"All tests were negative". That message from the UCI after the rest day round of COVID-19 testing at the Tour de France came as a surprise to all. For some, it was scarcely believable.
A body of sports medicine practitioners in Belgium has raised question marks over the legitimacy of the tests, effectively accusing race organisers ASO of a cover-up.
The SKA (the Association for Sports and Examination Doctors) claims it has heard from riders and teams that swabs were not inserted properly into noses and suggesting that the absence of positive results should be taken not just with a pinch of salt, but "a bag of salt".
Contacted by Cyclingnews, the ASO declined to comment on the matter.
Under new UCI regulations, Grand Tour organisers must conduct rapid antigen tests on all riders on the rest days. These are the 'official' tests, with all other testing conducted internally by teams at their own discretion, even if there is a 'strong recommendation' from the UCI to test frequently.
After a mass outbreak at the recent Tour de Suisse, several riders had to pull out of the Tour following pre-race tests, while four more riders plus a number of team staff members tested positive in the first week of the race. As such, it was widely predicted that the more thorough round of ASO-led testing on Monday July 11 would unearth an even greater share of cases, but there were zero.
A day later, two riders left the race after positive internal tests, and Warren Barguil became the sixth rider to abandon the Tour through COVID on Friday morning.
"SKA cannot ignore the echoes: the corona tests that the organizer of the Tour takes do not go as it should in too many cases," read a statement from the sports doctors' association.
"SKA has heard from various teams, team doctors and riders that the corona tests that ASO takes do not follow a strict protocol and that the swab is often not inserted deep enough into the nose. If ASO reports that there are no positive cases, then that message should be taken with a bag of salt."
The SKA suggested that some riders and team doctors "have little faith in the ASO approach" and alleged that internal testing is making up for the official testing, and not the other way around.
"If the organizer of the biggest cycling race in the world carries out COVID tests, then that worthless method must stop, otherwise it's better not to do it," said SKA chairman Dr Tom Teulingkx.
"The ASO tests should be a support for team doctors and a check on teams that are not so strict with testing. Now, those doctors have to straighten out ASO's laxity. That is the world upside down."
The ASO would not comment on the allegations. The next round of testing will come on the final rest day on Monday July 18, although the tests themselves could well be carried out on Sunday evening following the conclusion of stage 15.
In the case of a positive antigen test, a rider would have to undergo a follow-up PCR test to confirm the result. There is a chance a rider could test positive and continue in the race, with Bob Jungels and Rafal Majka both already deemed to have low enough viral loads to be non-infectious.
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