February 12, 2021 0 Comments
Words by Shane Stokes
Photos by SWpix.com
Racing during a pandemic has proved to be a very strange time for cycling. The 2020 season was affected in ways unseen since the two world wars. Shane Stokes looks at the prospects for the current year, which once again sees Covid-19 having a negative effect on the sporting calendar.
Mick Bennett, Sweetspot, Race Director Tour of Britain (c) SWPix.com
The past year has been a surreal time for bike racing, with a plethora of events either being cancelled outright or postponed to a time later in the calendar. Take the Tour de France as an example; traditionally beginning at either the end of June or early July, the race was delayed slightly over two months and only began on August 29th.
Ditto for the Giro d’Italia, which was scheduled to start on May 9th but didn’t commence racing until October 3rd. And so too the Vuelta a España, which moved from a start date of August 14th until October 20th.
2020 La Course By Le Tour with FDJ Lizzie Deignan of Trek Segafredo wins ahead of Marianne Vos of CCC (c) SWpix.com
It wasn’t only the Grand Tours that were affected. Prestigious events such as Strade Bianche, Milan San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico, La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Flanders are held each year in spring, yet they were all ultimately run off between August and mid-October.
The organisers of all these races were inconvenienced, but they can be thankful their events took place at all. Other prestigious contests such as Paris-Roubaix, the Amstel Gold Race, the Clásica de San Sebastián, the Tour de Suisse and the Volta a Catalunya were not so fortunate, being cancelled outright.
The reason for the complete upending of the calendar was the Covid-19 pandemic. Starting in China in late 2019 and then spreading around the globe, the virus caused chaos and forced governments to impose lockdowns in order to try to fend off illness and save lives. However there was increased optimism as the year rolled on, particularly when the Grand Tours ultimately went ahead. And, despite predictions that those races could be hit by virus outbreaks within the peloton, the growing hopefulness and sense of control were amplified even further when each of those races made it to their finishing cities.
Sadly the upswing in mood didn’t continue on from there. Second and third waves of the virus have since hit and while the development of several vaccines has given hope, the calendar is once again taking a knocking. Early events such as the Tour Down Under, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, the Vuelta a San Juan, the Tour Colombia and Volta ao Algarve were either cancelled or postponed.
These have been followed by further changes, such as the cancellation of the Vuelta a Madrid, the Tour of Oman and the Herald Sun Tour, plus the postponement of the Challenge Mallorca, the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, the Vuelta a Andalucía, the Volta Ao Algarve, the Ronde van Drenthe plus other races. Far from 2021 being a season of normality, it is shaping up in a very similar way to 2020.
Women's Tour 2021 at risk of postponement (c) SWpix
However some still hold out hope. Mick Bennett is the race director of the Tour of Britain, the Women’s Tour and the Tour Series. Those races were all cancelled last year, yet he and the organisers SweetSpot are hopeful that the events will take place this season. They recently announced that Eurosport and GCN were entering into a partnership with the Tour of Britain and the Women’s Tour, indicating both races will be held in 2021. The announcement also saw confirmation that the Women’s Tour will be broadcast live for the first time, which is a significant step forward for the event.
Bennett was in a positive frame of mind when he spoke to Conquista earlier this month. He believes that the races will continue, although conceded that the scheduled June 7th start for The Women’s Tour will likely be moved.
“What we have done is we have gone to the UCI and we have said, ‘look, we may need to apply for a later date than June for the Women’s Tour,’” he explained. “And September looks – well, to me, and this is only speculative - like it is going to be okay. So maybe August, September for the Women’s Tour.
“I think we would be highly optimistic if we were to think that June, early June, the first week of June is going to see us through this, bearing in mind that we can’t socially distance the crowd on the top of the climb, at a sprint point, at the finish.”
For Bennett, being able to show off the race to the public is important. And so, in addition to the increased safety of running the event later in the season, he also sees an advantage if things are sufficiently normalised that people can turn out and watch. “One of the main reasons to host a stage of the Women’s Tour is to show the general public and the schools that this is fantastic, this is what professional bike racing is all about.”
However he said that SweetSpot will follow government guidance in this regard. “We have budgeted a considerable amount of money to manage our way through Covid, and it is down to government as to what regulations they apply to open sporting events going forward. And I think we have to be guided by them.”
Bennett said that the race’s backers will also have a say as to what ultimately happens. “There are TV contracts to consider. We have a massive police force too. A third of our budget goes on policing, and it is an awful lot of money when you have got 30,40 police officers employed full time on special duty rates.
