The spectre of the COVID-19 virus, the spread of which has begun to grow again in Europe this summer, is casting a worrying shadow over the Tour de France Grand Départ in Denmark as the days counted down to Friday opening time trial stage.
At the recent Tour de Suisse, the peloton was decimated by outbreaks and mass withdrawals, and the effects of COVID-19 have continued to be felt during the lead-in to the Tour this week, with a number of riders, including Thibaut Pinot of Groupama-FDJ and Stefan Bissegger of EF Education-EasyPost, only recovering in the final days before the start of the race.
On Tuesday, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl were forced to replace Belgian workhorse Tim Declercq with Florian Sénéchal, while on Wednesday morning, UAE Team Emirates called up Marc Hirschi after Matteo Trentin tested positive.
Bob Jungels of AG2R Citroën facing a tense wait after testing positive for COVID-19 during the pre-race round of tests on Wednesday. His 2022 Tour participation hinges on another test on Thursday having returning a sample with a "slight viral load" according to team doctor Serge Niamke. AG2R Citroën have said Greg van Avermaet will get a last minute call-up if Jungels is still positive.
In accordance with the UCI's newly updated COVID-19 protocols issued on Tuesday, riders and staff have to be negative in antigen testing carried out two days before the start of the Tour.
On Wednesday morning Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Merijn Zeeman revealed he had tested positive, setting off alarm bells in the Dutch team. Fortunately all their riders tested negative.
"It's not something new – it's something we've been going through the last two years," Jumbo-Visma leader Wout van Aert said about the protocols and spate of cases on Wednesday.
"I'd say within the team it's not a big difference to the feelings we had the last couple years. Of course it's a bit more in the news with that happened in Suisse so everyone is more worried again.
"We never released all restrictions; we were always really careful, until now, knock on wood. Everyone is healthy. We do everything in our hands to keep it that way, so hopefully we can soon focus on the race."
Ineos Grenadiers' GC contender Geraint Thomas said that the UCI's change to the COVID-19 protocols was a constructive move, pointing out that a whole team no longer have to leave the race in the event of two positive tests in their squad.
"The main thing is that if you have two positives, the team can stay in," he said. "That's the biggest positive to it. Teams will be less stressed. Imagine having the jersey, two go positive, and you all have to go home. It's good that's gone.
"Personally, I feel quite relaxed about it. It is what it is. It's the world we live in. It seems to be a lot less deadly especially with all boosters and all that jazz. It's all good."
Earlier on Wednesday, the round of final official testing saw another case emerge, with Astana Qazaqstan calling up Alexandr Riabushenko to replace their COVID-19-positive rider Samuele Battistella.
Israel-Premier Tech have switched their roster too, with Omer Goldstein deemed a "high risk close contact" while travelling to Denmark.
Guillaume Boivin has been called up, while a decision will be made on Daryl Impey's participation on Thursday morning after he too was deemed a close contact earlier this week. The South African has yet to join the team bubble and missed the teams presentation in Tivoli. Team sporting manager Rik Verbrugghe also tested positive while travelling to Denmark.
In a pre-race press conference, Ineos Grenadiers co-leader Adam Yates admitted that catching the virus at the Tour de Suisse severely affected his Tour preparation.
He said that he'll find out in the opening time trial how his form is doing, noting that, "I'm much better now, obviously, but I had maybe three or four days quite bad, to be honest.
"I had a proper fever and chills. I also missed the really crucial stages in Suisse. I was waiting for the weekend there to have a real test, so it's not ideal."
Yates was among numerous riders to catch COVID-19 in Switzerland, along with Ineos teammate Tom Pidcock. Fellow GC contender Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) left the race while in the the overall lead due to the virus, while the EF Education-EasyPost trio of Stefan Bissegger, Rigoberto Urán, and Alberto Bettiol also tested positive during the race. All managed to recover and test negative in final tests and so can start the Tour de France on Friday.
Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets
After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1