How will COVID-19 shape the 2022 season?

The coronavirus pandemic is here to stay, for a little while longer at least. How will it impact races and riders in 2022?

Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

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As much as we’d like it to, COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere soon.

The virus has taken its toll on the past two cycling seasons, and it looks set to play a defining role in 2022. It has already got its tendrils into the season and it’s not even the end of January.

While it might not be causing the same race interruptions of the early part of the pandemic, many of the Southern Hemisphere races have been canceled and several events in Europe have been forced “behind closed doors” again.

Still, the season is expected to go ahead largely unaffected compared to previous years with most races back where they should be. Instead, the biggest challenge for the roving peloton will be avoiding catching the virus.

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With the highly transmissible Omicron variant still running rampant across the globe, avoiding it is becoming increasingly hard. More than 3,000,000 cases were confirmed worldwide Wednesday, with some of the highest rates in Europe.

Though most would be expected to make a full and swift recovery, we could see some big contenders missing out on some major targets due to contracting the virus. Several cyclocross riders have already had their plans upended after a positive PCR test in recent weeks.

Quinten Hermans was left distraught when his PCR turned positive in a pre-travel test ahead of the Belgian team’s flight to the U.S. for cyclocross world championships. Hermans, who was a strong medal contender, will now only be able to watch as his teammates race this weekend.

“We avoided as many risks as possible, for example by testing daily or by not joining Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux at its January training camp,” Hermans said following the news. “But on Sunday evening I was informed about the positive PCR test result, and I have no other choice than renouncing for the world championships. I feel very powerless in this situation, and I will need some time to get over this disappointment.”

Hermans and his agent Hans van Kasteren tried to salvage the situation by getting the rider another test in the hope the initial one was a false positive, but the Belgian Federation declined it as an option.

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“We wanted to do another test after the flight, there in America. Then he would be there two or three days before the race and he could still start,” van Kasteren said in a media call, according to Dutch website Wielerflits. “I think it’s so bad for a rider like Quinten that that wasn’t possible. The cycling federation was not open to it and did not want to look at it. I don’t think that’s quite correct.”

Hermans is not the only rider whose world championship hopes have been dashed by a COVID-19 positive. Last year’s elite women’s runner-up Annemarie Worst is also stuck in Europe after a positive PCR, as is Herman’s compatriot Xaydee Van Sinaey.

Riders don’t just have to worry about contracting the virus themselves, season plans can be scuppered by being a close contact of someone who has got it. Six members of the 12-rider Italian worlds squad found that out when they were forced into self-isolation after either testing positive or being identified as a close contact.

The road ahead

At the moment, it is the cyclocross riders that are feeling the brunt of this Omicron wave with the key part of the season sitting right in the middle of it. However, road riders have not escaped entirely, and several have had to make late program changes as they get caught out by the pesky virus.

The Jumbo-Visma January training camp was disbanded at lightning speed when one of the riders tested positive for the virus. Meanwhile, Peter Sagan and Michael Woods had their pre-season build-up interrupted by a bout with COVID-19.

Ag2r-Citroën rider Benoît Cosnefroy had to delay the start to his season after testing positive, as has Lotto-Soudal’s Sylvain Moniquet.

“Masked, vaccinated, checked and careful but positive for covid, fortunately without symptoms,” Cosnefroy wrote on Instagram. “So I won’t be back next week at Mallorca Challenge. I will give you my recovery program very soon. Be careful and take care of yourself.”

So far, these riders have not lost much of their season — if anything at all — but the stakes do become higher as the year progresses. With the spring classics fast approaching, a dice with COVID-19 could upset months of fine-tuning.

There are signs of the latest wave abating, but it is far from over in many countries. Even when it does finally recede, there is the possibility of another with a different variant in the future.

The UCI published its updated COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 road season, with team bubbles, mandatory face masks, and social distancing all sticking around for the foreseeable. In countries where the national protocols are stricter, races must follow that.

These measures will mitigate the risks for teams and riders at races, but as many who have caught the virus will know, there are no fool-proof measures.

A rider’s season plans can be chucked out of the window for all manner of reasons, from illness to injury, and COVID-19 — whether it be an infection or isolation — is another risk to be factored in. It’s been ever-present for the last two years, but it seems as though it’s getting harder for riders to avoid. Let’s hope that its role in the cycling season is not too big over the coming months.

UPDATE, February 8: Since this story was posted on January 28, several teams have been forced to pull out of races due to riders testing positive for COVID-19. Team DSM, Jumbo-Visma, and BikeExchange-Jayco all dropped out of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana due to a positive coronavirus test.

Meanwhile, Tadej Pogačar and Nairo Quintana have had their pre-season prep disrupted after contracting the virus and Kasper Asgreen has had to delay the start of his season because of it.

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