CLEARED FOR COVID, THE TOUR DE FRANCE CAN ENJOY A REST DAY
The Tour de France peloton was given the green light to advance into the Alps as the latest mass batch of rider Covid tests all reported negative on Monday. The 163 remaining riders can now enjoy the rest day and focus on the fearsome Alpine climbs ahead of them when the race restarts on Tuesday. The news came after three riders, including defending champion Tadej Pogacar’s UAE Emirates teammate Vegard Stake Laengen, pulled out over the past two stages. Ineos Grenadiers leader Geraint Thomas, who won the Tour de France in 2018, described the news as a relief.
“When we heard about the guy from UAE we all thought, ‘oh, here we go, two today, three tomorrow and 10 the day after, it’s going to be like the Tour de Suisse (Switzerland) again’,” said Thomas in reference to the June race where 40 riders pulled out.
“Anything can happen, especially with bloody Covid,” said the quirky Welshman who lies third, 1:17 off the leader Pogacar.
Pogacar, who is going in search of a third successive Tour victory, has perhaps most at stake after losing Laengen who was often seen pulling at the front of the UAE Team Emirates train in a headwind.
“It’s a big scare, the pandemic is still there with us,” the 23-year-old Slovenian race leader said after stage eight on Friday, the day his teammate was ruled out. UAE revealed that riders each had not only their own room, but their own masseur.
Sunday’s ninth stage was preceded by the news that the top French rider from the 2021 Tour, Guillaume Martin had also been forced to withdraw.
“It’s such a shame,” said the then 13th placed rider. “I just have a slight sore throat.”
But Martin was deemed to be infectious, emitting a strong viral charge.
“The decision was taken in a collegial manner by the concerned team doctor, the Covid-19 doctor for the event and the UCI medical director, on the basis of the available clinical elements,” a UCI statement said.
In the case of a low viral charge, a rider can also be cleared to ride, as happened to stage nine winner Bob Jungels, whose AG2R teammate Geoffrey Bouchard was forced to withdraw on Saturday.
Too close for comfort
Jungels, from Luxembourg, tested positive before the Grand Depart in Copenhagen but was cleared to ride.
“I’m not a doctor. It’s not for me to comment on this decision, but I didn’t feel ill,” said Jungels after doctors deemed him unlikely to infect others.
AG2R riders share rooms and Jungels’ roommate and the rest of riders were cleared to race.
“Cycling is exemplary with its Covid testing,” a member of the AG2R entourage told reporters that day, suggesting cycling took its testing much more seriously than some other sports. A Tour de France doctor told reporters at Aigle ahead of Sunday’s start that there would be one more official mass test later this week. The UCI reminded all concerned Monday to “wear a mask, maintain sufficient physical distance and disinfect hands frequently”.
The Tour heads into the mountains for three challenging days in the saddle. Two riders who finished Sunday’s slog will be absent from the start line. Australia’s Ben O’Connor fell on stage two and struggled through the following week before his team withdrew him and set him a new target of the Vuelta a Espana. Local rider Alexis Vuillermoz dug too deep Sunday and was also withdrawn after being taken to hospital with heatstroke.
The French national holiday on July 14 offers the iconic Alpe d’Huez mountain, where vast crowds of spectators gather, often running alongside riders, sometimes too close for comfort. Pogacar himself speculated whether the mountain crowds that close in and scream their encouragement were not themselves a potential vector for the virus.