The people of Lanciano had come out to see the Giro d'Italia visit their town, and if news of the spate of positive COVID-19 tests during the rest day was spreading along the Largo Berenga, it certainly wasn't dampening the festive air at the start of stage 10.
Familiar rituals abounded. A troupe of teenaged drummers in medieval dress stood at the roadside waiting for their cue to start performing, while casual observers and tifosi alike leaned across the barriers, craning their necks in anticipation of the first riders to sign on. Another day, another town for the Giro, but not a day like any other day for those working on the race.
Barely an hour earlier, RCS Sport and the UCI had announced that two riders and six staff members of teams had tested positive for COVID-19 during the round of mandatory controls carried out on the rest day of the Giro.
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Within minutes, Michelton-Scott, who accounted for four of the staff members, announced that they had withdrawn from the Giro, having already lost Simon Yates to a positive test on Saturday. Jumbo-Visma confirmed that Steven Kruijswijk had tested positive, and word began to spread that they were considering their position in the race. Team Sunweb later announced that Michael Matthews had also tested positive for COVID-19 and was in isolation. A hazy threat to the race's progress towards Milan had suddenly sharpened into clear focus.
Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec boss Gianni Savio was the first team manager to emerge from the paddock of team buses – off limits to reporters in this age of physical distancing – and, as is his wont, he paused at the mixed zone to pass the time of day.
"I'll say it in one sentence: let's hope we can go on as far as possible," Savio said. "But the big problem is that we're fighting an invisible enemy and that makes it almost impossible to do."
Shortly afterwards, Cofidis sprinter Elia Viviani came to a halt in the same spot and stressed that the Giro gruppo needed to continue its commitment to physical distancing if the race was to go the distance.
"We've just got to stay in the bubble. It's not nice for us or for the fans, but if we want to get to Milan, it's so what we've got to do," said Viviani. Even as he spoke, tifosi were arching into the street to take his picture from just a few metres away.
As the teams began to ride past and sign on, there was still no sighting of the yellow and black jerseys of Jumbo-Visma, even after the other teams with positive cases – Ineos Grenadiers, AG2R La Mondiale and Sunweb – had all confirmed that they were still in the race.
Barely a quarter of an hour before the start, a delegation from Jumbo-Visma, led by Directeur Sportif Addy Engels, made their way gravely towards the rostrum for a brief parley with Race Director Mauro Vegni. On their return, Engels confirmed that his Jumbo-Visma squad had opted to leave the Giro en masse.
"To withdraw from a race is a big thing, especially like this, but in our opinion it's in the interests of the race to do it like this," said Engels, before trooping back to the Jumbo-Visma team bus and cars, which were not parked in the paddock on Piazza D'Amico with the others, but on a side street a couple of blocks away.
After a morning with a foot in and a foot out of the Giro, Jumbo-Visma made their decision and went home.
Everything is possible
In the middle of it all, a bike race broke out. The 177 kilometres up the Adriatic coast to Tortoreto Lido were among the most gripping of the Giro so far. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), the man hadn't won a race for 461 days, conjured up one of the finest victories of his career.
Amid a deluge on the muri around Tortoreto, the pink jersey group was whittled down to its bare bones, with Pello Bilbao (Bahrain McLaren) among those to go on the offensive while Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) lost over a minute to an untimely puncture.
UAE Team Emirates climber Brandon McNulty made a late do-or-die effort to catch Sagan, eventually placing a fine second. His fellow neo-professional, race leader João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quickstep) won the sprint for third, taking the time bonuses that extended his lead over Sunweb's Wilco Kelderman to 34 seconds.
On the finishing straight on the seafront in Tortoreto, McNulty, now 13th overall, maintained that the morning's events had contributed to the breathless day of racing. With the Giro's end date of October 25 evermore precarious, the gruppo was effectively racing like there was no tomorrow.
"Now it's possible that every day is the last day, so it's just all-in every day. It was obvious that everyone felt that. It was a hard day," said McNulty, who acknowledged that the Giro could be racing on borrowed time. "For sure, it's definitely a possibility, which is unfortunate. But safety is the most important thing for the riders and the whole of Italy. We'll see."
Movistar Directeur Sportif Max Sciandri echoed McNulty's assessment of the day's stage and summed up the general uncertainty that reigns at this Giro, both in the wake of Tuesday's news and ahead of a final week where many of the principal climbs are already layered in early snowfall.
"It's day by day. You can't really plan," Sciandri said. "Weather? We don't know. COVID? We don't know. Today everyone said, 'Let's do something.' There could be no tomorrow."
Two of the Giro's 22 starting teams have now departed the race. When the coronavirus pandemic first gripped Europe in March, the trickle of teams withdrawing from Paris-Nice had the feel of Joseph Hadyn's Farewell Symphony, with the players getting up and leaving one by one until the music stopped. The Giro isn't quite at that point yet, but its future is decidedly uncertain.
It is unclear, too, how many stages need to be completed for a winner to be declared. Almeida, the man in possession of the maglia rosa, was adamant that he wanted to carry it all the way to Milan, a week on Sunday.
"Everything is possible, but I want to get to Milan," Almeida said in his press conference, relayed by video to the physically-distanced sala stampa. "This is a Grand Tour, and nobody wants to win one without riding for three weeks. Everything is a possibility, and we'll keep trying to defend the jersey."
On RAI's Processo alla Tappa programme, meanwhile, the Giro director struck a combative note. "We didn't discover COVID today. We have to live with it and not give in to this problem," said Vegni, who also expressed surprise at Jumbo-Visma's departure.
Shortly afterwards, it was reported that Italy had recorded 5,901 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, the highest number since March 28. As Vegni surely knows, 'not giving in' to the problem won't make it go away.
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