It has been just over four months since cycling’s World Tour was brought to a juddering halt back in March, the rising tide of Covid-19 infections across Europe sweeping it from our schedules, as it did every other sport. But the top tier of professional racing will return on Saturday, at long last, with the men’s and women’s editions of Strade Bianche.
It is a tantalising prospect for fans, starved for so long of their regular fix of lycra and carbon. Strade Bianche, which is held on white gravel roads in Tuscany, is unofficially known as cycling’s sixth ‘monument’, the name given to cycling’s five biggest one-day classics. And these racess both feature all-star casts, all chomping at the bit to get going again. The races also start a frantic period of action, which will see the sport attempt to squeeze a season’s worth of racing into just three months.
But to say that people within the sport are nervous about how the next weeks and months are going to pan out is an understatement.
Like the Premier League, Test cricket, Formula 1, and every other professional sport which has tentatively returned to our screens in recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk in the build-up to this weekend about protocols and bubbles, and track and tracing.
Unlike those sports, cycling presents a completely unique challenge as far as containing Covid-19 is concerned. Road cycling is not held in a stadium or any kind of fixed venue. It is held on public roads, stretching across hundreds of kilometres, sometimes for days or weeks on end. Teams in cycling are not merely squads of players who train together, eat together and travel to matches together. Cycling squads are selected for purpose, with different combinations of riders travelling to different races in different countries each week.
In the next fortnight alone, the top classics riders will be competing at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo in Italy, while stage racers such as Chris Froome and Egan Bernal will be lining up at the Route d’Occitanie in France, or in the case of Geraint Thomas the Tour de l’Ain.
Each squad of riders will need an army of mechanics, soigneurs, sporting directors, medics, bus drivers and so on, just to keep the show on the road. Teams of riders and support staff criss-crossing across Europe, staying in different hotels every night.
It is easy to imagine, given rising infection rates across Europe, how things could spiral out of control, however tight cycling tries to keep its bubbles.
This week’s Vuelta a Burgos, a second category race but featuring some of the sport’s biggest names, had five riders from two different teams sent home, not for testing positive themselves but for having ‘come into contact with’ others who had.
The confusion led EF Pro Cycling manager Jonathan Vaughters to describe the current situation as “a mess”, accusing cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, of showing a lack of clear governance.
Others are inclined to agree. One senior member of a World Tour team told The Telegraph that the federation’s response to the Covid crisis had been “completely unacceptable”, arguing that far too much responsibility had been left to local government and race organisers, some of whom were simply not up to the task.
“Look at the FIA and the work that has been done in F1. There is a stark difference in the level of rigour and professionalism. The UCI has had five months to prepare for this. Some organisers, such as [Tour de France owners] ASO, have shown a real attention to detail. They sent out their protocols to teams and stakeholders and asked for feedback, trying to find weaknesses. The UCI, by contrast, has completely absolved itself of responsibility and left it to local governments to sort out. That is unacceptable for a governing body."
The UCI has tried to defend itself, insisting it has recently beefed up its protocols and announcing this week that it will be fining any person or team not observing them. But there is clearly a fear within teams that a spate of positives could spell disaster for a sport already on a very bumpy financial footing.
While all eyes will be on stars such as Julian Alaphilippe, Peter Sagan and Lizzie Deignan, the sport will also be holding its collective breath over the coming weeks, hoping the show stays on the road.