Davide Formolo and Chief Operating Officer of the UAE Team Emirates squad Andrea Agostini have revealed the mental struggle they faced during their self-imposed quarantine in the UAE after the coronavirus Covid-19 spread through part of the team during the final days of the UAE Tour in late February.
Formolo never tested positive during 15 days of isolation in a UAE hotel and was eventually allowed to travel home to his European base in Monaco. Agostini is still in the UAE with Fernando Gaviria, awaiting a flight back to Italy after testing positive for Covid-19 and spending 23 days in a UAE hospital. On Monday 38-year-old team osteopath Dario Marini revealed he spent nine days in intensive care in the UAE.
In a moving first person testimony published in La Gazzetta dello Sport, Agostini confirmed that eight members of the UAE Team Emirates riders and staff at the UAE Tour tested positive for Covid-19. Other riders and staff from the Gazprom-Rusvelo team also tested positive, with a number of teams also forced to stay in quarantine after the rest of the UAE Tour caravan was allowed home.
"I was in hospital for 23 days and in total isolation for 20 days, waiting and waiting for my tests to be negative," Agostini explained.
"I raced as an amateur with Marco Pantani, cyclists learn how to suffer but when you're in hospital and doctors and nurses visit you dressed as if they're going to Mars, it changes everything in your life. When you see a friend, who is less than 40, in intensive care and very close to be put on a ventilator, you ask yourself what is happening."
"I never felt ill and could have ridden my bike or gone for a run. But that's why nobody should under estimate the coronavirus: stay at home and protect yourselves. Eight of us in the team tested positive with mine confirmed in my second test and that's when we self-isolated as a team. Our manager Mauro Gianetti was incredible, he was like a brother. He realised the danger we all faced because most of us didn’t have any symptoms even if the tests were positive. He helped avoid a disaster, because we could have passed the virus to so many other people.
"I went on to do 12 tests in 26 days, waiting until two were negative in a span of 24 hours. I kept hoping to be negative and never was. A molecule of the virus was still in my DNA and so I had to stay in isolation. The only people I saw were the medical staff from behind their mask and protective clothing. You search out eye contact with the doctors and nurses to find some hope."
Agostini was treated in the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi and had a bike in his room so he could ride on the rollers. He spoke to his wife Francesca, a nurse in the Cesenatico hospital, by Skype, but he admitted he suffered in isolation so far from home.
"I suffered mentally, in certain moments I struggled to even speak. Isolation is so very hard. You have to wait but you never know when it will all end. I had a panic attack and struggled to breathe. I'm still afraid. And even now that we've recovered, while Fernando Gaviria and I are waiting for a flight home from Abu Dhabi, we still keep a distance."
How can we think about racing again when we see military trucks taking the coffins away?
Formolo managed to travel home much earlier after 15 days in isolation in a UAE hotel. His mother-in-law works in a hospital in Verona, on a pneumology ward, so he has a first-hand account of the fight to help the most serous Covid-19 cases.
"She's on the front line and so I've realised just how hard the fight is. That's why I'm happy to support the idea in Italy by Mario Cipollini, Gianni Bugno and La Gazzetta dello Sport for a virtual ride at Easter to raise funds that are needed. Pro cyclists are always ready to help and what is happening the beauty of life. I know that what happened in the UAE has changed me," Formolo said in an interview.
"We did the first test after stage 5 of the UAE Tour and everyone was negative. Then some people were positive when we did a second test and the world fell in on us. We were all scared and we realised it was all a lot more serious than just a bike race."
Formolo never tested positive but stayed in isolation in a UAE hotel for the necessary quarantine period. He was able to train on the rollers but suffered when he saw what was happening in Italy and especially in Bergamo, one of the hardest hit cities in northern Italy.
"We often focus on our sport and are naturally competitive but when you see things on television, you realise that other things are important in life. You think about the doctors and nurses on the front line, who can't simply stay at home because they have to fight the coronavirus.
"The good thing is that we got through as a team. I was really sorry that Diego Ulissi missed the birth of his daughter Anna but he shared the emotions of the birth with all of us and so now Anna has 30 extra uncles."
Unable to train outdoors due to the strict restrictions in France, Formolo has been riding on the rollers, doing gym work and practicing his baking skills.
"I've become a master chef and I like making new things, including bread," he revealed. "Riding the rollers is a little harder because there's nothing like climbing at 300 watts outdoors."
Formolo is trying to keep fit and near his race weight but admits he is struggling to think about racing again.
"How can we think about racing again when we see military trucks taking the coffins away?" he asked before trying to find a silver lining to an extra long season that could run into November.
"Racing into November would definitely be better than having a long December training camp."