Racing With Covid

US President Joe Biden might have just declared the pandemic is over but for pro cyclists it certainly isn’t.

The sport’s adopted a set of rules to address the issues of racing with Covid but regardless of these protocols and despite everyone’s best efforts, the virus seems here to stay for a while and remains a chronic concern for athletes. Now worrying about bike racing feels like a narrow, almost petty focus, but given this is a cycling blog rather than a public health forum, we’ll stick with that.

Say what you like about influenza, it can’t hire a libel lawyer. It can bring feverish symptoms, often strong enough to keep anyone off the bike, let alone perform at a high level but today’s strains of the influenza virus appear shy and weedy compared to SARS-CoV-2, aka the coronavirus, which is more contagious. Covid-19 can strike anyone, any time and in a way nothing else can. When it comes to the pro peloton, a share of racers are forced to rest, whether they’re denied a start or get pulled out of a stage race.

Imagine if the Covid-19 pandemic had never happened. Everything else being equal this season João Almeida would have finished the Giro, Simon Yates the Vuelta, perhaps a strong result for both. Likewise all the other hundreds of Covid DNFs and DNSs would never have happened since 2020. And this despite all the hygiene protocols in place. This isn’t to bemoan the measures, on the contrary, because if there were no masks, reduced hand washing, fewer hygiene barriers and more then we’d surely have seen more DNSs and DNFs. As long as contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 keep doing the rounds then the baseline rate of riders having to sit out races or abandon mid-way in a stage race is now set higher.

This brings added risk. For example those betting on races should demand higher odds than pre-Covid because if you think you can pick next summer’s Tour winner, there’s the now the increased chance that they won’t start if a pre-race PCR test is positive; if with a week to go in the Tour you fancy backing the yellow jersey there’s now a higher risk they won’t reach the finish.

Only betting is a tangential activity. You might have a flutter on the side, but for riders and teams there’s a lot more at stake. Someone could be in the form of their lives, riding high on GC and heading for a dream result in a grand tour only to test positive and their palmarès is quickly reduced to a DNF. Now of course there will still be great value in seeing a rider deliver until the moment they leave the race, but completing the course is always going to be more reassuring and more valuable. Likewise imagine how their team would feel about this, especially if we’re talking about a smaller squad who really need the win, think EF Education heading towards a grand tour podium like Hugh Carthy in the 2020 Vuelta only for Covid to strike. Or imagine the despair of Movistar if Enric Mas had to leave this year’s Vuelta? Racing is full of risks, from punctures to crashes other illnesses, these happen all the time but there’s now an added risk and Covid is changing races.

Amid all of this is the matter of viral load and the subjective decisions about whether to allow a rider to race or to pull them. Riders like Guillaume Martin and Angel Madrazo have made their frustrations clear when they’ve been stopped from racing this season following a positive PCR test, despite feeling ok in the moment. Meanwhile the likes of Juan Ayuso and Bob Jungels have tested positive but were allowed to race, in each case the test results and more are examined by the UCI, the race doctor and a team physician and a majority verdict among them stands. With an audience conditioned to “positive = suspended” this is a difficult measure to sell to the public… and riders too. It’s not an easy thing to solve but some more information and education on the way these cases are handled could help.

There’s also post-viral fatigue. While there’s a huge amount of research dedicated to Covid-19, the long term effects on endurance athletes, particular cyclists is obviously not a pressing problem for health authorities. But it’s something to consider, and team doctors seem alert to it, an added reason not to rush the return from infection. It’s easy to see the DNS, not the weeks some are spending at home unable to train hard.

Another angle is China’s zero Covid policy, a consequence of which is few foreigners can enter the country and so international cycling events in China are off for as long as the current policy stays. Now the sport wasn’t making big inroads into China but still, this market is closed off and it’ll have an effect at the margin on sponsorship as until recently pro cycling could point to World Tour events in China for the men and women: whatever the value of team sponsorship was, it must be less with a smaller calendar and without China.

Lastly while mask mandates, vaccination requirements and other measures taken at the height of the pandemic have receded in Europe, the peloton is going to adopt them for much longer because of the new sanitary risk-reward balance suggested above. Come next summer the pandemic could be far from people’s minds but don’t be surprised to see masked riders in the mixed zone.

Covid is now an added risk category, on top of other illnesses, punctures and crashes. That’s been obvious since 2020 of course but while it could circulate in the population at large now without causing the fear seen two years ago, it’ll still be scary for athletes and the special health protocols introduced by the UCI won’t be pulled anytime soon. So if society at large is less worried now, it’ll be a concern for athletes. Results will be impacted, habits changed and if we’ve seen GC contenders plucked from a grand tour this year, it could be a matter of time until a grand tour leader tests positive and has to leave a race.

