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COVID-19 testing to continue as UCI updates health protocols

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The UCI's recommended PCR testing schedule

The UCI's recommended PCR testing schedule for one-day races (Image credit: UCI.org)
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The UCI's recommended PCR testing schedule

The UCI's recommended PCR testing schedule for stage races mixed with one-day races (Image credit: UCI.org)

The UCI announced updated coronavirus protection guidelines for the top-level professional road cycling events: UCI WorldTour, UCI Women’s WorldTour, UCI ProSeries, Continental Road Championships and UCI Road World Championships on Friday, with a continued emphasis on keeping the integrity of the racing 'bubble', details on COVID-19 test requirements and risk mitigation measures that will extend through the end of 2021.

The UCI continues to reject COVID-19 antigen testing as too unreliable and still require PCR tests for riders, staff and team management at regular intervals throughout the season. However, riders with chafed nasal passages can delight in the fact that the UCI will now accept saliva-based PCR tests.

"Progress has been made in the fight against coronavirus, especially with the arrival of vaccines, which have given us hope that we can soon make a gradual return to a more 'normal' life," UCI President David Lappartient said. 

"However, given that athletes and young adults are not among governments' priorities for vaccination, we have decided, in conjunction with the steering group – which includes representatives of the riders, teams, team doctors and organisers – to maintain similarly high standards as last year, in the best interests of all parties and in expectation of better days ahead."

Riders, staff and management must be tested twice before each block of racing and on each rest day of Grand Tours but will only need one test between races if the intervening period is 10 days or less. Once a rider is away from competition for 14 days they must continue to show negative PCR tests six days and 72 hours before the start of a race. However, if countries require PCR tests before entering that would mean additional swabs for riders.

The rules have consequences for race organisers and teams, too, with tighter requirements for events taking place in areas of greater COVID-19 transmission. As long as races are in 'red' (50-150 cases/100,000 people over 14 days and positive rate over 4%) or 'orange' (less than 50 and more than 4% positive or 25-50 and less than 4%) zones, the UCI will recommend that organisers restrict contact between the race bubble and spectators.

The updated regulations also address keeping the integrity of the racing bubble inside the race hotels in red and orange zones - an issue that riders highlighted in the opening stages of the 2020 Giro d'Italia. Simon Yates (then-Mitchelton-Scott) was among the riders forced to leave the Giro after testing positive and attributed the infection to the communal dining areas in the hotel in Sicily.

The Tour de France and Vuelta a España went off relatively free of COVID-19. A few staff members were sent home before the Tour de France after positive tests and race director Christian Prudhomme left for a week after a COVID-19 positive, while in the Vuelta the race bubble remained free of the virus but 45 police officers became infected.

The abbreviated 2020 road season from July to November resulted in a few riders testing positive but no major outbreaks, a testament to the effectiveness of the regular PCR tests, physical distancing and hygienic measures. The 2021 season depends on an equal level of vigilance considering the emergence of more highly contagious COVID-19 variants but Lappartient is optimistic.

"Cycling showed in 2020 that it knows how to organise major events in a pandemic, thanks in the main to an exemplary spirit of unity on the part of all stakeholders," Lappartient said. "In view of that spirit and the experience we have acquired, I am convinced that we have what it takes to continue to give our sport a platform, despite all the continuing uncertainty."

The protocols were drafted by a steering group led by UCI Medical Director, Professor Xavier Bigard and took into account all of the latest scientific advances. Although the local and national laws take precedence, the UCI's protocols add a deeper level of detail specific for cycling.

The UCI asks teams and riders to ensure face masks are worn correctly and are effective at filtering out the virus, and are requiring even those who have been vaccinated to continue to have PCR tests. UAE Team Emirates riders received the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccination before the start of the season.

If the case counts decline to the level of 'green' some requirements will become optional but sanitary measures will remain in place no matter the infection rate until the UCI Management Committee deems otherwise.