The evolution of the ‘P’ word

by Sophie Smith

Words by Sophie Smith | Photos by SWpix.com/Cor Vos


The word ‘positive’ has long held negative connotations in professional cycling. There was a time when even saying it out loud was like daring to call Voldemort anything other than ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’.

Positive was associated with and almost became as dirty as cycling’s doping past.

As a rookie journalist, a press officer once asked me about the nature of a story I wanted to write on one of his team’s riders.

“It’s all very positive,” I had said.

The press officer looked at me and half joking, half not replied: “Don’t say ‘positive’ in cycling, Sophie.”

Erase it from your lexicon was the message that fast-forward to now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is virtually impossible to do.

“2020, where the most negative word is ‘positive’,” Alex Dowsett tweeted from the Giro d’Italia earlier this week.  

When positive is negative and negative not positive enough, the introduction of ‘false positive’ to cycling this week came in a sensible, concise and purposefully worded team statement.

When positive is negative and negative not positive enough, the introduction of ‘false positive’ to cycling this week came in a sensible, concise and purposefully worded team statement.

The case in point was Michael Matthews, who tested positive for COVID-19 on the first rest day of the Giro on Monday, which he consequently withdrew from. But, as Sunweb confirmed in a statement to Cyclingnews on Friday, the Australian then twice tested negative to coronavirus in the days immediately following his Giro exit.

Matthews underwent a rapid retest on Tuesday morning, which came back negative. A PCR test administered on Wednesday was also negative.

Sidenote: Spare a moment to consider the poor man’s nose because those tests don’t tickle.

A Sunweb spokesman emphasised that the two negative results were not proof that the rest day test at the Giro was a false positive.

“The first PCR test remains to be a reliable snapshot of that moment. The two negative tests since do not mean Monday’s test was a proven false positive. We need to continue to work in a disciplined way and test constantly, as is happening now with the team at the Giro,” the statement read.

The concept of a false positive has compounded confusion and doubt in other pro sports. Individuals from several NFL clubs have returned false positives recently, according to media reports, which has led to disruptions and conjecture in the American press about the accuracy of rapid retests.

There was no indication from Sunweb or Matthews, who released his own video message on social media on Friday too, that an opportunity had been missed because of his departure from the Giro. There was no sensationalist remarks, just facts. The focus was on health and safety and avoiding mass hysteria, which has become easier to succumb and contribute to as the COVID-19 cloud hanging over the Giro appears to darken.

Giro organiser RCS, in a joint statement with the UCI, on Saturday, announced the introduction of “additional saliva antigen controls” designed to reinforce existing health measures at the race. 

“In the event of a positive salivary test result, a PCR test is carried out to validate the result,” the statement read.

Out of 512 tests conducted, the RCS and UCI said no rider or team staff member tested positive.

Teams seem to be divided on the best course of action at the Giro as they try to manage blanket uncertainty and consider long-range forecasts that, like the actual weather, are hard to predict. Two teams have already bailed, one is calling for the Grand Tour to end before light rain potentially becomes full blown thunder and lightning, while others are focusing on the chance of sunshine.

“These strict procedures are in place to ensure health, whilst at the same time allowing professional cycling to take place in these challenging times of COVID-19. This is in the interest of all of pro cycling’s stakeholders and the fans to show that professional cycling can still exist in this COVID-19 era,” the Sunweb statement read.

The cloud cover was there before the revised Grand Tour rolled out.

Matthews had started the Giro motivated to win a stage but also mentally fatigued.

Riders were conscious that preventative protocols were going to make for even longer days and that there was a chance the peloton wouldn’t see Milan. But hot on the heels of the Tour de France, where pundits had exhausted the topic of COVID-19 potentially halting the race, those concerns perhaps weren’t then as widely or popularly circulated.

“It’s probably more mental than physical to be honest because we haven’t had that many race days but still, we’ve had to prepare for races without races. Obviously, you’ve got to train much harder to get into shape, to be able to be race ready without races. It’s been a stress from all fronts,” Matthews had said in Sicily before the Grande Partenza.

“For Grand Tours we have to stay in double rooms, but we have to wear a mask unless we’re in our own rooms with our roommate or on the bike or eating. The rest of the time we have to be wearing a mask, so on the bus, walking around the hotel, everything else except for sitting in our room, riding our bike or eating.”

RCS has battened down the hatches once already this season at the UAE Tour, which was cancelled with two stages remaining and went into lockdown after two coronavirus cases were reported. I was there and it wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone involved.

So, here’s hoping that the Giro, the favourite Grand Tour for many seasoned three-week racers, sees some blue sky over the next lot of rest day testing and onwards to Milan.

More about Sophie Smith >

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