What if a Covid-19 positive rider could still win the Tour de France? The question seems absurd. Still, as the big start of this 2022 edition approaches, Friday July 1 in Copenhagen, the possibility is very real. The International Cycling Union (UCI) has indeed announced the abandonment of the principle of automatic exclusion of a cyclist who has been diagnosed positive.
Instead, the potential decision to isolate will be taken “collectively by the doctor of the team concerned, the Covid-19 doctor of the event and the medical director of the UCI, on the basis of the clinical elements available. “, Details the body, in the update of its epidemic management protocol, unveiled on Tuesday, June 28. Squads with at least two positive athletes in their ranks within seven days will no longer be forced to pack as was the case previously.
In recent weeks, contaminations have risen sharply in France, as in all of Europe, thanks to a formidable triptych: the contagiousness of the latest sub-variants of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, a release barrier gestures and the weakening of the protection conferred by three doses of vaccine.
Unsurprisingly, the trend has not spared the peloton. “The situation is not terrible,” summed up Slovenian rider Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), who won the Tour of Slovenia. The winner of the last two editions of the Tour de France and big favorite for the pass of three, had finished the race, deprived of his Danish and Norwegian teammates Mikkel Bjerg and Vegard Stake Laengen, forced to forfeit because of the Covid-19.
Sign of the growing concern, the French formation Groupama-FDJ had, for its part, decided not to align Thibaut Pinot and David Gaudu – its two leaders announced on the Tour – on the road race of the French championships, on 25 June, in Cholet (Maine-et-Loire), officially “to take no risks due to the health situation”.
“A measure of common sense”
Tuesday June 28, a few hours before the UCI announcements, one of the emblematic riders of the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, the Belgian Tim Declercq, had to give up flying to Denmark after being tested positive. At the same time, the Frenchman Romain Bardet (DSM) worried, on Twitter, about the “first stress test” of this 109th edition; namely boarding a crowded plane, to Denmark, with “90% of the passengers” without a mask.
Christian Prudhomme, the boss of the Tour de France, can breathe: the disaster scenario of the last Tour de Suisse seems ruled out. On Tuesday June 21, only 76 of the 152 riders entered in the event had seen the finish in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. The entire workforce of Jumbo-Visma, Alpecin-Fenix, UAE Team Emirates and Bahrain-Victorious had been forced to throw in the towel along the way, while the Russian Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora- Hansgrohe) dropped his overall leader’s jersey for the same reason before the start of the 6th stage. “Not necessarily excluding Covid positives? If they are asymptomatic, it is a common sense measure, ”rejoiced the director of the Grande Boucle, in the regional daily Ouest-France.
Despite these relaxations, the event will retain the usual health rules, including the obligation to wear a mask near the runners and respect for physical distance. All team members – runners and staff – must provide a negative antigen test two days before the start of the race. Further tests are mandatory on the two rest days of the event, July 11 and 18.
No positive runners in 2020 and 2021
“The situation we are currently experiencing on the pandemic front is less worrying than the one we saw at the height of the health crisis, but we must remain vigilant”, justified David Lappartient, the president of the UCI, in a communicated.
Until then, the Grande Boucle peloton has been spared, despite the last two editions in a more tense epidemic context. The Covid-19 had then only got the better of a few members of the management, including the race director, Christian Prudhomme, confined for a week in 2020.
The boss of the Tour still has cold sweats. A staggered edition from the beginning of July to the end of August, the headache of setting up a health “bubble” as airtight as possible… For the first time, the Covid-19 pandemic had caused the Grande Boucle to deviate from its road and its early summer habits.
In 2021, the race had been able to reconnect with its traditional summer calendar, but it had retained some scars of the crisis. For its third season with the pandemic, the Tour caravan has therefore chosen to live with the virus. But remaining cautious. As proof: only four of the twenty-two teams entered decided to maintain their traditional presentation press conferences in person, before the big start.