UCI relaxes COVID-19 exclusion rules at Tour de France

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Cycling’s governing body has relaxed the Tour de France’s COVID-19 exclusion rules on the eve of the race’s opening stage following complaints from teams that feared their riders would be unfairly excluded from the race.

After meeting with team officials, the UCI said Friday that a team won’t be automatically sent home if two of its riders test positive for the virus within a period of seven days as was initially planned. According to the revised protocol, it will be up to Tour de France organizers to decide whether to throw a whole team out of the race.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said later Friday he was still waiting for French authorities to decide whether to allow organizers any leeway in making such decisions.

“In the case of two or more riders from the same team testing positive for COVID-19 within a period of seven days at a Grand Tour, the UCI will give the event organizer authorization to announce the withdrawal of the team for health reasons,” the UCI said.

Initially, the Tour’s COVID-19 protocol stipulated that teams would be expelled if two or more of their riders or staff tested positive for the virus within a seven-day span. Under the new rules that will also be implemented at the Spanish Vuelta and Giro d’Italia, staff members will not be counted.

Speaking with reporters, UCI president David Lappartient said the new protocol is different from the one devised by Tour organizers ASO, but stringent enough.

“We also told the teams that they have to be strict,” he said. “We want the Tour de France to start, but we want the Tour de France to finish. That’s the goal for all of us.”

Four staff members of the Belgian team Lotto-Soudal were sent home Thursday after “non-negative” coronavirus tests. The team said a mechanic and a member of the rider support staff returned “one positive and one suspicious result.” Both left the race bubble along with their roommates.

The UCI said the latest revisions “come from the desire to optimize the interpretation of a positive viral diagnostic test and confirm that it indeed corresponds with a recent coronavirus infection.”

In case of a positive result, the UCI also urged organizers to “do everything possible” to perform a retest and a blood analysis before the next stage.

“These complementary examinations will be a very useful additional element in the global medical assessment, which will make it possible to evaluate the contagious character or not of the rider (or team member),” it said.

The measure is aimed at avoiding false positive tests that could rule out healthy riders.

The UCI said team members who test positive during the race will be isolated and will have to leave if a second test cannot be performed in time.

Tour organizers have set up a mobile coronavirus lab that can produce results in two hours and handle 50 tests a day on race days. However, Prudhomme said he can’t guarantee a rider will be given the additional tests before he is removed from the race following an initial positive result.

German team Bora-Hansgrohe was among those who expressed concern after one if its riders first tested positive and then tested negative Tuesday, prompting the withdrawal of its entire squad from the one-day Bretagne Classic race.

“The adjustments made today to the UCI protocol have enabled us to find the right balance between the legitimate concerns of teams faced with the risk of exclusion and the vital preservation of the peloton’s health,” Lappartient said.

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”