With the Tour de France pencilled on for August 29-September 20, and a lockdown on outdoor training in Italy, Spain and France likely to be eased in the coming weeks, teams are starting to plan how they will train and then eventually race during the second phase of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The UCI has announced that any return to racing "remains dependent on the world health situation" and a number of virologists and medical experts have warned of the risks of trying to hold bike races that attract thousands of curious spectators during a possible second wave of infection or an ongoing fight to limit the spread. However, teams and riders are keen to race again, clinging on to the hope that the Tour de France and a packed autumn race calendar can help men's professional cycling survive.
In recent weeks, the likes of Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) have clocked up some long rides out on the roads of Belgium, but those under a stricter lockdown have just been trying to maintain a basic level of form, riding on the various digital platforms, doing group core workouts and taking part in some virtual races for fun. They will follow a more serious training plan in the weeks ahead, with most riders needing 10 to 12 weeks of progressive training to reach peak form.
Team managers, directeurs sportifs, team doctors and coaches have kept in contact with the riders and have been working on plans and preparation for the eventual post-COVID-19 season.
"The team doctors and coaches are working closely with the riders because they're going through a difficult moment, which they've never experienced before," Italian team doctor Carlo Guardascione explained to RAI Sport.
"It's psychologically important for everyone to have a date for when the racing will start again. Everyone is now working to be ready for when we get the green light."
Riders are currently spread around the globe as they try to stay safe. European riders are understandably at home with their families, while most American riders and Colombian riders headed home from Europe when the major races were cancelled. Many of the Australian riders stayed in Europe and are holed-up in Monaco, Girona, Spain or at altitude in Andorra, with other riders who call the different tax havens their European home.
There have been concerns that some riders may struggle to return to Europe from North and South America in time for the return to racing due to travel limitations, but a number of football players are already returning to their European clubs without major problems, and Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) should have no problem returning to Europe late in the summer for the Tour de France and any preparation races planned for August.
The Colombians may soon be able to train outdoors at altitude, with Tom Dumoulin quick to suggest that he could be at a disadvantage if he remains at home in Belgium. However, European teams and riders are expected to try to arrange altitude camps at isolated and safe locations in Europe. Few riders are likely to fly to Tenerife to stay atop Mount Teide; instead, they could head to locations in Italy, Austria, France and Switzerland in June and especially July.
'I honestly think everyone will currently test negative for the virus'
Guardascione explained that while teams may gather together for training camps, riders would be divided into small groups to reduce the risk of contagion. The groups will also have to be COVID-19 negative and likely spend a significant amount of time away from their families.
"Bahrain McLaren has riders in 12 different countries, so the first step is to ensure that all the riders can train outdoors," he said.
"Before any training camps, we'd organise serological blood tests for everyone but I honestly think everyone will currently test negative for the virus," Guardascione claimed, considering the way riders have respected lockdown regulations at home and appear healthy. He explained that any rider who is shown to have had COVID-19 will undergo a strict medical check-up, following the highly regarded testing protocols drawn by Italian sports doctors.
"From there, we'll up the level of safety and isolation to protect the riders and staff. We'd divide the riders into small groups of three or four riders, who would train together but distant from other groups. They'd also eat together, sleep in the same rooms or apartments and be followed by the same soigneur. The riders would wear a mask in any public spaces in the hotel, the team bus and team cars will have to be sanitised, as would the hotel rooms during the training camps. We'd do all of this so, in case of a positive case, it'd be easier to control the problem."
A recent non-scientific study by Bert Blocken's team of aerodynamicists at the Eindhoven University of Technology on the spread of virus droplets by runners and cyclist caused alarm on the risk of riders training together. However, riders are likely to make any major efforts on climbs individually and will stay in their group of four riders.
Guardascione played down the risk of training outdoors and believes the risk of contagion can be managed by race organisers.
"I don’t think there's any real risk of them catching the virus or spreading it by riding outdoors. The risk is very lower compared to, say, a swimming pool or gym," Guardascione suggested.
"Of course, things have to be carefully managed at races, especially regarding the contact with the public. When the races eventually start and things are perhaps better, I think any risk and problems can be controlled. Each team will no doubt set very high hygiene standards at races, and it will be up to the race organisers to follow indications of the countries where the races are held. Of course, race starts and finishes could be a problem and are difficult to hold without the public. Nobody wants that, but it can be done.
"It's a complex situation for everyone in the sport," he added. "But we haven't been sitting around doing nothing; we've been trying to plan for every possible scenario. When we're given the OK to start working, we're ready to go."
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