 72 hours before a race.
A special mobile unit is expected to be created for the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, each costing €200,000, with race organisers covering the operational costs and teams paying for pre-race testing. Race organisers have also started to help teams find suitable testing facilities for their races to reduce the risk of a rider travelling to a race, mixing with teammates and then being notified of a positive test for COVID-19.
Lappartient refused to bow to suggestions that the WorldTour Reserve Fund should be used to cover the costs of some of the testing instead of being directed to the legal battle with the Velon group of teams, and other costs. He suggested the WorldTour fund was just €600,000, while major men's WorldTour teams face testing costs of close to €200,000 for the next three months.
Professional cycling's different stakeholders are fractious as they fight for power and survival under the dominance of the Tour de France.
"The guns are never far away… But I think we've had unity in the sport in recent months as we worked to get cycling going again and create a new calendar," Lappartient said.
"Some people have criticised the COVID-19 protocol, but all the different stakeholders were involved in drawing it up and agreed as a pool. We all realised that we have to work in unity and I hope that can continue in the future. But 71 per cent of global racing has been cancelled. That makes it hard for the UCI, too. We have some reserves, too, but if we have several seasons like this, it will be very difficult."
Lappartient even sees possible opportunities for cycling once the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic has passed.
"In the next few months, if things go well, there will only be a few major sports going on if things stay as they are. That's an opportunity for cycling, as television numbers will surely increase and that can help find new resources," he suggested.
"I have no doubt the sport of professional cycling will survive, but I think the economics will change due to a wider economical crisis. Maybe it can help us change in a good way. Now lots of new people are using bikes for transport, for health reasons and for social distancing. The wider cycling economy is doing well, even during the coronavirus pandemic, and in the future there will be even more opportunities.
"Pro cycling has to be part of all of this. We need to embrace innovations like gravel bikes and find the new markets. A solid cycling industry involved in pro cycling is important, too," he said.
"In the past, some people were a little ashamed to say they were cyclists, but now we can all be proud to be a cyclist."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.
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