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Tour de France COVID-19 confusion leaves Ineos, Mitchelton, Cofidis and AG2R possibly one positive away from expulsion

POITIERS FRANCE SEPTEMBER 09 Arrival Egan Arley Bernal Gomez of Colombia and Team INEOS Grenadiers White Best Young Jersey Public Fans Mask Covid safety measures during the 107th Tour de France 2020 Stage 11 a 1675km stage from ChatelaillonPlage to Poitiers TDF2020 LeTour on September 09 2020 in Poitiers France Photo by Stuart FranklinGetty Images
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Egan Bernal’s Ineos Grenadiers team, Mitchelton-Scott, AG2R La Mondiale, and Cofidis are possibly just one COVID-19 case away from expulsion from the Tour de France. However, there is still confusion as to whether another positive test on Monday’s second rest day would force them to leave the race.

The positive test on each team has understandably left them on edge. Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates wore the race leader’s yellow jersey for four days last week and is targeting stage victories in the mountains, AG2R-La Mondiale’s team leader Romain Bardet is currently fourth overall, while Cofidis also have a lot at stake with Guillaume Martin in third place overall.

Tour de France organisers ASO and the UCI confirmed that four staff members from the four teams tested positive for coronavirus during PCR swab testing carried out on Sunday and Monday around the first rest day. Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme also tested positive for COVID-19 and left the race.

It is unclear if the four staff positives were confirmed by secondary testing done by the mobile testing unit created by the Tour de France organiser ASO. One team involved told Cyclingnews that secondary testing was planned for riders only, with staff instead undergoing a serological blood test to better understand the development and status of their COVID-19 positive.

Under the medical protocol agreed for the Tour de France, if a team has two positive cases among its riders and staff within a seven-day period, it will be out of the race. Before the Grand Départ in Nice, the teams tried to limit the rule to just the riders. However, French medical authorities overruled an agreement between ASO and the UCI and said that two cases in a team bubble of 30 riders and staff would lead to expulsion from the race.

The first rest day tests were carried out on Sunday and Monday, with the second series of tests also expected to be spread across two days. If two positives emerge strictly within the seven-day window, it could trigger the ‘two-strike team out’ rule and radically impact the Tour de France.

One of the four teams with one positive indicated to Cyclingnews that they understood the seven-day period ended before the next series of testing on the second rest day. However, it appears that the French medical authorities want to rule otherwise, with L’Équipe suggesting that “if a single member of the four teams has another positive (on the second rest day), they will have to pack their bags.”

L’Équipe used a soccer analogy and described Ineos Grenadiers, Mitchelton-Scott, AG2R La Mondiale and Cofidis as being on a yellow card, with a second yellow card leading to expulsion.

In theory, if the stricter rule is enforced and a staff member at Ineos Grenadiers tests positive in the second series of tests around next Monday’s rest day, the team would have to leave the Tour de France, even if 2019 winner Egan Bernal were wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey.

The race's interim director François Lemarchand, who replaced Prudhomme said before the start of the stage 11 on Wednesday that teams who had received one positive test would be excluded if there was another from "the next battery of tests.”

Yet a source told Reuters that the organisers may yet reset the seven-day window and cancel the ‘yellow cards’ from the first rest day after consultation with the French government.

"But before, there will be a discussion between the health authorities, the Tour race management and the International Cycling Union to make the decision," Lemarchand added.

The four affected teams remained tight-lipped over who had failed tests and over when exactly the positive staff member had been tested.

Cyclingnews understands Ineos Grenadiers sent a second staff member away from the Tour de France after they shared a room with the positive case, even though this second staff member tested negative. 

Several teams have carried internal saliva-based testing and thought their riders and staff were negative. However, the official PCR swab tests produced four positives.  

Cofidis team manager Cedric Vasseur waved reporters away before the start of stage 11 on Tuesday because he was outside of the race bubble.

AG2R-La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu was reportedly angry at "those who would like to see a team go". He told Reuters that the staff member who tested positive had gone home to isolate and his roommate was also sent home despite testing negative.

“We don’t plan further testing before the battery of tests in Grenoble,” Lavenu told Reuters. “I don't think we should add more stress every day to give pleasure to those who are waiting for a team to be kicked out.”

Before the start of Tuesday’s stage, Lavenu had said: “It shows that the lucky dip spares no one. You just have to understand that it can happen to anyone. We shouldn't stigmatize anyone because it is a question of bad luck despite all the measures taken. four cases out of 660 people tested: the proportion is very low. The measures are not sufficient to protect the peloton 100 per cent. Our sport is serious, but no one can be safe. The goal is to finish the Tour with the team in the best possible mood. There is the race, but also this heavy weight hanging over everyone. We have to deal with it.”