The new face (mask) of pro road cycling

Saturday’s breathless return of WorldTour racing at Strade Bianche underscored the new reality of road competition in 2020. The events of the last five months added an odd taste to the relief and exuberance generated by the restart.

Before the weekend even began there was the ominous sign of AG2R-La Mondiale’s Swiss rider Silvan Dillier returning a positive coronavirus test and getting pulled from the race. In frustration Dillier openly doubted his positive, but there’s no B sample in this case, Silvan. Into quarantine he went, his training and racing bubble with one fewer rider.

As we had seen in the few July races that proceeded Strade Bianche, riders wore masks at the team presentations–not all teams though–and in the staging areas before the starts. Michal Kwiatkowski and Philippe Gilbert wore them during their pre-race interviews. Stylistically light-hearted Peter Sagan, who didn’t play a big role in the race, sported a “Why So Serious?” Joker-themed mask.

Although there was a lack of fans lining the route, something that led to near silence at the Piazza del Campo for the race’s climax, many wore masks. However, there were also unmasked fans pouring water over the hot, dusty riders’ heads. Again, inconsistency. The next day in France, Ineos complained to organizers of the Route d’Occitanie that there were too many spectators milling around at the finish of the second stage, grabbing riders’ water bottles, some without masks. The finish line was packed.

Perhaps one of the oddest COVID-19-era scenes in Siena on Saturday was the slightly awkward exchange between winner Annemiek van Vleuten and runner-up Mavi Garcia. Before Van Vleuten could get sponged off by Mitchelton-Scott soigneurs, who would remind the repeat champ that she had to put on mask, Garcia came over to offer her congratulations. Van Vleuten graciously accepted, but didn’t shake the Spaniard’s hand, opting to use her right hand to hold a drink. There was the slightest twitch from the Dutch rider too–perhaps amplified by fatigue–at having someone suddenly close to her, the kind of involuntary lean back from the waist we make, as if to avoid a stiff jab, in the grocery store when an unmasked stranger appears in our six-foot bubble.

Thanks, but as you see I have this beverage.

The mood on social media about the remaining three months of the WorldTour is cautious optimism tinged with doom, and perhaps the tense scenarios in North American sports, especially in Major League Baseball and the National Football League, are informing the latter vibe. The revamped women’s WorldTour calendar has already lost around 20 percent of the races originally scheduled in early May. If race organization and controls resemble those of Strade Bianche instead of Route d’Occitanie maybe we can have some racing into November, however odd it might look and feel.

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