Remco Evenepoel’s abandon after stage nine’s time trial was the biggest of them all, but it was not the first Covid-19 related departure at this year’s Giro d’Italia, nor will it likely be the last. Evenepoel is the seventh rider to leave the race after testing positive in “routine test” by his Soudal-Quick-Step team. For this year’s Giro, the UCI’s race organisation protocols state that Covid-19 tests are not mandatory for teams, though they are recommended and many outfits still test internally due to their own regulations. The rules the UCI puts in place can change quickly “depending on the pandemic situation in the country.”
When teams conduct their own testing, it is up to them determine the next steps if a rider does test positive for the disease. It is up to the team to decide if they allow the rider to continue racing (which is allowed if their viral load is below a certain threshold) or if they withdraw them as a precautionary measure. Speaking to La Gazzetta on the rest day, race director Mauro Vegni admitted: “Here at the Giro there have been declared Covid cases, we can't put our hand on the fact that there haven't been others, but maybe they haven't been declared.”
He also commented that he believes the race organisation “dropped the focus” a little too soon. “We must continue to keep our guard up,” he said. “We will start already from this week. We will restore some restrictions that had been abolished, such as the obligation to wear masks in areas where you come into contact with riders, at the start and finish.” Journalists and media working in person at the Giro d’Italia received an email today confirming that wearing face coverings will now be mandatory in areas where they will come into contact with riders.
Remco Evenepoel abandoned the race after stage nine's time trial (Image: RCS Sport)
There are some teams that seem to be taking more precautions than others in light of the current Covid-19 situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with two riders sitting in the top-three on the general classification, the Ineos Grenadiers shared that they will return to the sort of measures they took during the heart of the pandemic over two years ago.
“We need to be a lot more aware of it,” new race leader Geraint Thomas said in his press conference on Monday, “Just go back to what we used to do when Covid was in 2020 and 2021 when we were in our little bubble, and we were wearing masks in public spaces. As a team, we're going to go back to that sort of strategy. If everybody in the race does the same thing, then hopefully it will stop other riders going home, because obviously, there's a massive loss losing any rider to Covid, it's really disappointing for the race.”
“Today on the rest day, we went on a ride and had a coffee back here at the hotel that we made ourselves. We didn't stop at a coffee shop due to this whole new approach to Covid. We just sat out in the sun with our own coffees and at least it's free,” he joked.
When other riders were asked about their team’s approach to Covid-19, the likes of former pink jersey wearer Andreas Leknessund and stage winner Mads Pedersen argued that the decisions surrounding precautions lay with their team’s doctors. Both riders confirmed that neither Team DSM nor Trek-Segafredo will change any of their current protocols based on the events of the last few days.
“I would say it's super sad that Remco [Evenepoel] had to leave the race, it’s sad for him but also for the race. I think every team and every rider needs to make decisions. There are race doctors, team doctors, who know how to handle this kind of stuff,” Leknessund commented. “I think society is taking it pretty good, I think if you're sick and have symptoms, then you should also take action. It's not my responsibility to say too many things about this because I also trust that the doctors are taking the right measurements and I think it's for me, it's okay how it is now.”
Geraint Thomas is the current race leader at the 2023 Giro d'Italia (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Another key protagonist in this year’s Giro d’Italia is UAE Team Emirates’ João Almeida. The Portuguese rider currently sits fourth on the general classification and is expected to be a big part of the action as the race hots up in the next week. He appeared to take a measured and relaxed approach to the threat of Covid-19 in this race.
“Many people are going out of the race because of Covid-19. I think we should be cautious with it like other diseases, like the flu, which isn’t easy and we should be concerned about it. You see in the world that many people die with the flu, so with Covid-19 we should have the same approach. Just be cautious with it and just be aware of the symptoms,” Almeida said.
It’s clear that there are differences in how each team is approaching the current health situation within the Giro peloton. While Ineos skipped coffee stops entirely, Groupama-FDJ were posting about them on social media, while some riders did press conferences from the safe bubbles of their hotel rooms, the likes of Primož Roglič spoke to some journalists in person. The impact that this will or will not have on the race as it rolls on through Italy is yet to be seen, but it’s certainly a reminder that, though it might be three years since the pandemic originally hit, Covid-19 is a virus which can still heavily impact the sport of cycling.