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End of the road: What effect is coronavirus having on cycling?

Richard Moore
2 Jun 2020

With racing cancelled for the foreseeable future, Cyclist discovers what effect coronavirus is having on the sport

The uncertainty is the most difficult part, said Larry Warbasse in late March as the coronavirus spread throughout Europe, gradually but inexorably closing down a continent, putting life on hold and, almost incidentally, halting the cycling season in its tracks.

Warbasse, the American on the French AG2R La Mondiale team, had been riding the UAE Tour in February when, with two stages still to go, the race was abruptly stopped. He spent the next two and a half days in quarantine. It felt like a liftetime, he says with a bitter laugh.

At the time, to those of us watching from afar, it might have seemed like an almost comical sideshow. Talk about first-world problems: here were these pro cyclists, some of the fittest athletes in the world, locked in their rooms in their five-star hotels in the Middle East.

Deprived initially of indoor trainers, they conjured up activities to distract themselves, to film and then post on social media. Nathan Haas and Attilio Viviani of Cofidis invented a hotel Olympics, with disciplines involving suitcases, wastepaper bins and any other objects they could find in and around their room. Sam Bennett and Shane Archbold of Deceuninck-QuickStep came up with something similar. Temporarily losing their liberty did not mean losing their sense of humour.

But within just a few weeks we could see that the quarantined riders of the UAE Tour were the canaries in the coal mine: an early warning of much worse to come.

Warbasse says that he felt at the time that his experience in Abu Dhabi was deeply ominous: ‘Oh, absolutely. I got a sense, even just in those two and a half days, of what was coming. I was, like, “I think the spring season is going to be cancelled.”’

Nevertheless, Warbasse and his fellow inmates from the UAE Tour returned to Europe and got on with their lives. Some raced. Michael Mørkøv of Denmark and Deceuninck-QuickStep went to the World Track Championships in Berlin at the end of February and won a gold medal in the madison.

But in Italy the situation was deteriorating rapidly as they raced in Berlin and on the roads of Belgium for Opening Weekend, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday.

Martina Alzini, of Bigla-Katusha and the Italian team pursuit squad, is from Lombardy, the epicentre of the outbreak in Europe. In Germany for the World Track Championships, she was oblivious to the unfolding crisis: ‘We were in the velodrome, it was full of people, we had no idea of this really dramatic situation, this emergency at home.’

She returned to her base near the Montichiari velodrome in northern Italy to total lockdown. She couldn’t ride on the track any more, although she, in common with other Italian professionals, was issued a certificate entitling her to train on the road. That meant riding alone on eerily quiet roads around the usually busy Lake Garda. But she couldn’t see her parents, or her grandparents, in nearby Milan.

The virus spreads

When the lockdown came in Spain in mid-March, and then in France a few days later, there were more restrictions on cyclists, even professionals. In Spain there was an automatic fine for being out on the road. In France it was less clear – at least to Warbasse, although his French team, in common with others, ordered their riders not to venture out on the roads.

Their fear was that if the rider had a crash, and needed medical attention, it would draw valuable resources away from hospitals treating coronavirus sufferers.

In Andorra, where a large and multinational peloton of professional riders is based, the principality initially only advised against ‘dangerous’ pursuits. The pros who live there took it upon themselves to take the responsible course: they banned themselves from the roads, retreating to their apartments and their indoor trainers.

‘First day of working at home,’ said Tao Geoghegan Hart, speaking from his apartment in Andorra. No Zwift, Netflix or old stages of the Tour de France on YouTube for Geoghegan Hart, the Londoner on Team Ineos. While riding indoors, he read a book.

Warbasse, who lives just outside Nice, had a pre-arranged altitude training camp at Isola 2000. With rumours of the impending lockdown, he decided to head up into the mountains anyway, along with Will Barta, a fellow American on CCC Team. They rented an apartment on the edge of the ski resort. Twenty-four hours later, the lockdown was announced.

A few days into their exile, Warbasse picked up the phone to report that he was ‘just chillin’ on top of the mountain’. He and Barta had no inclination to move.

‘There was a directive from the [US] State Department for Americans abroad to come home. It doesn’t make sense for me to go home now. There are races that are going to happen eventually, who knows when, and if I go back now I might not be able to come back for these races.

‘Here in France we were told we can exercise close to home, but it’s unclear exactly what that means. People are going hiking and sledding and stuff, but my team wants us to train indoors, so that’s what I’m doing,’ he adds.

For Warbasse, the uncertainty of not knowing when racing might resume is the most difficult part. Despite that, his spirits are good: ‘I’m not in the worst head space. I feel I’m better than I was two days ago.

‘It’s not the end of the world. We’re in a beautiful place, we have lovely views, we have everything we need. I have my computer, I have a Sudoku book, I’ve been talking on the phone to a ton of people, family and friends, staying in touch a lot more than I normally do, so that’s kind of nice.

‘We watched a movie yesterday called The Laundromat, although it was a little too complicated. I haven’t reached the point of total boredom yet so I haven’t sought out a Netflix series yet.

‘The week before this all kicked off I started an online course on finance,’ Warbasse adds. ‘I thought I’d like to learn a bit more about finance so I signed up for this course through Yale University. I’ll try to get on with that to keep my mind going a bit.

‘Although I’m training hard, and I want to come back strong, I’m also in the mindset of thinking that if this is the end of cycling, or the end of my career, life will go on. The economy is tanking – what effect that’s going to have on sponsorship, on teams, on what cycling’s going to look like next year, who knows?’

