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An outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus may be putting this weekend’s cross world championships at threat, but the top dogs are prepared to push on in the face of the pandemic.
News broke this weekend that 16 cases of the new, highly-transmissible “South African variant” of COVID-19 had been detected in Ostende, the Belgian host of the worlds this coming weekend. Despite a flurry of concerned conversations among organizers and national health chiefs, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert are braced to race.
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“I do wonder what a possible cancellation would solve,” Van Aert said ahead of winning the World Cup overall Sunday. “We have already shown for a full season that it is possible. Strict measures apply, everyone contributes. I don’t know why the worlds could not take place. Of course, I also express my hope here. I have worked intensively towards the worlds – It would be very sad.”
Top-tier ‘crosses through Belgium and the Netherlands have played out “behind closed doors” since the start of the season last fall. Racing has been marked by the absence of CX’s characteristic rowdy fans and racers have been adhering to strict protocol similar to that in place through last year’s road season.
Race organizers are dedicated to pushing on in the face of the threat of the new variant in the coastal city of Ostende. The racecourse is ready to go, coronavirus testing measures are in place, and staffers have been minimized.
“At the moment we assume that the world championships will continue,” organizing committee member Rik Debeaussaert told Belgian media Sunday.
“We have taken very strict measures, everything is organized according to the rules,” he continued. “Everyone present will undergo a PCR test and the number of employees has been reduced to a minimum in order to have as few people as possible at this world championship.”
Belgian minister of sport Ben Weyts is also cautiously optimistic. He explained Sunday that the intent to see men’s and women’s racing Saturday and Sunday remains, but that the fate of the event is dependent on coronavirus numbers and expert advisors.
“We have already negotiated a lot with the UCI and I am in close contact with the mayor of Ostend. We all want to organize the world championships, but it must be safe. The coming days will be crucial,” Weyts told Sporza. “We will receive figures on this in the coming days and on that basis we will decide together with the virologists.”
Defending men’s champion van der Poel may have lost out to archrival Van Aert in Overijse on Sunday, but the Dutchman is braced and ready to race, explaining that the success of the season so far provides optimism.
“I know, I’m not a politician, but I see no reason to call it off. We are racing in a closed space. Everyone present must submit a negative PCR test,” van der Poel said. “There has been nothing all winter, without one positive case, at least not what I know about. That means it can be done safely, so let the world championships continue. I really don’t know what that sudden outbreak there has to do with the worlds.”
For now, race organizer Debeaussaert is pushing on.
The fast, sandy course is set to go, and the controls are in place. The UCI has already decided to reduce the event to just U23 and elite races to prevent junior racers from having to negotiate travel restrictions and pose additional risks to the ‘cross bubble.
“There will be strict controls so that no one comes to the site who has not undergone a test,” he said. “It will be safe, 300 percent corona-proof.”