Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by A.S.O/Pauline Ballet
The sun had long set over the Abu Dhabi desert when media at the 2020 UAE Tour received an email that sparked fear and intrigue. It was from RCS Sport, the Italian stakeholder that oversees the event, and with no usual company-standard templating it carried a sense of urgency.
“Dear colleague,” it read. “The local authorities have requested that tonight we all stay at the hotel and be available. Please, do not leave the Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi – Yas Island tonight under any circumstances.” In hindsight, the email was a precursor to a season unimaginably interrupted by what became the global Covid-19 pandemic.
But at the time, coronavirus hadn’t come into my calculations. The airports had been noticeably emptier when I travelled from Melbourne to Dubai for the start of the seven-stage race in late February. A handful of people at baggage claim in Dubai were wearing masks, from surgical to makeshift. Colleagues from the UK, Europe and US were mindful of the deadly virus and some tracked its spread on apps. But from where I’d come from, it wasn’t really making headlines outside the world pages of newspapers.
I’d thought maybe royalty was travelling through the road that separated the media hotel from the five-star W where the teams were staying by the Yas Island F1 track. Maybe it had something to do with Israel Start-Up Nation. There had been whispers at the beginning of the race about the regional political sensitivities surrounding an Israeli team competing in the Emirates. I understood that the team had a private security detail and sometimes used different stage entry and exit points throughout the race. It was past 10pm on Thursday and we had a 7.30am roll-out for stage six the next day, so I switched my phone to silent and went to sleep.
I woke up from a bad dream to a worse reality at 2am on Friday. A colleague had messaged me asking where I was and if I was OK. The media WhatsApp group had gone into a frenzy with reports of and then confirmation that the tour had been cancelled with two stages remaining due to two people at the race testing positive for coronavirus.
I got changed and went to the lobby where RCS staffers and some of my international colleagues were working to the tune of Arabic music from a wedding downstairs. The mood was completely at odds with what the 600-odd people involved in the UAE Tour were now facing. Medical testing had begun at the teams’ hotel almost immediately. I went back to my room and didn’t leave again, save to get a Covid-19 test, until late Saturday night. We were on lockdown.
By breakfast time on Friday journalists, riders and team staff were swapping information and experiences via WhatsApp. Riders were told not to speak to media, but they did, as professionals and as fellow human beings. Medical officers arrived at our hotel early afternoon and I was in the first wave to be tested in a conference room that had been fashioned into a testing facility.
There was a bit of a wait, something to do with a delay in medical supplies, before people started to enter the conference room in pairs. Some that went in before me walked out blinking back tears and twitching their noses in discomfort. I had to sign a document that read like a non-disclosure agreement before I entered to take the test.
The testers fastened and put protective gear on as I sat on a conference chair with my hands on my knees waiting for them. That’s when I realised that what had just days before been a faraway concept to me was now a credible threat. It was surreal and I admit I was scared. The tester told me to tilt my head back, then put a white stick up my nostril and swivelled it around. I didn’t wince.
We were informed we should return to our rooms and stay there. Someone would call us with the results. House-keeping stopped coming and instead of the opulent buffet showcasing many cuisines, room service, kitted out in Hazmat gear, dropped bleak brown paper bags of food off for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Regular guests at the hotel wrote to me on Twitter asking for updates because there was apparently no information via local media.
The lady who called my room rattled off what sounded like lines from an official document. Then, she told me I was negative and asked if I wanted to fly home or stay in the UAE. When I asked if I could check-in for my flight home, which I’d been receiving email reminders from Emirates to do, she wasn’t conclusive. An RCS staff member soon after clarified that authorities were asking if we tested negative, did we want to stay or go. Atlas’ weight returned to my shoulders.
Meanwhile, the riders had a different set of instructions. Allowed to walk around the confines of their hotel, they were waiting on a “list” that had the names of everyone tested and corresponding results. Australian Adam Hansen, who is a UAE citizen, was convinced we’d all be quarantining in Abu Dhabi for two weeks irrespective and called for calm.
Outside of the race, journalists at the UCI Track World Championships in Berlin wrote stories apparently based on intel from within the UCI, that there perhaps were no positive tests and local authorities now just didn’t want to lose face. It was convenient given some riders had left the UAE Tour to compete at the Worlds, and also inaccurate. Cofidis and Groupama-FDJ would stay for 10 days after the rest of us left, being tested, re-tested and confined to hotel floors. Fernando Gaviria was among the riders who tested positive. I’d interviewed him the morning of stage five when he seemed fine and had put his sluggish start down to jetlag.
It was Saturday night when media were told via email that we’d be flying home but to our country of origin as per passport. Flights would be changed where necessary. Almost simultaneously, the “list” was out at the teams’ hotels and riders were going through the disorderly process of getting their results and misspelt names ticked off it, which to be fair you’d forgive under the circumstances of a foreign authority processing hundreds of test results from multi-nationals in an emergency.
Then, still with no word on our test results, our plan changed again, and we were sent shuttle times to the airport, which would allow us to catch our originally scheduled flights home. The first shuttle left at midnight. I watched it drive away and then went to my room to try and get a couple of hours sleep before I had to be back in the lobby in the early hours to catch mine.
The ringing of the hotel phone woke me up again around 2am on Sunday. It was two of my colleagues, strongly recommending I leave for the airport in a taxi with them immediately. More ambulances had arrived at the teams’ hotel apparently. I stayed and went to the lobby about 4am instead to get my shuttle, which never left.
A security guard was bolting shut the hotel doors again. Our flights would be cancelled and rescheduled for when our names were ticked off the “list” that the riders had referred to. I only stayed in the UAE an extra day although it felt a lot longer. I got my result and left for the airport on the first shuttle Monday morning even though my flight wasn’t until 1am.
“Special Tasks” officers appeared out the front of the hotel and there was a delay getting on the shuttle before we pulled away. A team staff member had messaged to say they were in transit in Germany but had been detained there and would need to take another test. We’d survived the desert storm and the majority of the race left when they were meant to, if not long after.
By the time I got home to Melbourne, coronavirus had moved to a level of prominence that induced panic buying and a consequent toilet paper shortage. A couple of later, Paris-Nice was cut short and the WorldTour season then indefinitely suspended. Richie Porte, like counterparts in Spain and elsewhere, was forced to train exclusively on his balcony during Monaco’s lockdown and swore he’d never take riding outside for granted again.
When the revised and condensed season resumed on August 1, the peloton seemed to follow a similar sentiment regarding competition. ‘Tomorrow’ was never a certainty under the threatening Covid-19 cloud that shadowed the bunch and saw it compete as if every pedal stroke could have been the last.
This blog originally appeared in our review of the 2020 season, Racing in the Time of Covid,
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