Words by William Fotheringham | Photos by SWpix.com / Cor Vos
Professional cycling has been skating on thin ice since its return in August. The metaphorical floe has grown more fragile week by week through late September and October as the second wave of Covid-19 has gained pace across Europe, and in the last few days the cracks have definitively appeared.
To recap: Jumbo-Visma and Mitchelton-Scott pulled out of the Giro on Tuesday morning after positive tests for Covid for a rider and four staff members respectively. A single staff member at Ineos and Ag2R and one rider at SunWeb also tested positive. That comes on top of the withdrawal of Kirsten Wild (Ceratizit-WNT) and the ALE-BTC-Ljubljana team from Ghent-Wevelgem at the end of last week, and the abandonment of Paris-Roubaix after a surge of cases in northern France. The Amstel Gold race was an earlier victim of a Dutch shutdown.
It goes without saying that the organizers of the Giro are determined in their desire for the race to get to Milan on Sunday October 25, as Mauro Vegni said on Tuesday morning, but the Lombardy capital now looks a long way away. There had been discussion around what to do if the massive climbs of the Agnello and Stelio in next week’s Alpine stages are hit by snow, but that looks to be the least significant of the problems that the organizers face.
The strategies adopted by the UCI and race organizers have gone a long way to control the risks but the essential problem is brutally simple, and has become apparent to anyone following the progress of the virus in the last nine months: once Covid-19 gets a foothold you can’t entirely control what happens next.
That’s pretty much how the Jumbo-Visma DS Addy Engels explained his team’s collective decision to pack their bags in the wake of Steven Kruijswijk’s positive for the virus: look at Mitchelton, said Engels on Tuesday morning; for them, he added, it began with one unlucky rider, Simon Yates, and not long afterwards there were four staff members from within their “bubble” involved.
There were always obvious doubts about running Grand Tours in the time of Covid, because of the numbers of people involved in the caravan and the peripatetic nature of the races. Those risks have remained the same, even though the Tour de France managed to take place with barely a note missed in the midst of measures unprecedented in cycling. Perhaps, it seemed, professional cycling had a toehold in the new normal. That now looks like a vain hope, in spite of the strict protocols the Giro and the teams in it have followed.
Two issues now come to mind. Firstly, what is the critical mass of teams required to keep the Giro on the road? To put it bluntly, how many of the 20 remaining teams (as of Tuesday evening) would have to depart for the sake of the health of their riders and staff before the Giro organizers (or, perish the thought, the UCI) might decide that the event no longer has any sporting value: five teams, seven, nine? Remember Paris-Nice, when one team after another decided the game was no longer worth the candle?
The speed with which the virus spreads, and the insidious way it infects, mean the organizers may end up in an untenable position: a further rash of positive tests, and the departure of further teams, means they have either to call the race short – much as ASO did with Paris-Nice – or face the gradual diminution of their event as a sporting spectacle. The Giro might make it to Milan with, perhaps, 90 riders, but with its credibility rocked to the core. Better not to speculate on the fate of the Vuelta in that circumstance, but perhaps it’s not a good idea to think that far ahead.
There is a get-out, which you sense may become increasingly attractive if there are further positive tests and/or withdrawals, but it depends on the second issue: at what point is it credible (or within the rules) to call a halt and declare a winner? If that happens, at what point is it reasonable to make that public so that the riders are no longer racing into a minefield of doubt?
You can indicate possible stopping points that punctuate the final eight days’ racing which might be a suitable place to call a halt while retaining the credibility of a race that, on Tuesday at Tortoreto, reminded onlookers of how magnificent the competition at the Giro can be. It’s worth remembering that, according to riders and directeurs sportifs, that spectacular racing was partly prompted by the uncertainty around the race: how far will it go? How far will each team get? Today brought a richly deserved stage win for Peter Sagan, but as for tomorrow, who knows what will happen?
Sunday’s summit finish at Piancavallo would have the advantage of coming before Monday’s round of rest-day testing, or, slightly further ahead, depending on Monday’s test results, either of Wednesday or Thursday’s mountain stage finishes at Madonna di Campiglio or Laghi di Cancano might be an option. You can hope against hope that the race doesn’t end in any of those places, but that would have to be because there are no further positives for the virus, rather than because the organizers decide to struggle on. If the positive tests continue, and more teams pack their bags, RCS may have to face the fact that there is no best-case scenario, only an honorable and partway credible exit strategy.