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An inside look at the fascinating ‘mobile bubble’ of the Tour de France

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Earlier this summer, pro cyclist Michael Storer made a mistake that probably cost him a spot in the Tour de France: He decided to go to the grocery store.

It was the first week of July, just weeks after the coronavirus lockdowns were lifted in Europe, and Team Sunweb, a German cycling team, had gathered their members in the Austrian Alps for a training camp leading up to the restart of the cycling season. Their aim was to create a small bubble in the camp to keep the riders safe. Everybody was tested before they entered the bubble, and the rules were simple: Do not leave the camp.

But Storer, 23, opted to stop by a grocery store for a bottle of shampoo. When he returned, the team asked him to leave the camp, effective immediately. He was a key member, but, as the team explained in a news release, it was a needed precaution and not a punishment. “We want to limit interaction with the outside world as much as possible to minimize the risk of infection of the various bubbles,” the news release read.

A cycling bubble faces a distinctive challenge: It’s always a rolling bubble. Unlike in the NBA or WNBA, there is no arena or resort where the athletes, staff and organizers can congregate and stay put. During the race, everyone moves from stage to stage, from city to city, and from hotel to hotel.

“Cycling had a little bit of a benefit of being able to start a little bit later and see what the other sports were doing — so a cycling bubble is sort of an amalgamation of rules used in PGA, NBA, MLB and NFL,” Kevin Sprouse, head of medicine for the EF Education First team, told ESPN.

The International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport’s governing body, along with individual races and teams, have come up with rules to maintain smaller bubbles within the cycling community. The hope is that every small bubble will keep its athletes healthy, so when they get together for a big event — like the Tour de France starting Saturday — they are bringing together a set of athletes who do not carry the virus.

“It’s never going to be a zero-risk bubble with cycling, so it’s very important to make sure cyclists follow the smaller rules around not stopping at cafes or grocery stores,” Danielle Zaccaria, doctor for the CCC Pro Team, told ESPN.

In this context, going to the grocery store is a mistake. A big one.

Beginning Saturday, the sport is hoping to pull off the biggest event on its calendar, the Tour de France — a three-week, 21-stage, 176-rider race — that has only ever been stopped due to World War I and World War II. If the race is executed without a major glitch, it will help act as the guide map for how other sports can restart with fans.

But this might be a tall order considering the uptick in coronavirus cases in France. The country reported 5,429 new cases Wednesday — the largest number since April, and much higher than the average case counts that hovered around 500 in June and July. Neighboring countries are now requiring quarantines for visitors coming in from France. And on Thursday, the Lotto Soudal cycling team send home several staff members after they tested positive for the virus, further increasing apprehension about the viability of the event.

To keep cyclists and staff safe, most teams have created 14-day bubbles leading up to the tour (EF Education First, for example, was in Andorra, France, with almost exactly the same team that will go to Nice, to maintain the integrity of the bubble), and some, whose cyclists are arriving from other races like the European Championships, are tested repeatedly and monitored as they train for the tour.

Usually, each team is a “traveling circus” of more than 70 members, but this year that number (which includes riders, staff, partners, sponsors and team administration) is limited to 30, Sprouse said. The tour has mandated that every team submit two tests — six days before the race, and then three days before — to account for false positives. The teams drove in buses or cars this year as opposed to flying to Nice, and will stay in separate hotels — usually all teams are accommodated in a single hotel. Each team is staying on the ground floor to avoid potential elevator exposure, and the dining room of the hotel will be set up to create four-person and two-person seating areas so cyclists, even within a team, can socially distance during meals.

The real challenge starts once the race kicks off. This is where the tour’s mobile testing laboratory will play a key role. Many cyclists wake up with a blocked nose, body ache, fever or cold after hours of cycling the previous day. Usually, when they warm up for the day’s riding, their body clears the blocks and they start to feel better, and the team doctors clear them for the day’s race. But now those symptoms could mean they’re infected with COVID-19. To help combat this, the tour has asked every team to submit negative tests on every rest day of the event.

“Being able to spot these cyclists — with or without symptoms — before the start of the day’s race will be crucial to ensure continued safety of cyclists in the peloton as the race progresses,” Jonathan Vaughters, former pro cyclist and current general manager of EF Education First, said.

The UCI announced Friday that it is revising an earlier rule of sending home an entire team if two riders test positive within a seven-day period. Now, it will be left up to the tour organizers to decide if the team will be eliminated for safety concerns. This rule change was announced after complaints by several teams which feared their riders would be unfairly excluded from the race. If the tour results in a virus cluster, there is a good chance the event will be canceled, Vaughters said. “It’s not a great thought, but I know it’s the sensible thing to do,” he added.

There are also the fans to consider. During “normal times,” about 10 million people gather in France to take part in the event. Now, only 5,000 (per French government mandates) are allowed, so the fan area is cordoned off and each fan is counted. All fans are required to stay two meters away from the cyclists (and one another) at all times and wear faces masks. The start and finish line, the two areas that see the most fans, will also be blocked off to prevent any large gatherings near cyclists. High-fiving a cyclist or wrapping them in a hug are things that separate a cycling event from any other sport, but this year, there will be no contact.

Putting together a complex 10,000-piece puzzle might be easier. The success of this event lies in the hands of every single team, every member, every organizer. By the end of the season, it’s estimated that every team will spend an additional 100,000 euros just on logistics and testing.

The cyclists are anxious, several doctors and managers told ESPN — that an outbreak might happen or that the borders might be shut down, making it impossible for them to get home. But, they’re also focused on what they can control. “I think [the cyclists have] done a very good job at putting their heads down and saying, “OK, we’ve got to do the best we can and trust the doctors, the UCI and the race organizers to do what’s right,” Sprouse said. More than that, they’re hopeful that they can find a healthy way to compete, both for themselves and for their fans.

“This event is so special, that despite the severity of the pandemic and the global crisis that [it] has caused, that I think it’s an inspirational sign that we found a way for the Tour de France to go forward this year,” Vaughters said. “That should be seen as sport and humanity finding a way to coexist with this pandemic.”

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