A lone mobile test laboratory was critical to ensuring cycling's third Grand Tour could go ahead, race director Javier Guillén claimed on Tuesday.
The lab was parked discretely near the Vuelta a España stage starts and finishes for three weeks this autumn and capable of churning out up to 1,000 PCR results daily. Guillén said that "although we never reached that maximum," the test lab "gave us a massive ability to react and tie down any potential suspicion.
"Without that mobile lab, I don't understand how we could have done La Vuelta 2020," Guillén told a media meeting organised by news agency EuropaPress, in which he described the complications of running a Grand Tour during steadily worsening pandemic conditions.
During the countdown to the start on October 20, rumours that the Vuelta a España might not take place had multiplied. Italian media, spurred on by rising concerns during the Giro d'Italia where there were multiple positive cases and two team withdrawals, led the way on insisting there were question marks over the feasibility of the Spanish race.
Shifted into the late autumn in cycling's calendar restructuring, the Vuelta a España route was slashed back to 18 days after the start in the Netherlands was cancelled due to the pandemic.
A two-day incursion into Portugal had also been mutated into much tougher two stages along the western outreaches of Spain. Then during the race, what had been the toughest mountain stage to the Col du Tourmalet in France was changed almost at the last minute to a much less daunting summit finish to Formigal on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.
Despite all those issues, not to mention the risk of poor weather in Spain's always unpredictable autumns, the Vuelta safely reached Madrid in early November amidst widespread praise from riders and media for its high levels of health safety. As overall winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) himself put it 24 hours before the finish, "everything worked."
Despite benefiting from seeing what had happened in previous WorldTour races during the pandemic, and being able to alter their protocols accordingly, the Vuelta had been put under unexpected as well as unprecedented strain, Guillén revealed.
He said that the decision to go for a November finish, bringing down the calendar on the revamped 2020 WorldTour, was partly agreed to by the Vuelta "because that way we'd coincide the least with other races, and also we'd be as far away as possible from the Tour so we'd likely get a better level participation.
"But there was a third reason, which was that when we decided in March we thought that we'd be through the pandemic and out the other side by the autumn. In fact, the Vuelta took place in the worst conditions possible of all the bike races."
On the plus side, top-level cycling's re-start in Spain in the Vuelta a Burgos in early August, plus the Vuelta a España being part of the Tour de France organiser's, ASO, stable of races, helped the learning curve considerably. Another key foundation stone of the Vuelta's anti-pandemic measures was the publication by the Spanish government and various regional authorities of a detailed health protocol governing high-level sports events.
"It was the perfect guide," Guillén said, before thanking the public for paying attention to the race's campaign to 'watch the Vuelta from home this year' and stay away from the race roadsides. "Telling the public to stay away from the race felt like a politician telling people not to vote on election day: it felt like it didn't make sense, but we had no choice," he said.
He had even greater praise, though, for the teams. "Some team members spent up to four months away from their homes, isolated in race bubbles in hotels," he said, "that was a huge sacrifice to make."
While recognising that the race's coffers had taken an important hit as a global result of the pandemic, Guillen said that the cost of extra pandemic measures, ranging from kilometres of extra fencing, 35,000 face masks, the PCR mobile laboratory, and more than doubling their medical staff, had added up to over six per cent of the Vuelta's extra budget. However, in a bid to cut expenses, Unipublic had not, he said, made any staff redundant.
With the race organised into a series of safety 'bubbles', mountaintop finishes closed off to the public, and areas of hotels safely sealed off for each team, Guillén said, "If any of the bubbles had burst… if we failed one day, we failed all of them.
"The first stage was crucial because if it worked well, then all the rest could. The first rest day results were also key because that was what confirmed that what you'd done, you'd done well. But I was concerned there could be too much euphoria in the last few days when we were getting close to Madrid, we had to stay concentrated."
A keen football fan and supporter of soccer team Atlético de Madrid - a side famous for its rollercoaster series of results - Guillén said that when the news came through from the UCI on the rest days that up until those points there had been no positive tests, "it was as if Atlético had won the Champions League."
Though there were some positive cases among team staff members before the Vuelta began in Irun, no rider tested positive during the race itself.
Asked about the multiple cases of COVID-19 positives that emerged on the last day among Civil Guard police officers supervising traffic and road safety during La Vuelta, Guillén said, "Those tests were done outside the race, and it didn't affect the safety bubbles. But we will have a meeting to study what happened and we obviously regret it did."
Guillén also earned words of praise during the meeting from fellow-speaker Spanish Minister of Sport Irene Lozano, who said that she had had a meeting with the head of the World Health Organisation, whose officials had given their approval to Spain's protocol for safe sport.
"It was a very tough Vuelta," Guillén said, "the Vuelta of COVID, against a very special enemy, one that rather than taking on face to face, we had to tackle by keeping as far away from us as possible."
A date for the next presentation of the 2021 Vuelta a España has yet to be set, but it looks likely to take place either at the end of January or in early February. However, Guillén was adamant that the race would start in August as usual, rather than in Autumn.
"Spain isn't as tough weather-wise in October as people think, but summer is better," he argued. Whether that mobile test lab will still be there, next year, though, remains to be seen.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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