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Survey reveals COVID-19 protocols difficult to maintain in women’s racing

women's peloton
The women's Peloton (Image credit: Getty Images)

The women’s peloton has nearly completed the late-season revised calendar, a replacement to the original calendar that was shut down due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic this spring, but despite the range of health protocols implemented to keep riders safe, many riders felt that the guidelines and protocols were difficult to maintain at top-level women’s races.

According to a recent survey conducted by The Cyclists’ Alliance, the athletes revealed four main areas of concern: protocols were not adequately followed at some races, cohorts were difficult to maintain during travel and accommodation at races, some teams do not have direct access to a team doctor, and some riders were forced to organise and pay for their own COVID-19 testing to be eligible to compete.

The survey was conducted in late September to gather information regarding the needs and fears of the athletes racing in women’s road, track, mountain biking and cyclo-cross, with the majority of the responses coming from female road athletes.

The UCI announced a revised 2020 Women’s WorldTour calendar in May after the season was halted due to COVID-19, which forced many organisers to either postpone or cancel their events. The top-tier series retained 12 of the 22 events that began on August 1 and is set to conclude at the Madrid Challenge held from November 6-8, in conjunction with the final of the men’s Vuelta a España.

In advance of the official re-start of the racing season in July, the UCI implemented a series of COVID-19 coronavirus health and safety protocols that detailed mandatory and recommended actions that included the creation of protective peloton and team 'bubbles', the screening of riders through screening and PCR swab tests six and three days before an event, and continued screening during races. 

In addition, social distancing measures were imposed between the competition bubble, the team bubbles, and the race organisation staff, media and public. Race organisers had to appoint a so-called COVID-19 Coordinator and a COVID-19 Doctor who were in charge of the protocol at the event.

The UCI stated that it would fine teams and organisers that failed to implement the protocols. The Cyclists’ Alliance's survey noted that teams and riders are taking the protocols seriously. 

The association has also taken the opportunity to measure the impact of COVID-19 on professional cycling and to help identify any issues to ensure that future races meet the correct standards.

The results are likely to useful as the sport prepares for next season, with the COVID-19 pandemic expected to again impact racing. 

Survey results

  • Riders feel that, at some races, the COVID-19 protocols are not being correctly followed by other riders and teams, organisers, and other groups attending races (in particular spectators but there are also concerns about behavior of media and anti-doping officials) 
  • The main concerns outside of racing were on the risks of travel and accommodation For example, the requested ‘bubble’ is very difficult to maintain in travel and is not being enforced or maintained in accommodation provided at races.  65% Of the riders are concerned the lack of enforcement of protocols in race accommodation puts them at risk of infection.
  • Nearly 30% of riders still have no team doctor or no direct access to one - compromising the protocol through no fault of their own 
  • 25% have to arrange their own COVID-19 testing and nearly 10% have to pay for their own tests 

Some of the additional statistics from the survey pointed to 68.8 per cent of riders felt that spectators were not taking necessary safety measures while at events. In addition, 43.8 per cent of riders felt that some riders were not taking the necessary COVID-19 tests or following safety measures, 37.5 per cent felt that the race organisers were not respecting protocols, and 35.7 per cent felt that the media was not respecting protocols, and 29.2 per cent felt that anti-doping officials were not following protocols.

The biggest concern surrounded travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic whereby 81.3 per cent of riders were worried about contracting the virus and 64.6 per cent were worried about the accommodations including hotels, restaurant and buffets, and other guests being in the hotels.

However, when asked if the riders felt that race organisers were respecting the COVID-19 protocols, 70.8 per cent responded 'yes'. When asked if their teams had a specific COVID-19 protocol 74.5 per cent responded 'yes' while 21.3 per cent said 'no'. 

Regarding access to a team doctor, 71.1 per cent of riders said that their team had a designated doctor with whom they could contact, 8.7 per cent had a team doctor with whom they are not permitted to contact, and 19.6 per cent had no team doctor.

When it came to the mandatory COVID-19 PCR tests, 45.8 per cent of riders who took the survey said their team arranged the testing, 20.8 per cent needed to arrange testing on their own, and 33.3 per cent said sometimes the team arranged the test and sometimes they arranged testing on their own. In addition, 74.5 per cent or riders said their teams paid for the tests, while 8.5 per cent said they paid for the tests on their own.

The racing re-started for the women's peloton at the Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, Klasikoa Navarra and Durango-Durango in July. CCC-Liv pulled out of the first two races due to fears about new cases of COVID-19 and concerns that other teams and race organisers had not followed the UCI's COVID-19 protocol to ensure a protective, virus-free bubble for the teams. 

The events that were noted to be good at following protocol were La Course, Strade Bianche and GP de Plouay. Riders pointed to Giro Rosa, Emakumeen Nafarrroak Klasikoa and Tour de l'Ardeche as not following proper protocol.

The bulk of the one-day Classics were scheduled during October on back-to-back weekends. As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has hit its second wave across Europe, there have been several new cases among the women's peloton.

CCC-Liv team did not start the Brabantse Pijl Dames (October 7) due to a COVID-19 test being confirmed as positive after the team had already gathered for the race. 

Kirsten Wild (Ceratizit-WNT) did not participate at Gent-Wevelgem (October 11) after testing positive for the virus before arriving at the event. In addition, the entire Alé BTC Ljubljana team did not participate at Gent-Wevelgem after they were notified of a positive test for COVID-19 within the team.

Ale BTC Ljubljana followed protocols and remained in quarantine and did not start Tour of Flanders (October 18) the following weekend, while two other teams, Astana and Chevalmeire, also pulled out of Flanders due to COVID-19 concerns and the rising cases across Belgium.

"COVID-19 infections are now rapidly increasing in Europe," The Cyclists' Alliance stated, pointing out one major flaw in the protocol design concerning one-day races. 

"We have also seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 positive tests within the women’s peloton and subsequent withdrawal of riders and teams from races. There is currently no guidance for what happens when positive tests arise between one day races scheduled close together."

Based on the results of COVID-19 survey, The Cyclists' Alliance raised the following questions with the UCI; At what point does racing become too great a risk? Is the UCI able and willing to fully enforce the COVID-19 protocol it has set out? Are organisers and teams truly able to operate in safe ‘bubble’ environments?

"We await their response," said The Cyclists' Alliance.