Mikaël Cherel is convinced of this: Monday, July 11 will serve as the first “justice of the peace” for the Tour de France peloton. The thing may seem paradoxical, because it is a… day of rest before hitting the road again for two weeks. “I’m afraid there will be a lot of people forced to go home,” said Belgian Oliver Naesen, his AG2R Citroën teammate.

It is that the Covid-19 plays the (bad) surprise guests. As soon as the 9th stage arrived on Sunday, the riders and their supervisors marched under a white tent set up near the team buses, to comply with compulsory screening.

Monday morning, the International Cycling Union (UCI), which carried out these tests, announced that the results were negative for the whole peloton.

“A Storm Overhead”

The protocol of the International Cycling Union (UCI) may have been lightened before the start of the 109th Grande Boucle, and a positive result no longer being synonymous with automatic exclusion, the anxiety is however palpable after several withdrawals during the last forty-eight hours.

“In our team, the staff is tested every day and the riders every two or three days. We are very careful, ”explains Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal). “We live with a storm overhead that can blow up at any time,” summarizes Marc Madiot, general manager of Groupama-FDJ. The Mayennais still has in mind the disaster scenario of the Tour de Suisse in June, where nearly thirty riders had to leave the race because of SARS-CoV-2: “When the virus arrives in the peloton, it spread quickly. »

Guillaume Martin can attest to this. A “very slight sore throat” on Saturday evening, two antigen tests confirmed by a PCR test, and the ax fell: the leader of Cofidis was not authorized to take the start of the 9th on Sunday. stage between Aigle (Switzerland) and Châtel Les Portes du Soleil (Haute-Savoie). His first retirement in three hundred and sixty-two days of racing.

“It’s frustrating as I don’t have any symptoms, I feel fine,” said the man, who was 14th overall before leaving the event. The tripartite college made up of his team doctor, the Covid-19 referent for the event and the UCI medical director considered that the Norman’s viral load was too high.

“Maximum level of precautions”

“You don’t want to go home just because you test positive when you don’t have symptoms. When you have a cold, you go to train and you do your race, “insists Maxime Bouet (Arkéa), more worried about being put out of the race by the Covid-19 than by the pain due to the broken rib he is dragging. from Denmark. “It’s not so much a health problem for us, it’s more that it risks missing out on a big collective and personal goal,” says Mikaël Cherel. SARS-CoV-2 has already got the better of the first Tour of one of his teammates, climber Geoffrey Bouchard. So he chose to put it into perspective: “You shouldn’t worry about that, you can’t do anything about it. »

In the ranks of the UAE Emirates team of the yellow jersey and double winner of the event, Tadej Pogacar, this phlegm is not really shared. The issues are not quite the same. “It’s important that any positive runner goes home,” insists the team’s sporting director, Andrej Hauptman. Deprived of his lieutenant Matteo Trentin just before the departure from Denmark, the Slovenian will also have to compose until the Champs-Elysées without Vegard Stake Laengen, a precious rider to put him back in the peloton.

“Covid-19 is not a rival, but a parameter that can affect things. It can ruin the Tour”, admitted “Pogi” on Saturday, in Lausanne (Switzerland). In his entourage, it is not hidden that he fears above all a possible contamination (and a forced return to his Monegasque home) much more than a waste of time on one of his opponents, always reversible.

A sign of what is at stake, the Jumbo-Visma team, the team of its main rival, the Dane Jonas Vingegaard (2nd at 39 seconds overall), has shown since the start of this edition a level of caution unequaled in the peloton: FFP2 mask for runners and sports directors, even in cars, wider perimeter around the bus, air purifiers in their hotels… “For us, it’s impossible to raise the level of precautions, it’s at the maximum” , underlines the boss of the Dutch armada, Richard Plugge.

“I am forced to pass through the crowd”

After two years marked by the pandemic, the UCI and Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the managing company of the Tour, have chosen to live with the virus. This is where the gap with the peloton is sometimes felt. “The public lives normally and I live normally at home, but not on the Tour de France, insists Marc Madiot. We can’t blame anyone, but it’s true that the situation is more delicate than the past two years when the public had this anxiety and paid attention. »

“We take precautions with a PCR test every three days and an antigen test every day, and I am forced, this morning, at the start village, to pass through the crowd”, plagues his counterpart from the TotalEnergies team, Jean-René Bernaudeau, annoyed by these inconsistencies.

Belgian Florian Vermeersch remains more pragmatic: “I try to limit my contacts, I keep my mask on when there are a lot of people, but, in the end, we ride in a group of 180 guys and without a mask, so…” Sunday, before the start of the 9th stage, the Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) answered questions from journalists with his face uncovered. He who had a sore throat the day before.