The Tour de France Was Obsessed With Germs Long Before the Pandemic
The strangest edition of the world’s most famous bike race begins on Saturday, amid rising coronavirus cases in France
By Joshua Robinson
When the world suddenly learned this year that it needed to use hand sanitizer all of the time, one group of skinny men in Lycra already knew the drill. Tour de France cyclists had been fretting about hand-washing and microbes for years.
To protect their immune systems over a grueling three-week bike race, they had long ago done away with touchy-feely greetings and embraced the merits of self-quarantine at the first sign of a sniffle. Doing well at the Tour de France was too important to take any risks. What riders didn’t realize was how ready they would be for 2020’s Tour de Pandemic.
“We were all germaphobes before,” said American rider Tejay van Garderen, of Team EF Education First. “In the Covid era, it’s like that on steroids.”
With the Tour due to begin on Saturday, even as cases rise again in France, the sanitary protocols for teams and riders have never been more important—even if there are no guarantees the race will reach the finish line in Paris on Sept. 20.
The Tour, more French than cheese for dessert, never considered canceling the race. Organizers simply delayed the race by seven weeks and came up with a system of moving bubbles. Every team can have up to eight riders and 22 staffers, who must undergo regular testing and remain sealed off from the outside world as they dash around the country.
Inside those team bubbles, which will bounce every day between the race course and a different hotel almost every night, life will be even more ascetic than usual. There will be no autographs, no buffets, and no roommates. Riders have been warned that the riskiest part of their day isn’t the 50 mile-per-hour descent off a mountain—it’s when they take off their masks and let down their guards at dinner.
But more than any other athletes, pro cyclists get it. After leaving every ounce of energy on the road, they know exactly how vulnerable they are.
“We didn’t shake hands for many, many years before Covid,” said Dave Brailsford, the general manager of Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky).
As the architect of the detail-obsessed “marginal gains” approach to running a sports team, Brailsford has been fixated on minimizing marginal germs for nearly two decades. When he formalized his findings around 2008, he called the protocol Zero Days, for zero days of training or racing lost to “avoidable illness or injury.”
That meant buying hand sanitizer in industrial quantities, years before it became the object of national treasure hunts. It meant traveling to the Tour with the team’s own mattresses and hypoallergenic sheets. And it meant sending advance squads to every one of the nearly 20 team hotels along the race route to vacuum the rooms, disinfect TV remotes, and scrub the shower taps.
“Many people used to take the mickey out of us, rib us a little bit, because they thought it was over the top,” Brailsford said. “Lo and behold, now the whole world is doing the same thing.”
Thibaut Pinot of Groupama-FDJ, left, Daniel Martinez of EF Pro Cycling team, center, and Guillaume Martin of Cofidis, right, wear protective masks on the podium for the Criterium du Dauphine.
PHOTO: ANNE CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/POOL/SHUTTERSTOCK
Ineos has upgraded the program for 2020—and also named it like an action-movie sequel. This weekend, “Zero Days: Covid Plus” is coming to a bike race near you. Its star: a masked team staffer who works in the shadows, never crossing paths with the team. He is the Designated Shopper.
Armed with a grocery list to feed eight riders who burn 6,000 calories a day, his job is to raid the nearest supermarket and simply leave the day’s supplies “at the edge of the bubble,” as Brailsford called it. While the team eats dinner and prepares for another day of racing, our hero presses on to the next town and the next supermarket.
Team Ineos is hardly the only one taking extreme measures. The team with the best chance to deny Ineos a sixth-straight victory here is a Dutch outfit named Jumbo-Visma. To win the Tour in the time of coronavirus, they tapped Bert Blocken, a professor of engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology who normally serves as their aerodynamics guru. What the team wanted this year wasn’t his wind tunnel, but some expertise on how particles float through the air.
By particles, they meant the virus. And by the air, they meant inside the team bus where riders can spend more than a quarter of their waking hours at the Tour. So after extensive testing, Blocken recommended using air cleaners on the bus and in hotel rooms to reduce the density of droplets floating around the riders.
“In this case, we were interested in the saliva particles,” said Blocken, who pointed out that the technology was similar to kitchen hoods. “We found it was quite effective.”
The one environment the teams can’t control happens to be the most important one: the actual race. The main bunch of riders known as the peloton is in fact a rolling biohazard. For three weeks, roughly 160 men will spend their days riding as close to each other as commuters in a packed subway car, inhaling an airborne cocktail of sweat, spit, and other people’s breath. Riders have always known that in the third week of the Tour, when immune systems are at their most threadbare, illnesses tend to spread through the peloton like rumors.
“If you want to transmit a sickness, just give it to a bike rider,” said Team Mitchelton-Scott rider Jack Bauer. “He’ll pass it on to all his colleagues in the blink of an eye.”
To prevent that, the Tour is counting on a rolling testing regime and keeping the riders as isolated as possible. A race that would normally see millions of supporters flock to the roadsides is barring fans from starts and finishes and will restrict some access on narrow mountain passes. While organizers can’t police every inch of a 2,100-mile race, they have asked that anyone watching in person wear a mask.
“There is no protocol that is bulletproof,” said Matt White, Mitchelton-Scott’s head sports director. “We’re doing everything we can and at the end of the day, that’s going to have to be good enough.”
The Tour de France’s Most-Abused Substance: Hand Sanitizer (July 19, 2017)
There isn’t much room for error. Tour organizers originally warned that two positive tests inside a team’s 30-person bubble would see the entire squad ejected from the race. Already, Team Lotto-Soudal reported on Thursday that two staffers had tested positive and sent them home, along with their roommates. For teams, the biggest fear is being blown off the road by a couple of false positives.
The rules are still being tweaked before the start on Saturday and organizers will likely do away with two-strike ejections. What won’t change is the eerie scene of starting the world’s most famous bike race with only a fraction of the fans lining the streets and a nagging feeling that anyone could be a vector for infection.
“You look at everyone you encounter with a raised eyebrow, like ‘Stay away from me,’” Van Garderen said. “It’s a little crazy. But hopefully if we do all those things, we can reach Paris.”
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