Analysis: Giro d’Italia under microscope following exit of top stars

COVID 'bubble' is stretched to limit after several riders and staffers test positive.

Photo: Getty Images

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A pall of uncertainty fell over the Giro d’Italia as the peloton prepared Tuesday for the second half of the Italian grand tour with no one really sure how long or how far the race would carry on.

A wave of positive cases for COVID-19 that included two more marquee names — GC favorite Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and stage-hunter Michael Matthews (Sunweb) — and the exit of the entire Jumbo-Visma and Mitchelton-Scott teams threatened to engulf the Giro. On Tuesday, following an onslaught of morning press releases, teams and riders dutifully went to the start line of stage 10.

Was it business as usual? Or is the Giro teetering on the edge of being canceled?

Giro officials doggedly pressed on Tuesday with the race.

Cycling’s new-look racing calendar has been taking a beating over the past week or two as the coronavirus appears to be swamping Europe for a second time. Following a late-summer lull, cases of COVID-19 are spiking yet again across Europe. Several races have been affected, including the cancellation of the Amstel Gold Race and also the cancellation of Paris-Roubaix, and after a string of several high-profile cases inside the peloton, the Giro is now in the crosshairs.

Some wondered if the race should even carry on.

Riders have already been grumbling about safety and health conditions since the Giro started. One pro said there are too many fans packed in too close to the riders at the starts and finishes, and that conditions at some team hotels were far from ideal. Another WorldTour pro told VeloNews that the COVID worries “is the top topic of conversation around the dinner table each night.”

Add the imminent threat of worsening weather as the route tips north going into the mountains in the second half of October, many wonder how the Giro might look like if it does make it to Milan on October 25.

The Giro is taking a very different approach than how the Tour de France handled its race during a world pandemic.

The Tour, with pressure from the national health officials, introduced a strict “two-strikes-and-out” policy, meaning that teams who had two riders or staffers positive within their 30-person team bubbles would be out of the race. Rest-day testing revealed four teams with some cases, but not enough to warrant expulsion.

The Tour successfully made it to Paris, and everyone looked to the second half of the rescheduled COVID calendar with optimism.

That’s quickly turning into pessimism as the number of cases across Europe spikes to almost pre-lockdown conditions that sent the entire continent into draconian quarantine measures this spring.

Instead, the Giro is taking a more flexible approach. Teams won’t be kicked out of the race even if they return multiple positives. Mitchelton-Scott, in what was publicly revealed as a joint agreement with race organizers RCS Sport, left the race Tuesday after four riders within its bubble revealed positive cases on the heels of Simon Yates’ positive test last week.

Similar to the Tour, the Giro rolled out a peloton-wide series of health controls on Monday’s rest day. Some 571 tests were conducted with eight confirmed infections across five teams. Two riders, one each from Team Sunweb and Team Jumbo-Visma, and six staff members, four from Mitchelton-Scott, and one each from AG2R-La Mondiale and Ineos Grenadiers, tested positive.

Does that high level of positivity mean the Giro’s COVID bubble is popped?

According to a threshold adopted across much of Europe to indicate communal spreading, more severe restrictions can be adopted if there are 500 cases per 100,000 — a rate of infection of 0.005 percent. If that math were applied to the Giro peloton, the percentage is much higher, at 0.015 percent. Of course, the numbers are different in a smaller testing pool, but the relatively high number of cases is raising worries.

Since everyone had to clear at least three COVID-19 controls before the Giro started, the number of cases is surprising. All indications were that Mitchelton-Scott was following the health protocols with the strictest application of the rules, and then some. Yet the team is out of the race after one rider and four staffers tested positive, the first case of an entire team being removed from a grand tour due to COVID-19.

Simon Yates was the first early exit from the race last week. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

It was unclear Tuesday if the Giro was planning on rolling out stricter crowd controls or new protocols in the wake of the latest spike in cases.

With the number of rising cases across Italy, however, the health protocols and measures that worked during the Tour might not be enough to keep this Giro going. The bigger worry beyond possible contagion within the peloton is that a big event that inevitably draws the public like a bike race acts as a “super-spreader” event.

According to its own race rules, a new round of testing will be conducted on the Giro’s next rest day Monday. Team doctors are required to monitor any symptoms using daily check-ups, and that’s what triggered a series of controls that confirmed Yates was positive last week for COVID-19.

Cycling has a long-running tradition of stubbornly sticking to its business of racing bikes no matter what the obstacle. Only wars — and now a pandemic — have stopped cycling’s biggest races.

Right now, there seems to be little public reflection about what to do, except keep going.

The UCI sent out a muted press release Tuesday confirming the news coming out of the Giro, but remained neutral on what should happen next.

Giro officials are leaving any decision on whether or not the race should continue to national health authorities.

Up to now, cycling’s “bubble” system seemed to be working fairly well. Monday’s wave of positive cases — though many of them appear to be asymptomatic —  reveal that the bubble concept is being tested inside the peloton just as the number of infections is starting to swell again across Europe.

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