“So if the government say outdoor sporting events can go ahead without social distancing, then fine. If they say sporting events can go ahead but you still have to social distance, we then have to go back to the local authority and say, ‘right, are you happy with this?’ in order for them to still press the button on the funding model.”
Still, he remains hopeful that the races will all take place. That includes the Tour Series, although this will also be delayed. “It will go ahead later in the year, because we do need the crowds,” he said. “You couldn’t hold a one hour crit purely for TV around a circuit that is completely bereft of the public. It wouldn’t make sense.”
Being in a position to delay the events until the second half of 2021 is important for SweetSpot. This has enabled the company to continue to plan for racing, unlike the organisers of the Tour de Yorkshire. That event is off for 2021, while the Ride London festival – which SweetSpot helps organise – is also off. The Lincoln Grand Prix is postponed but may go ahead in the autumn.
Alex Richardson, now of Alpecin-Fenix wins Lincoln GP 2019 (c) SWpix
Bennett acknowledges that it is a very difficult situation for any event organisers who were planning races early in the year. He expressed surprise that some races are continuing, including an event recently held in France. “I don’t know how the Tour de Bessèges has got away with it, how they can hold these events,” he said. “Maybe the modus operandi and the PR behind it is totally different to what we have got in the UK, where we like to take racing to the general public. I genuinely don’t know how they are managing to do it.”
At the moment many top-level international events are still scheduled to go ahead in 2021. Vaccinations are being rolled out across Europe and elsewhere, helping to protect the most vulnerable, and should become more and more widespread as the year progresses. It is however very hard to make predictions as to how rapidly things can be normalised in the coming months. One complication is the emergence of Covid-19 variants which have proved to be more contagious that the original strain of the virus. These may also have a higher mortality rate too.
Ethan Hayter will be hoping the Tour de Yorkshire returns in 2022 (c) SWpix
A second complication is limitations in the supplies of some vaccinations. The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has been involved in a very public spat with the European Commission over a shortfall in the number of vaccinations the commission says was promised. The war of words highlights the difficulties of rolling out a massive vaccination programme and also the degree of pressure governments are under to try to get the virus under control.
This kind of uncertainty makes it very difficult to predict what will happen with the 2021 racing season. However UCI President David Lappartient recently expressed optimism, saying that he believes the sport could turn a corner by the summer. “I hope that the Tour de France will be the start of a new life,” he told French publisher Direct Velo. “The first half of the year will be difficult. Most countries are engaged in a difficult vaccination campaign and it will also be necessary to closely monitor the evolution of variants.”
If Lappartient is right, that will relieve pressure on many organisers. Having to delay or cancel races in 2020 complicated things greatly for them, and should the same thing happen again this season it could put the future of some events under question.
Mathieu Van der Poel will hope to defend his Tour of Britain title with Alpecin-Fenix in 2021 (c) SWpix
SweetSpot is one of those which is currently chasing backing for its races. Bennett said that Covid-19 has complicated things in terms of securing a new title sponsor, although he noted that the events are in a privileged position. “We are fortunate enough to have fantastic stakeholders in the local authorities who provide a majority of the funding for both the Tour series, the Women’s Tour and the men’s Tour of Britain,” he said.
Other organisers may not be so fortunate. Teams too are under considerable pressure. Several of them pointed out last year that their sponsors expect them to be racing, providing publicity which repays those companies’ investment in the sport. Being stuck on the sidelines caused some to reduce or even freeze the pay of riders and staff in order to cope.
If 2021 is ultimately another year of race cancellations and a stunted economy, that may have a far-reaching effect on the sport.
In contrast, if it gets to the point where races are able to safely go ahead, their running can send out a positive signal. The French government was determined that the Tour de France would go ahead last year for that reason. As Bennett reveals, the British government has also used bike racing in the past to deliver a political message.
Tour Series - Salisbury, brought to you in association with Fenwick's and Novichok (c) SWpix
“Do you remember the Novichok case involving the Skripals in Salisbury about two years ago?” he asked, referring to the 2018 nerve agent attack on the former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. “Well, the very reason that we ran a race in Salisbury is that COBRA [a government cross-departmental committee responding to national emergencies – ed.] came to us and said, ‘look, we need to illustrate that Salisbury is open for business. Will you put on a Tour Series event in Salisbury?’
“We said, ‘we would love to.’ And that is how it was funded.”
Bennett will hope that cycling is in a position to send a similarly upbeat message this year.
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