Sport writer Ellie Jeffrey gives the rundown on how cycling will be adapted after the pandemic pumped the brakes on professional races
COVID-19 has affected all sports everywhere, inciting questions as to how we can continue the annual sporting calendar whilst minimising the risk to spectators and athletes alike. With football matches returning behind closed doors and the US Open confirmed to be taking place, it seems a given that other sports will also be aiming to return in the near future.
Professional cycling is different from many of these events, however – often not being held at one specific venue (except for indoor velodrome racing) and not having a clear separation between fans and athletes. Spectators line the sides of the racing routes, often close enough to touch the cyclists, or throw urine.
There is therefore a clear difference between cycling and sports such as rugby, football, and tennis, proven by the different approach being taken to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) WorldTour calendar for the rest of this year.
Although several events, including January’s Tour Down Under, were able to go ahead before the height of the pandemic, many prestigious annual events have had to be postponed. In some cases, including the Tour de Romandie, events have had to be cancelled altogether to make room for the bigger races to comfortably take place.
According to UCI.org, the decision was made to alternate stage races and one-day races during the month of August, in an attempt to provide as many different events as possible for the different categories of professional cyclists. The one-day Strade Bianche, held annually in Italy, is expected to kick off the post-COVID cycling season on 1st August and will be the first event many riders attend in 2020.
What can we expect in terms of spectators, though? Race beginnings and endings can and will be controlled by local law enforcement, but this is likely to be unworkable throughout the entirety of every race. It also seems unfeasible that calls to stay away from roadsides will be entirely well-received, especially in the cases of the three Grand Tours that are expected to still be held.
Most professional cyclists have turned their attention to the Grand Tours this year, in part due to their proximity to other races, including the Five Monuments, that often also attract the best of the Peloton.
In a break from tradition, the Tour de France will be the first Grand Tour to be held, starting on 29th August and ending on 20th September. This will undoubtedly still be an important event for the UCI WorldTour, as the most widely known and followed professional cycling competition. After his horrific crash at last year’s Criterium de Dauphine that pulled him out of the 2019 Tour roster, Chris Froome will be hoping to capture his 5th tour win. This would put him on par with the legendary Eddy Merckx for overall Tour wins and will undoubtedly be the main focus of his training during lockdown.
La Course will also be held this year, on 29th September, as outlined in the detailed calendar released by the UCI of all the women’s races set to take place throughout the rest of 2020. The difference between the men’s and women’s calendars are still significant, but the growing number of women’s events each passing year is a credit to the professional cycling world. The fact that these events are not being sidelined for the more well-known men’s events is a positive step forward for female professionals.
The Giro d’Italia, instead of its traditional May dates, is being held in October, beginning just thirteen days after the Tour finishes. It seems likely that this change of season might impact the race somewhat, with the weather likely being rainier and even the possibility of seeing the impact of snowfall on those iconic mountain stages.
Peter Sagan has already publicly stated his intention to attend the Tour and Giro over the cobbled classics this year, perhaps implying that he might be going for a General Classification title to add to his growing collection of Green and Red points jerseys.
La Vuelta a España is the only Grand Tour to be shortened this year, with a whole week being taken off its length. This is reportedly down to Utrecht refusing to allow the event to start in the city, but may also be due to the number of events UCI are attempting to fit into this short space of time. La Vuelta, although a key part of the UCI WorldTour, is perhaps the least impactful of the Grand Tours, coming at the close of the cycling season when legs begin to fail and stamina runs dry. If any major events were to be affected, La Vuelta was always going to be the most likely candidate.
Perhaps the most well-known event to be scrapped entirely is the Tour of Britain, usually held in the second week of September. Instead, the course is being carried over to 2021. The Tour de Yorkshire has also been cancelled for the year, denying Brits any chance to see their favourite cyclists race on home turf.
However, as Europe begins to reopen, the professional cycling world is starting to return to a new form of normal. Social distancing is not possible in a Peloton, and there are seldom barriers between the cyclists and onlookers for long stretches of stage races, but things will still look and feel different once the cycling calendar recommences.
Although the UK is being denied professional cycling for 2020 and some events are shortened or shuffled around, UCI has done all they can to make this year work.
After time in lockdown being spent on Strava and cycling around local routes, the professionals will undoubtedly be ready for events to resume, and some of them may be in better shape than ever before. Every cloud has a silver lining, and the UK just needs to hope that it can win a sixth Tour de France title now Chris Froome cannot break his neck at the Dauphine.
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