Mass vaccination against COVID-19 may already be underway across Europe in the spring of 2021 but crowds will be banned from watching the Belgian Classics from the roadside to ensure the events are held safely.
"There is only one scenario. There is no audience. This is how we’ll be working throughout the Spring Classics," Thomas Van Den Spiegel, the CEO of race organiser Flanders Classics, told Het Laatste Nieuws.
Flanders Classics has expanded its race ownership in recent years and now organises Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs and De Brabantse Pijl. Most of the races were moved to October in 2020 due to the rescheduling of the calendar but will be held on their traditional spring dates in 2021.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is scheduled to kick off the Belgian season on February 27, with the Tour of Flanders scheduled for Sunday April 4, during the Easter holidays.
This year's race was held on Sunday October 18, with Mathieu van der Poel beating Wout van Aert after Julian Alaphilippe rode into a race motorbike after attacking with his Classics rivals.
Europe is hoping a vaccine for COVID-19 can help avoid or limit a third wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2021, and some limited crowds could eventually be allowed, but Flanders Classics have opted for a safety-first approach to ensure the races go ahead.
"There is no other way," Van Den Spiegel said. "The most important thing is that we race at the end of February, in March and in April. Of course I would rather see Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel ride up the Oude Kwaremont side by side through a sea of people. Unfortunately, that will not be the case in 2021."
The crowd restrictions mean there will be no crowds on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Koppenberg, the Oude Kwaremont or the Paterberg climbs during the Tour of Flanders or at the start in Antwerp and the finish in Oudenaarde.
Even if some riders and fans have been vaccinated or are immune after recovering from the COVID-19 virus, a strict UCI medical protocol is still likely to mean riders and teams will be part of a protective team and race bubble, with masks and social distancing still part of the sport for much - if not all - of 2021.
Van Den Spiegel is ready to accept the lack of crowds and vital income from VIP areas and sponsors as long as the events go ahead in the spring. Cancellation and the loss of television revenue in 2021 could prove to be fatal for the survival of many professional races.
"It never occurred to us not to organize the Omloop, Gent-Wevelgem or the Tour of Flanders. We can do this one more time (without crowds and certain revenue streams). After that it really isn't possible anymore," Van Den Spiegel warned.
Flanders Classics would rather hold the races without crowds in the spring than face a further rescheduled calendar, preferring to educate fans about how to enjoy the race.
"That would only create uncertainty. Then we wouldn't know where we ended up," Van Den Spiegel said of changing dates for a second time.
"We will raise people's awareness again, about watching the race safely from home. We’ll do the campaign we did this autumn again next spring. It's not cool but we did it well. It has turned out that cycling races can take place without an audience. The most important thing is that there is a race."
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