Remco Evenepoel heads home from Giro d'Italia after positive COVID-19 test
After testing positive for COVID-19 on Sunday evening, Giro d'Italia race leader Remco Evenepoel started the long journey home by car from Italy to Belgium on Monday morning.
The world champion won Sunday's stage 9 time trial – albeit by a smaller margin than expected – and later complained of a blocked nose in the post-stage press conference. Three and a half hours later, a routine COVID-19 test – taken by all Soudal-QuickStep team members as part of intra-team precautions – turned up a positive result for the virus.
With that, Evenepoel became the seventh rider to leave the Giro with COVID-19, a decision taken by both team and rider to protect his health and to prevent further spread around the team and the peloton.
Evenepoel wore a mask on Monday morning to bid farewell to his teammates, while a team car was packed up with his belongings ahead of the long drive home.
Team boss Patrick Lefevere commented that the team was taking "no risks" with their rider, while team press officer Phil Lowe, speaking to assembled media at the team hotel as Evenepoel left the race on Monday, further explained the decision.
Remco Evenepoel out of Giro d'Italia following COVID-19 positive
Lefevere defends Evenepoel after he leaves the Giro d'Italia due to COVID-19
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"We decided this for the rider, the team and the race – we immediately wanted to contain this so it won't spread further in the team or the Giro," Lowe said, according to Het Nieuwsblad.
"Everyone is trying to stay positive through it all. It is what it is. It's something we've known about for three or four years, so we have to deal with it and move on.
"Could the Giro have done more? I'm not going to blame anyone. That's life. He could have caught it anywhere. You can't put 200km of barriers. It could have happened on a climb or at the airport."
The 23-year-old, who retook the maglia rosa after the time trial having earlier worn it for three days after his opening stage victory, was "calm" when the test result came through, Lowe said.
"He was quite calm about it. Later in the evening, he laughed again. I think he accepted it for what it is. The atmosphere was a bit depressed initially, but then we had a glass of wine, after which everything could settle.
"Good question," he added, responding to a question on when Evenepoel might return to racing.
"We're going to take some time to let this sink in and then decide in the coming weeks."
Heal up, champ 💪We and the #Giro are going to miss you, but we’re sure more opportunities to show yourself will come sooner or later!Photo: @BeelWout pic.twitter.com/Hm24r5tAcLMay 15, 2023
COVID-19 cases spiked in the peloton at the recent Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Tour de Romandie, while several riders also missed the start of the Giro following positive tests.
Now, the nightmare scenario for the Giro has come to pass with the withdrawal of the race leader and overall favourite, who follows riders including Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-EasyPost) in leaving after a positive test.
Evenepoel is only the third rider to leave the Giro in the maglia rosa – after Eddy Merckx in 1969 and Marco Pantani in 1999, both in far more controversial circumstances – but Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst has said that it was the correct decision.
"When the news came in the evening that he had tested positive, I thought it was the right choice by the team to take him out of the race," he told Het Nieuwsblad.
"If we are at 99% then we can go to work. But top athletes earn their living with the utmost 1% of their abilities. If they're not top notch, then they won't finish on the podium. You can't win the Giro d'Italia with COVID-19.
"He might be able to survive the flatter stage after the rest day on his class, but the toughest stages are still to come. And you really aren't sick for only one or two days. His body is his most precious possession, so he can't afford to take risks with it."