Even if the pandemic ends, who knows what will happen with SARS-CoV-2? It could fade away over time but when the pandemic end it could still be circulating and if the variants remain as contagious and bring the same symptoms it’ll continue to affect sport for some time. Some might say society has to live with the virus but the peloton will doing its best to avoid it.

27 thoughts on “Racing With Covid”

  1. The comments will be switched off soon because while Covid is so widespread, to mention it online sometimes is also to attract some angry comments from a minority who tend to make the most noise. Plus am busy travelling right now so not much time to get involved in the conversation.

    If people want to add something to explore something from the post above further – rather than chip in with two cents about China, vaccines, hidden microchips, mask efficacy etc – please email in and I can post comments down here.

    • Thanks for touching on this very polarising topic – agreed, don’t be afraid to shut off topics… the ONLY thing I will mention is that, like the flu, stomach bug, food poising, road rash…. on a very practical level would any yellow jersey wearer/monument contender/or ANY rider (even a road warrior) want to catch a bug that is highly contagious and brings on a huge cough every time heart rate goes over 130?

      NOPE… not me… and that’s why cycling needs to try and avoid this…

  2. I did think you were being brave posting something about covid, even a rational, well written piece. Turning off the comments should mean every stays friends.

  3. Not just riders have been affected. Whole WT teams struggling at the bottom of the table have had to change their programmes to try and keep in the top 18.

    • Sure Covid had impacts on the top-18 but ultimately I don’t think it changed anything in the relegation battle. The two teams most likely to be demoted at the beginning of the season will be.

      • I couldn’t have said at the start of the season which teams would be relegated (or as we are today, face relegation), having thought Lotto-Soudal would pick up big points with Ewan; I’d imagined Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert having a tough time of things though but that’s been proved wrong by their amazing season where on points they’re the best Belgian team going, ahead of Lotto, but also Quick-Step and Alpecin.

        But it’s hard to find a team that’s been unduly hit by Covid, but am open to listen if a team can cite particular problems of course. One of the credits to the sport was the way events happened in 2020, Sanremo in August, a Tour de France finish in September, Roubaix in October, the Vuelta finishing in November.

        One thought that didn’t make the cut above was that richer teams are in a better position, small teams have to put a lot of eggs in one basket which can now be ruined by a Covid positive. Take Lotto-Soudal, you’d imagine Caleb Ewan would go to the Tour de France with his pick of lead out riders. But if he’s out on the eve of the race because of a positive PCR, they’re ruined for July. But see Jumbo-Visma, they lost Roglič in 2021 only to have Vingegaard ride to a podium and Van Aert deliver stage wins. So having two GC leaders, and others capable of winning stages if they’re unleashed, helps a lot to mitigate this risk compared to a smaller team which can’t buy so much talent. But all the more an underdog story of course if they can pull it off.

  4. An interesting aspect to Covid-19 infections is that both anecdotal and research evidence indicate that fatigue, impaired cardiovascular performance, and impaired recovery often continue for months after apparent recovery, but mostly only for older athletes compared to very young ones. This is of course consistent with the fact that people in their early 20s are often asymptomatic when infected, while by age 30 that becomes much less common.

    The one good scientific study I’ve seen, looking at elite players in the Bundislegia, indicated a 6% decrease in performance one month after recovery, and a 5% decrease still present after six months. Most notably, the effect was virtually nonexistent in the very youngest players and was pronounced in the guys in their early 30s. This tallies with anecdotal evidence from veteran NBA players, who often talked about being able to play at their previous level, but being completely wiped out after a game and struggling to play the minutes they were used to playing, even many months after they’d been infected. Meanwhile college-age players didn’t have the same issues. I think this is yet another advantage for the superstar youngsters of today’s cycling. Yes, if they get infected they may have to drop out of a race, but their season likely won’t be ruined. But woe to any of the older guys who get sick.

    It’s been mentioned here that Sagan is a likely example of this, and the pattern definitely fits. He was going through a gradual decline, from one of the best 2 or 3 riders in the peloton, to one of the best 10, to one of the best 20, and then after multiple infections, he’s barely competitive in most races. This year he had maybe three or four days in which he showed he still has the ability to win WT races and compete at the highest level, but he was completely unable to maintain that form for even a few days in a row.

    So, yes, SARS-CoV 2 will continue to affect the racing and the riders, but the burden isn’t equally shared across the peloton.

    • Really appreciate this thoughtful post. Gaviria is another top-flight rider who’s struggled to regain form after multiple bouts of Covid.

