Dave Brailsford has made it clear he would pull Team Ineos out of the rescheduled 2020 Tour de France if he felt that the race’s precautions against coronavirus were not working in a "measured, intelligent and responsible way."
Brailsford and his staff have been busy helping Ineos deliver a million bottles of hand sanitizer produced in Britain, France and Germany since stopping racing in early March and mourning the sudden death of lead directeur sportif Nicolas Portal.
He suggested the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has perhaps changed the way the world considers its role models and heroes, and it could change professional cycling as teams struggle to survive due to a collapse of the sponsorship business model.
"I think a little bit of humility isn’t a bad thing. We’re pretty lucky to be involved in professional sport. The world doesn’t need it. It needs doctors and nurses. Nobody ever died from a lack of [professional] cycling," Brailsford told The Times in an interview, also suggesting the postponement of the Tour de France to September could help Chris Froome compete for a record-equalling victory by giving him more time to recover from the injuries of 2019 crash.
Tour organiser ASO announced on Wednesday that professional cycling's biggest race is now scheduled for August 29-September 20. Thus far, there are few details of how the Tour intends to protect the health of the riders, staff, media and especially the huge number of fans expected to line the race route during the three weeks. Everyone taking part may have to go into quarantine before starting the Tour, while the race would surely be stopped if one person on the race tested positive for COVID-19.
Scientists from Harvard and the Imperial College in Britain, among others, agree that the expected lifting of suppression measures will lead to a second peak of COVID-19, the timing of which could very well coincide with the September Tour de France.
Brailsford seems aware of the risk.
"We would reserve the right to withdraw the team should we deem it necessary,” he told The Guardian. "Whilst the race is on, we will plan to participate, but equally we will monitor the evolving nature of how things play out, as we did prior to Paris-Nice.
"There will be a lot of debate generated about the rights and wrongs of the transitions out of lockdown across all aspects of society including sporting events.
"Equally most people recognise that the learning from transitioning out of lockdown will only take place once it begins. We will monitor the situation very carefully and of course take note of national guidance and all advice."
Watching Froome fight back
Brailsford watched on from his home as the Team Ineos riders compete in an eSports race on the Zwift platform on Sunday. He has also seen how Chris Froome has racked up long rides in his personal pain cave and continues to do extra work to return to full form after his terrible crash at last year's Critérium du Dauphiné.
Froome was not expected to be fully competitive at the Tour de France in July but Brailsford believes the two-month delay and the COVID-19 lockdown gives Froome a chance to return to peak fitness and perhaps challenge for a record-equaling fifth Tour de France victory.
Froome turns 35 next month and so an eventual fifth Tour de France win would make him the second-oldest champion in history, behind only Firmin Lambot, who won in 1922 aged 36. Froome would likely share Tour de France team leadership at Team Ineos with Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal.
"He’s not complaining [about the delay], let’s put it that way,” Brailsford said told The Times.
"The one thing about Chris is wow, the guy can train. What he’s doing in his man cave over there — in the gym in the morning, on the turbo, the hours he is putting in on that thing — that hurts, what he is doing now.
"If it gives him a little edge where he thinks he can train harder than the rest, and make up for lost time when he was injured, he sees that as well as everybody else and he’s making the most of it, there’s no doubt about it."
The economic impact of COVID-19 on teams
Brailsford, like all team managers, is aware of the economic impact of COVID-19 on their sponsors' activities. He seemed bullish about the support of chemical multinational Ineos, which is controlled by Britain's richest person and tax-exile Jim Ratcliffe, but acknowledged other teams could suffer badly and even disappear, leaving riders without teams and greatly reducing rider salaries, estimated to be 80 per cent of a team's budget.
"For many, the Tour is their lifeblood," Brailsford said, recognising the importance of the Tour de France.
"The very nature of the whole cycling model being 100 per cent based on sponsorship means you are only really as strong as your sponsors’ business.
"Teams to go under? I really hope not. My heart says that would be terrible. But logically you would have to think there are going to be some people here more vulnerable than others if their sponsors’ businesses don’t start getting up and running again. Something’s going to have to give and they’re not going to give up their core business for a cycling team."