By Julien Pretot
CHATEL, France (Reuters) – Tadej Pogacar’s rivals have sharpened their knives as the Tour de France hits the Alps, but the biggest threat to the Slovenian’s bid for a third straight title could come from a surge in COVID-19 in the peloton be.
Three riders in two days have been forced to withdraw from the race after contracting the virus and showing symptoms, raising fears the field could be decimated when all riders are tested during Monday’s rest day at Morzine.
At last month’s Tour de Suisse, only half the riders finished the race as the virus spread like wildfire and riders and staff now fear that could happen at the world’s biggest cycling event.
“It’s a big fear,” said overall leader Pogacar, whose United Arab Emirates team-mate Vegard Stake Laengen retired after testing positive on Saturday.
“The drivers have to be protected. This morning we had to go through the crowd, people were touching the drivers. It’s unbearable,” said Total Energies manager Jean-Rene Bernaudeau on Saturday.
In the past year, if two members of a team tested positive for COVID-19, the entire team was wrapped up, which is not the case in this edition.
Whether a rider who tests positive can participate in the race will be decided after a meeting between the race doctor, the International Cycling Union (UCI) doctor and the team doctor, depending on the rider’s viral load.
While last year all riders, staff and Tour followers had to test negative to compete within a strict bubble, the 2022 Tour started in Denmark without specific anti-COVID-19 measures.
“They should have been stricter at the start and tested everyone,” a sporting director for the Tour, who asked not to be named, told Reuters on Sunday.
“We are in a situation that is more difficult than in the last two years,” Groupama FDJ manager Marc Madiot told reporters.
“In the last two editions there has been some uncertainty and everyone has been very cautious. Nowadays there is no obligation for the general population to be careful, which is normal.
“But it can have big consequences for us. It’s like gangrene. If it’s here, it’ll spread quickly.”
Frenchman Mikael Cherel took a fatalistic approach.
“That’s the game. COVID for us isn’t so much a health issue, it’s more like we’re out of the game, out of the race and losing a big goal for the team and for ourselves, that’s the damaging part. In the end it’s not so bad,” said the AG2R Citroen driver.
“I’ll put it into perspective, we mustn’t get upset about it, there’s nothing we can do about it. The justice of the peace will be with the tests tomorrow, but if a driver isn’t showing any symptoms, there’s no reason to stop.”
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge)