COVID-19 is accompanying the 2022 Tour de France. But if you test positive and have no symptoms you're allowed to ride. This approach has saved the competition, but it's also a medical and social test.
The fear of getting COVID-19 has spread around the peloton at the Tour de France. "Of course you have concerns," Cofidis rider Max Walscheid told DW.
Cofidis team captain Guillaume Martin had to leave the Tour on Sunday after testing positive.
"Bryan Coquard had a positive test before the Tour started so, of course, it goes through your mind. With Coquard it was worse, because the race hadn't even started and so, of course, you worry that all that preparation, the sweat, blood and tears, will suddenly mean nothing before you even start," Walscheid explained.
Compulsory tests on days off
It has been more than a week since the Tour started, and there have been a few but not many cases. On the day off on Monday, anxiety reached a high point because the obligatory tests from the UCI (International Cycling Union) were on the agenda.
"I want to wear the polka dot jersey during the stage and I hope that corona doesn't rule me out," Walscheid's teammate Simon Geschke said.
Other than the fear of actually getting COVID-19, riders are also wary of being ruled out of the race.
Just before the start of the tenth stage on Tuesday, most drivers breathed easy. Team BikeExchange reported however, that Australian Luke Dirbridge was out after a positive test and mild symptoms.
In the UAE team, defending champion Tadej Pogacar had a similar situation as to the one at Cofidis. Ahead of the start, a rider who tested positive was replaced by a rider who had recovered, and in the middle of the race Norwegian Vegard Stake Laengen had to depart because of the virus. Later on, UAE rider George Bennett was ruled out after a positive test.
Lead rider Pogacar was relieved to have tested negative.
"I hope that's it for our team and we're spared all the way until the end," said the Slovenian.
Change of rules
But a lack of clarity remains. Walscheid, who studied medicine before his cycling career, is fearful of more cases during the Tour.
Firstly, because the virus is already in the peloton - there have been positive tests and rider exclusions. Secondly, the UCI changed their coronavirus regulations shortly before the Tour. Whoever tests positive isn't automatically excluded. More important is the decision of the UCI medical director, the Tour's doctor and the team doctor, who decide whether the viral load is small enough for the cyclist to stay in the race.
"We have orientated ourselves with the current situation, the high vaccination rate in the peloton and the less severe process due to the virus variants currently in circulation," UCI President David Lappartient told DW at the Grand Départ.
The decision has been widely well-received by those taking part because the risk of a rider or an entire team being excluded is minimal. The old rules would have seen entire teams removed in the event of two positive cases.
Fear of mini peloton in Paris
"The new rules are good because they remove the possibility of a situation like the one at the Tour de Suisse," Richard Plugge, team manager of Jumbo-Visma, told DW.
"More than 50 riders had to head home because of corona either because they tested positive or because entire teams withdrew out of precaution. For the Tour, that would mean just five cyclists arriving in Paris."
Of course, Plugge cannot rule out that riders in the peloton won't infect each other. They ride too closely together. One is breathing in the air of another.
"It's chaotic out there. It's not easy to pick out whose rear wheel you're following," said Gabriel Rasch, former pro and current sporting director of Team Ineos Grenadiers.
Risk: Air of screaming fans
Even the fear of catching the virus during the race is a concern in the heads of riders.
"Every day there are so many people on the course, especially in the mountains. I like it, the way they scream, but that increases the chances of getting the virus," Pogacar said.
The rules made for the Tour are nevertheless very popular because they make competition possible.
"We don't want to fight against COVID, we want to fight against other riders. COVID is not my biggest rival," Pogacar said.
Plugge, whose team Jumbo-Visma finished second in 2020 and 2021 with Primoz Roglic and Jonas Vingegaard, also doesn't want the Tour to be decided by the virus. The Dutchman even had figures to hand that could give cause for cautious optimism.
"There are lots of big concerts in the Netherlands at the moment. Around 20 percent of people attending have contracted COVID. That is more than a few, but it does mean that 80 percent are not getting infected, so the chances of not getting the virus are really high," he told DW.
"We should currently look at COVID like a flu, of course with all the known precautions regarding hygiene, masks and keeping your distance. But only those who are sick and have symptoms should be excluded. They won't be able to make it over the mountains in that state anyway."
Flu or deadly threat?
With 164 athletes, 450 staff, 480 members of the advertising caravans, around 4,000 journalists and officials, 300 police officers involved in each stage, as well as approximately 28,000 police officers and firefighters on the sidelines, the Tour de France is currently a large-scale test.
It's not just the best rider, climber or sprinter being recorded this year. It's also exploring the theory that COVID-19 is now more like a flu and no longer needs to be countered as if it were a deadly threat.