Racing into the sunset

It’s an important point. Professional cycling, always uncertain with its sponsorship model for funding teams, could be set to become even more precarious. It might seem a frivolous concern in the wider context of a public health emergency that is costing thousands of lives, but that isn’t to say that cycling, and sport more generally, doesn’t matter.

The reaction of fans to the postponement of the Classics and the Giro d’Italia illustrated the point: for many, these races are an essential part of the colourful fabric of life. And for the riders and teams, of course, they involve an enormous investment of time, money, planning and dreaming. They have meaning.

The hiatus to the season was particularly cruel on teams and riders in sparkling form: Nairo Quintana and his Arkea-Samsic team had enjoyed a blistering opening to 2020, as had Remco Evenepoel, Adam Yates and Max Schachmann, who won the truncated Paris-Nice.

The ‘Race to the Sun’ had an air of surreality about it, the backdrop darkening – ‘Race to the dark clouds’ – as it headed towards Nice and fears about the spread of the coronavirus intensified.

As other parts of Europe began to shut down, each day seemed improbable, each stage a bonus or a guilty pleasure. Everyone watching, and riding, could feel that the cycling season was on borrowed time and that the guillotine could drop at any moment.

In the end the peloton did make it to Nice, but not to the final stage. The race finished a day early, but what a race it was, each stage served up thrilling excitement, aided by crosswinds, a tricky, technical course and perhaps also by the riders’ awareness that this might be their last chance for a while to do this thing that they love.

And for once Paris-Nice really meant something on its own terms, rather than as the marker of form for some future, more important engagement – usually the Tour de France.

The team of the race was Sunweb, winning two stages with Soren Kragh Andersen and Tiesj Benoot and putting Benoot on the podium, second behind Schachmann. Michael Matthews rode well too; the Australian was second to Benoot on a sixth stage that saw an outstanding tactical display by the German team.

‘We showed on that stage how far we’ve come over the winter period when we spent a lot of time talking about how we wanted to approach the Classics season,’ says Matt Winston, a coach on the team. Sunweb have had to reinvent themselves after the departure of Tom Dumoulin, their 2017 Giro d’Italia winner, and the arrival of Benoot. Paris-Nice suggested they had found the right formula. Spring looked promising.

Sadly, they will never find out how they would have gone in the Classics.

‘Everybody at Paris-Nice felt that it would be the last race for a while,’ says Winston. ‘The last day was almost like an end-of-season feeling – only at the end of the season you know you’ll be seeing people a few weeks later at the December camp. In Nice it was a case of, “We’ll see you when we see you.”’

What happens now?

The open-ended pause to the season has meant some careful management by the teams, in particular when it comes to the riders’ training.

‘I coach eight of our riders but as a team we’ve decided to relax everything, bringing it back to base training level,’ says Winston. ‘We have 29 riders, plus our women’s team and development team. Everyone has been brought back to base training, just maintenance rides.’

For some, like Benoot, Kragh Andersen and Matthews, it effectively means de-training.

‘Being in top form now doesn’t make sense,’ Winston says. ‘We know when the next non-cancelled race is – but we can’t be sure it’ll be on.’

One of the team’s key priorities as the hiatus goes on, with some riders possibly restricted to their homes, will be simply keeping in touch.

‘Some riders are living at home with their wives and children so they’re busy, while others are on their own in an apartment. We need to keep really good contact with those riders,’ says Winston.

‘Work can still go on. We have a good team of experts – nutrition, bike fit, R&D – and they’re working on new things for when the riders kick off again. And with the riders we can talk about things they can work on and improve: little tasks, challenges, technique things, to keep them ticking over and motivated.

‘It’s strange for everyone. The season is so long that you’re only at home about four weeks at the end of the year before you’re back on a plane. We’re always thinking of the next race. This will be the longest most people, me included, have spent at home since they started working in cycling.’

There is the impact on mental health to consider, for staff as well as riders. Preserving some normality, or as close as you can get, is important.

‘Yesterday at 4pm Dutch time all the staff got on their computers, set up their webcams and had a drink together,’ Winston reports. ‘We had an hour together chatting, having a beer, showing off our pets and babies. If nothing else, it gave us something else to think about.’

The break to the usual routine will lead to some unlikely turns for everyone, no doubt.

‘I was driving up the M6 in a mate’s lorry earlier today, taking it for a service at the Scania service centre in Lutterworth,’ said Winston in late March. ‘I should have been in Milan getting ready for Milan-San Remo.’

Raising the roof

As professional riders are confined to the indoors, some will thrive while others merely survive 

One of the great mysteries about the break in the 2020 season is how the riders spend it, and who is going to emerge in form when racing does finally resume. Warbasse thinks there will be ‘a very large gap’ between those who manage it well and those who don’t.

One adaptation will be to largely indoor training. Another will be to only training and not racing. ‘I’m sure some people will come back absolutely stomping,’ Warbasse says.

‘I’m training like I’m going to come back and smash it. I’m taking this as an opportunity to train in the perfect way possible. Usually only team leaders have this opportunity, so I’m trying to do the best preparation I can. It’s not an opportunity I’m likely ever to have again.

'I look at it this way: I’ll come back and be the best I possibly can be.’

‘The first race back is going to be really interesting,’ says Team Sunweb coach Winston. ‘You will definitely have riders who have used it as an opportunity, but that will depend on the rider. Some ride their bikes to race; they get fit by racing. Others really enjoy the training; they thrive on that and only target one or two races a year.

‘Those guys should deal with it better, but it’s very hard to train when you don’t know what you’re training for.’

Or when, for that matter, and those are questions without answers right now.

Illustration: Bill McConkey

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