Adam Yates has revealed that COVID-19 severely impacted his build-up to the 2022 Tour de France, indicating he'll only know whether he can challenge for the podium when he sets out on the opening time trial on Friday.
The British rider, who will lead Ineos Grenadiers alongside Dani Martínez and Geraint Thomas, tested positive for COVID at the Tour de Suisse nearly two weeks ago, pulling out after four stages.
He has kept a low profile since, and was included on Ineos' eight-man lineup that was announced on Monday. However, unlike his teammate Tom Pidcock, who seemed to shake off the virus quickly and without symptoms, Yates revealed that he had suffered far more.
"I'm much better now, obviously, but I had maybe three or four days quite bad, to be honest," he told reporters at Ineos' pre-Tour press conference in Copenhagen.
"Speaking to some of the other guys who've had it recently, some just had a tickle in their throat, but I had a proper fever and chills. It's not ideal.
"I also missed the really crucial stages in Suisse. I was waiting for the weekend there to have a real test, so it's not ideal."
Yates said that he "got fit quite quickly" after testing negative, and "didn't lose too much" of the form he's been building over the past months. However, given the symptoms, and also the still-mysterious longer-term effects of COVID-19 infection, he starts the Tour unsure of himself and his chances.
"We'll find out in the TT if I'm good enough," he said.
Even a fully fit Yates would be expected to concede time in the 13.7km opening time trial around Copenhagen. Despite the improvements he's made against the clock in recent years, his small and lightweight frame will always be a limiting factor on power courses.
The same could be said for the hectic opening road stages in Denmark and northern France, where wind, cobbles and the perennial tension of the Tour's first week will combine to ensure a high-stress environment. The race hits its first mountain at La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 7 but it's only in the second week that Yates will find his favoured terrain in the Alps.
"This year I've done pretty well in TTs. For a guy my size, less than 60kg, it's not easy to go well. That's just how it is. I work a lot on it. There's not much more I can do - just put my head down. I do the same power on climbs as in a TT, it's just a matter of weight. I'll give it a shot on Friday and what will be will be."
As for the first week of the Tour, he described it as a "war" in which it's "every man for themselves" and just wants to get through in one piece.
"It'd be nice if we had a bit of respect [in the bunch] but it doesn't work like that anymore. We'll try and get through as well as possible and hopefully have some luck on our side, and go from there."
Yates lines up alongside Martínez and Thomas as part of an Ineos leadership trio who know they have to change their approach from Tours past. That's because Tadej Pogačar, winner of the past two, is the overwhelming favourite, and behind him the Jumbo-Visma duo of Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard seemingly sit a notch above everyone else.
Yates has put Pogačar in trouble in a series of duels at the UAE Tour but cracking him here will be another beast entirely.
"That's a long time ago now, it feels like it anyway," he said of the February race. "Me and Pogo have had some good battles but this is different.
"I just hope to be at my best. I've not had the best of luck with COVID, I missed a few key sessions, so it is what it is. I just hope it's not affected me too much."
As he said, that much - along with Ineos' entire hopes for the next three weeks - will become clearer on the streets of the Danish capital on Friday evening.
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