Tour de France: Inside the COVID-19 fight at Tadej Pogačar’s team

With a 30-person bubble and regular tests in 'amplified' battle against virus, UAE Team Emirates medical director explains protocol.

Photo: Getty Images

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CHÂTEL, France (VN) – COVID-19 doesn’t care how good you are or how many races you’ve won.

Whether you’re the yellow jersey or the lanterne rouge, a Tour veteran or wide-eyed newbie, it can strike anyone.

The team of the Tour de France leader Tadej Pogačar knows that full well. Its domestique Vegard Stake Laengen was forced to leave the race before stage 8 after registering a positive test.

“Tadej is at much at risk as anybody else. There are 200 riders as much at risk,” UAE Team Emirates medical director Adriano Rotunno told VeloNews.

“Obviously for us, there’s more on the line but unfortunately a virus is a virus. We try to limit it as much as we can, but it’s very difficult.”

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COVID-19 protocol for Pogačar’s team

Rotunno took VeloNews inside the team protocol.

“We’ve always been quite stringent and we’ve amplified everything [for the Tour],” he said. “We started with really stringent controls, particularly for the Tour, then it’s the usual stuff: pre-bubble PCRs and our own internal testing.

“Then it’s mask mandates, it’s hand hygiene, social distancing and no autographs or signings or anything like that, no socialising outside of our bubble. It’s about maintaining distance and hygiene.

“It’s difficult in a race like this, where there are no masks being worn [by the public] and we’re a bit close to the public.”

The evidence was in front of us. As we talked, the team bus of UAE-Team Emirates was surrounded by about 100 fans in the stage 9 start town of Dole. It had been forced to park outside of the closed-off race paddock because there wasn’t sufficient space.

Rider health is number one

“Our primary concern is rider health. We can’t allow a rider to ride a grand tour when he’s ill and also risk the peloton, the team and the community.

“For us, it’s really important we stick to those protocols and if we have a positive, that’s the way the dice have fallen for us, and we have to deal with that situation.”

UAE-Team Emirates is testing every day or second day on their Tour de France in their bubble of 30 that includes eight riders and 22 staff. Rotunno will do sometimes half the tests in the morning and half in the evening, or do them together in one go.

“It’s a laborious process testing everybody all the time, but it’s what we do, and how we found out we had our positive rider yesterday,” he said.

Laegen’s farewell

Norwegian racer Vegard Stake Laengen complained of symptoms the previous night, yet tested negative the next day. Yet on the morning of stage 8, he tested positive and was forced to leave the race.

“The more we can mitigate risk and limit the damage – or the exposure – at the end of the day, the better. There’s nothing to stop COVID from ending our race,” Rotunno concluded.

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