    • An interesting phenomenon! One cannot help wondering what could be the cause behind somewhat older ridersexperiencing a longer and more difficult recovery or what could explain that somewhat younger but still fully grown-up riders getting away with at most a couple of weeks.
      I don’t think the usual “I could party all night long when I was twenty, but if I did that now that I’m thirty I’d feel clobbered for two days” fits here. The difference between the two generations could stem from how the immune system reacts to the virus.
      There have been influenza viruses that it was actually older people who suffered less from it and had more seldom bad cases of infection. This was because they had had a similar type of virus earlier in their lives and had what could be described as a certain degree of immunity – much like we now have receivedfrom those jabs with the needle.
      Which leads me to wonder what percentage of riders has received a full set of vaccinations? I would imagine there must be many who feared possible side effects more than a possible infection. Could there be a difference between older and younger riders?

      • Chris Froome has said that he was surprised how long it has taken him to recover from the Covid which forced his withdrawal from the Tour. This from someone whose powers of recovery are legendary.

      • lol – yes, obviously… there’s a difference between young and old riders, but 5% difference in form 6-months post infection is massive for an elite athlete.

        Clearly, on a practical standpoint, you want to avoid crashing, flu, colds, poor diet, food poisoning and covid – why make it political or downplay this?

      • @Saturday – I’m not sure what point you’re making or what your final question is about. And why bring up influenza? We know that age is a crucial factor in COVID-19, whether one looks at likelihood of symptoms, likelihood of severe symptoms, or likelihood of death. There is good evidence that those experiencing long-term effects after acute recovery come from the population of those who had symptomatic infections. Yes, the immune system is a huge part of it. It also helps recovery of all types to be younger. Not sure where you see the mystery.

        • @KevinK -I’m not in the business of making points, I leave that to other commentators.
          I thought the “point” of the question was obvious (but then again since I’m the one who wrote it I know it was the last sentence of the paragraph) but here it comes in a slightly longer version:

          Could it be that a higher perecentage of young riders be vaccinated because older riders were more reluctant to take what they considered to be an unnecessary risk of side effects including a temporary decrease in performance than young riders? Could this be statistically significant?

          I brought up influenza simply as an example where age played a big part in how severe a disease caused by a virus would typically be.

          The mystery to me is that the younger and the older riders that we are talking about here should all be considered as young in this context. That is to say medically speaking there is, to my knowledge, no such difference between that it would give us a simple, obvious and ready answer to the observations that sparked this particular discussion.

          If someone is familiar with similar cases in medical literature it would be interesting to learn about them. I mean cases where a 20- or a 23-year-old recovers completely in a relatively short time but where it takes a 29- or a 31-year-old weeks or months. Or even cases where those in the first group got away with light or asymptomativ cases but those in the last group didn’t. In numbers that are statistically significant, of course.

          @CA – I know what “lol” is short fr, but I don’t get what was so funny.
          Your question “why make it political or downplay this?”, if directed at me, leaves me completely dumbfounded.

    • Interesting, if so then a younger rider is going to be more valuable than an older one compared to pre-Covid, how much we don’t know yet.

      Although hard to say with Sagan as his win rate and performances had been on the decline pre-Covid too.

      • Yes, I think talented young riders are more valuable now, and I don’t think that will just be for stars. A solid and young domestique will be a better bet to be able to perform well throughout the season than an older domestique who may become ineffective after a Covid infection.

        As for Sagan, I acknowledged that he’d been declining pre-Covid, but his decline was perfectly consistent with someone who had done a LOT of racing and had spectacular success for a solid 10-11 years, which is pretty much consistent with previous great riders. Despite the decline, he was still a factor in a high percentage of races. It wasn’t until repeated Covid-19 infections that he was no longer able to be a serious competitive force except on a rare and sporadic basis.

  5. Some food for thought. I still don’t understand the viral load bit, how some get to race when others don’t.

    You can see the problem for the sport but if this stays so, makes me wonder for everything else. How many days off sick, how many work meetings missed or staff shortages for all the normal jobs?

    • The viral load is from the PCR test, it’s not a binary positive/negative test but a count and the thinking is that if this measure is declining a rider could still be positive but if the virus is on its way out then a rider can continue. Which is why some riders who get tested with have a rising/high count but are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms are still asked to leave a race out of precaution things could turn worse for them. It’s a difficult topic though, team doctors and the UCI have had to learn a lot about this all of a sudden. The policy could be tweaked, it’s new and so not set in stone.

