The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has cast a cloud over the season so far, with high infection levels and a constant risk to riders' spring programmes. At Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico this week, riders are indeed falling ill in alarming number, but with respiratory problems that are apparently unrelated to COVID.
The rate of dropouts at both WorldTour races, but especially Paris-Nice, is striking.
On Thursday morning, ahead of stage 5 of the French race, 18 riders did not take to the start. At least 13 of the abandons - and likely a couple more - were due to symptoms relating to sickness, with flu, sinusitis, or bronchitis the most common causes.
Over in Italy at Tirreno-Adriatico, the situation is less severe, but Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) left the race on Wednesday with 'fever and stomach problems', while Ruben Guerriero (EF Education-EasyPost) left with 'cold like symptoms'.
No positive cases of COVID-19 have yet been unearthed at either race.
"Our teams in both Tirreno and Paris-Nice are getting chopped to pieces by the good old fashioned flu. Fever, chills, etc, but COVID negative," wrote EF boss Jonathan Vaughters on social media.
"I think we all forgot about the flu and probably have reduced resistance to it because of isolating ourselves the last few years."
At Paris-Nice, the wave of illness has hit Israel-Premier Tech particularly hard and the team set out on stage 5 with just one rider.
Rudy Barbier and Mads Wurtz Schmidt were ruled out after stage 1, Guillaume Boivin left after stage 3, and now Carl Fredrik Hagen, James Piccoli, and Tom Van Asbroeck have been ruled unfit to continue on Thursday.
Hagen and Piccoli are suffering from 'non-COVID viral symptoms', while Van Asbroeck has 'a respiratory infection. According to the team, "All three have repeatedly tested negative for COVID and have isolated."
EF Education-EasyPost are another team who lost three riders on Thursday morning, with Neilson Powless, Stefan Bissegger, and Jens Keukeleire all out. The team communicated that Powless has bronchitis but no reason was given for the other two, although the Paris-Nice website indicated Bissegger was 'sick'.
The QuickStep-AlphaVinyl duo of Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar - two key riders for the Belgian team's Spring Classics ambitions - have also bowed out. Lampaert suffers from sinusitis while a reason was not given for Stybar's withdrawal beyond the message: "Get well, Zdenek".
Gino Mader is out with fever, a couple of days after his Bahrain Victorious teammate Sonny Colbrelli left with bronchitis. Meanwhile, Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe) has sinusitis and Clement Champoussin (AG2R Citroën) has the flu.
The riders not-starting stage 5 due to unspecified sickness include Kevin Vermaerke (DSM) and Amaury Capiot (Arkea-Samsic), while the Alpecin-Fenix trio of Jay Vine, Kristian Sbaragli, and Jonas Rickaert did the same without an explanation so far from their team.
On top of that, Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) did not start stage 5, although this was due to the effects of crashes earlier in the race.
The spate of abandons brings the total number of early Paris-Nice exits to 28. Defending champion Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën) were among the big names to leave through illness earlier in the race.
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.