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It would be easier to list who wasn’t sick in the past month.
Tadej Pogačar, Julian Alaphilippe, Caleb Ewan, Jasper Stuyven… the list of riders to have visited pro cycling’s infirmary runs longer than the spring’s farthest monument.
“There’s been illness everywhere all winter and there’s not much we can do. Mallorca, Provence, Valencia, Catalunya, Sanremo… All the races,” Trek-Segafredo head physician Gaetano Daniele told VeloNews this week.
“Mostly in February it was COVID. Now it doesn’t look like it’s COVID because it’s mostly a flu. We’ve seen it this bad before, but not for a very long time.”
The peloton has been pedaling into an all-new epidemic in the past few months.
While face masks, distancing and sanitizing is more rigorous than ever, coronavirus and then common colds crept through, forcing depleted teams to send reduced rosters to races all year.
Friday saw news that Israel-Premier Tech couldn’t muster the manpower to start Sunday’s Ronde. Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl and Bora-Hansgrohe join the Israeli team as being among those worst affected
“We currently have twelve riders with either COVID or another upper respiratory tract infection,” Bora-Hansgrohe boss Ralph Denk told Radsport earlier this month. “There are also seven more who have been out for a longer period of time due to falls – with fractures or a concussion. Of the 30 racers in the squad, 19 are now injured [or ill].”
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Quick-Step’s cobbled campaign has been blighted by bugs. Dozens of racers and staffers have been laid-up, taking the edge off The Wolfpacks’ bite all spring.
“We have 11 riders who are sick. Even me, I am home sick,” team boss Patrick Lefevere lamented Thursday.
A perfect spring storm
So what’s going on?
It’s not unusual for riders to get sick. Upper respiratory conditions are a mainstay for riders wound to their tightest.
But this season saw all the ingredients come together to make a melting-pot of sickness.
“We saw so many getting COVID in January and February, and one of the side effects is on the immune system,” Daniele said. “We then had cold days in Paris-Nice, in San-Remo, we had a couple cold days in Catalunya. And so riders get sick with common upper respiratory tract disease.”
The increasing pressure for squads to start the season strong butted up against a surging wave of omicron infections this winter.
An already on-the-limit pro peloton nurtured little natural defense against the infections that can follow a case of coronavirus.
“Riders now, they are always at the limit. They are always at the limit with the weight, and then that impacts with immunity because it’s totally connected,” Daniele said.
“We see more every year riders are training harder and being lean earlier, so the immune system is under stress all season. In the past, this first month of the year with Provence, Valencia, they were only going just to build condition for the classics or the Giro or whatever. Nowadays the trend is completely different. You can see how fast, how light they are already in February and March.”
Power data out of Paris-Nice shows how hard racing is straight out of the gate. Brandon McNulty’s normalized power over four hours of stage 1 was nearly 5 w/kg. Winning moves lasting more than 15 minutes would kick up toward 7 w/kg.
Also read: Big early season power numbers at Paris-Nice
Throw in a few days of attritional weather – most notably at Volta a Catalunya last week and a trip into the snowbound Apennines at Tirreno-Adriatico – and the peloton became easy prey for any infection going around.
“There is a bug going around the peloton and there’s nothing you can do about it, especially when you’re on the limit,” Bahrain-Victorious veteran Heinrich Haussler told VeloNews. “Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico are so hard, the immune system isn’t fully on. Even at Tirreno, it wasn’t raining, but it was super, super cold. The stage when we went up into the snow, on the downhill, it felt like minus 10 degrees.”
Also read: Paris-Nice peloton struck down by sickness
Some insiders point to the increased use of sanitizers and masks suppressing natural immune defenses. But whether it’s COVID or common colds, there’s no solution to the puzzle of pro cycling’s increasingly sanitized bubble.
What teams do to limit the damage
Much like any “average joe,” there’s little riders can do to guard against sickness sweeping through a close-knit community.
The pros do have the upside of expert advisors however.
Daniele explained that Trek has four doctors in total, with each assigned up to eight riders to monitor. Regular medical checks, tests and weigh-ins are backed up by a battery of further cardiovascular and respiratory protocol for riders recently exposed to COVID.
When on races, team oversight is increased, and riders enjoy professionally prepared meal plans designed to bolster fragile immune systems.
But although the cycling calendar is busier than ever, riders still spend long spells at home – and then the onus shifts.
“All the riders have good knowledge for diet, training, weight and they are disciplined. But we keep following them and checking in to see how they are.” Daniele said.
“But for all this illnesses like we’re seeing now, there’s not much that can be done by us or them. With the weather, the COVID, the hard racing, it’s not surprising they get sick.”
This spring’s sweep of sickness may settle when the early summer sun gains heat. But just like the training, racing and traveling that is embedded in pro cycling, so is sickness.