      As for wider society, there might also be a higher baseline for illness and worker shortages but I’ll leave this for others. My point above was more that if the world looks more and more normal again and people return to their old ways, the peloton will be very different: wearing masks a lot, doing PCR tests regularly, pro athletes might be the last to stop these measures. But as we saw at the Tour de Suisse and the multiple Covid tests, this was a big alarm for the peloton with many confessing they’d dropped their guard.

      • It is usually the other way around, a rising count is a good thing. The number most often quoted is the CT value (meaning the cycle threshold) where a higher number means less virus present and less likely to be infective to others. Thus, a CT number below 20 suggests earlier stages of infection and higher infectivity, a CT number above 30 means longer since the infection and lower infectivity. This number is used in hospitals to determine which patients need to be isolated to prevent infection in others when so many patients have had past exposure and virus often hangs around for weeks-months in immunocompromised patients. In my hospital patients with a CT value above 30 are not usually isolated.

        • A higher CT number means a lower viral load, which is more or less defined as the number of viruses in your sample. The CT number is a bit confusing but qPCR was not conceived for a wide audience. Every difference of 1 means a factor 2. So below 20 means more than thousand times more viruses in your snot than above 30…As for what it means: it is not only logical, it has also been shown that you are less likely to infect others if there are fewer viruses in your nose and throat. So it makes sense to set a limit there. One caveat is that in symptomatic infections, the count quickly rises, and then falls a bit more slowly during infection. So a low count more often means a waning infection. But for people who are tested often, a low count can still be a risk. Because it can take only half a day to ramp up from >30 to highly infectious levels. There is a correlation between viral load and symptoms, but it is not 1 to 1. IIRC there aren’t many symptomatic infections with a low count, but quite a few asymptomatic infections with a high load. Asymptomatic people are less likely to sneeze and spread droplets everywhere but still they are infectious if they have a high viral load.

  6. Thanks for addressing this topic. As a physician it’s been difficult to to formulate a clear opinion of what to do. I’ve felt like it’s been the elephant in the room this entire season.who is present in a race is sometimes just as important as who is not. It’s played a big role in the results this summer, how much we will never know. In a sport where even small drops in physiological performance can mean winning or being dropped and the well presented, but as of yet poorly understood long term consequences are a serious concern. Sagan and Gavira are examples of riders who have endured multiple bouts of COVID and seem to off their best level. I’m sure plenty of other factors that may in play, but it would be interesting to see their parameters pre and post to better understand the impact. The UCI is in a difficult situation, not sure what they could differently. One thing for sure, we are uncharted territory, there is just no medical precedent for this level of testing for an airborne pathogen. Some of the research seems to indicate that COVID can unmask certain physiological or pathological pathways. But if a ramble, but thank you for addressing the topic.

    • Thanks and in a way the uncertainty you evoke is interesting in itself, that there’s a lot to discover here. The working group of team doctors and the UCI has proved useful so far but it’s trying to find its way through this.

  7. Riding a grand tour or top level one day classic brings riders the added risk of airborne droplets galore from roadside fans.
    – The truly uncontrollable external factor in infection control.
    Teams and organisers can do all the protocols they want, but every single rider going up an HC climb does it through a fug of shouted exhalation.
    This has to be a cause of some of the daily DNSs, but what to do about it?

    • Although this seems logical that roadside spectators are risky it may not be the case. Most spread occurs in indoor settings with poor ventilation and in cyclists is more likely to come from people within the team they are in close contact with for prolonged periods indoors. Evidence to support this comes from the US where there was no up-tick in COVID-19 infection after the opening of large sports stadiums where people are packed close together for long periods of time, much longer than a cyclist passing through a crowd of spectators. Even on the most iconic climbs with walls of tifosi on either side it never looks like more than 5-10 minutes to pass through. Just a thought.

      • This response is similar to one I gave previously when the same point was brought up before. There’s a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, but one thing we can be rather confident about is that in professional cycling the roadside fans are are a risk factor only to the extent that they might cause riders to crash. It’s what riders are doing off the bikes, and primarily indoors, that are the big risks for infection.

        • Your response was only one of several here – I believe I wrote a similar one myself – and elsewhere, but as we know there is nothing that is more difficult or impossible than to debunk a much-loved myth.
          In the early days of Covid-19 it was known that people are infected through inhalation of fine droplets and aerosol particles, but it wasn’t known how easily it would be transmitted in short contacts outdoors. It was chosen to be on the safe side and the public perception during the first lockout was what it was,
          It didn’t much help that we could read in various cycling media about that theoretical study of how cyclists leave a vane of aerosol droplets behind them and that it was often presented so as to suggest to the casual reader that everyone who follows an infected cyclist within ten meters catches the virus…

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