COVID-19 threat looms large on the Tour de France peloton

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Tadej Pogacar’s rivals have been sharpening their knives as the Tour de France hits the Alps, but the biggest threat to the Slovenian’s quest for a third consecutive title might be the COVID-19 surge within the peloton.

Three riders in two days had to pull out of the race after being infected by the virus and showing symptoms, raising fears that the bunch could be decimated when all the riders will be tested during the rest day in Morzine on Monday.

At the Tour de Suisse last month, half of the riders only finished the race as the virus spread like wildfire and riders and staff are now fearing it might happen on the world’s biggest cycling event.

“It’s a big scare,” said overall leader Pogacar, whose UAE Emirates team mate Vegard Stake Laengen pulled out after testing positive on Saturday.

“The riders have to be protected. This morning we had to go through the crowd, people where touching the riders. It’s unbearable,” said Total Energies manager Jean-Rene Bernaudeau on Saturday.

Last year, if two members of a team were to test positive for COVID-19, the whole outfit would be sent packing, which is not the case in this edition.

Whether a rider who tested positive can stay on the race will be decided following a meeting between the race doctor, the International Cycling Union (UCI) doctor and the team doctor, depending on the rider’s viral charge.

While last year, all riders, staff members and Tour followers had to test negative to take the start within a strict bubble, the 2022 Tour started from Denmark without any specific anti-COVID-19 measures.

“They should have been stricter at the start and test everyone,” a sports director on the Tour, who declined to be named, told Reuters on Sunday.

“We’re in a situation that’s trickier than in the past two years,” Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot told reporters.

“In the last two editions, there was some uncertainty and everyone was being super cautious. Nowadays there’s no obligation, for the general population, to be cautious, which is normal.

“But for us there can be big consequences. It’s like gangrene. When it’s here, it spreads fast.”

France’s Mikael Cherel took a fatalistic approach.

“That’s the game. COVID is not so much a health problem for us, it’s more that we are out of the game, out of the race and we lose a big objective for the team and for ourselves, that’s the damaging part. In the end it’s not so bad,” the AG2R-Citroen rider said.

“I put it into perspective, we mustn’t get upset about it, there’s nothing we can do about it. The judge of peace will be tomorrow with the tests but when a rider doesn’t show any symptoms there is no reason for it to stop.”