(Reuters) – The Tour de France gives riders many tests from gruelling climbs to furious sprints but it is the one for COVID-19 that could hold the key to victory when the world’s greatest cycling race starts on Saturday, says three-time champion Greg LeMond.
Twenty-two teams and 176 riders will set out from Nice and if they are to reach the Champs Elysees finish line on Sept. 20 they must first navigate 3,484 km (2,165 mi) COVID-19 free.
With the number of new daily coronavirus cases on the rise in France there is little room for error with the International Cycling Union (UCI) enforcing strict rules to protect riders.
One of those rules would see entire teams excluded from the Tour if two riders from the same outfit test positive for the novel coronavirus within a seven-day period.
Exclusions, however, will not be automatic and the decision will be made by race organisers and the sport’s governing body, leaving LeMond worried that it opens the door to interpretation.
“If they are going to apply it, they have to apply it straight through and can’t make any exception for the yellow jersey,” LeMond told Reuters.
While other sports have operated in a quarantine bubble, the Tour will spend three weeks crisscrossing France, where the routes are routinely lined with thousands of spectators.
The Tour will attempt to enforce social distancing and limit attendance but the riders could still be open to everything from COVID-19 sabotage to accidental exposure.
“You can’t control the public,” said 59-year-old American Le Mond. “But unless someone tries to sabotage the Tour by spitting on the riders, and that has happened in the past, the risks will be low.
“But what if a team has a positive? You have to isolate all the other riders so those are nightmare situations.
“If a team has a positive what happens? Does it mean the whole team goes out. That might not only change a team but change the entire race.”
LeMond, whois looking to get back into cycling with the relaunch of LeMond Bicycles and the goal of sponsoring a team in 2022 partly financed by a new line of carbon-fiber eBikes coming out in September, knows there is only so much officials can do from riders wearing masks when not on bikes to regular testing.
“I’ve watched the riders they all have masks on at the start but it is still a big experiment,” said LeMond. “It is certainly harder than isolating a football or baseball game for sure.
“I think the biggest dangers are going to be at the start and finish. If the riders are isolated and they stay out of contact with people, make sure the hotels are clean, where they are getting their meals from that will be positive.”
“None of the riders want to get sick.
“You read about COVID and it is just not getting sick like a cold, they are showing permanent damage like inflammation of the heart, the vascular system – as a cyclist you don’t want that.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)