Peloton suffers a curious cycle of withdrawals

There is no hardier athlete than the pro cyclist, which is what makes this more mysterious

Everyone who lives up the mountains knows the cycling season doesn’t officially begin until the clocks spring forward, and as if one cue on Tuesday morning the road to Glencree lined in parts by late blooming daffodils rose to greet us with that first gorse-scented air of the earth reawakening at last and our spirits soaring to match.

It honestly felt unseasonably warm dressed only in jersey and shorts the width of one-ply toilet tissue, and caught perfectly between the gentle headwind and slight tailwind we made plans to ride all the way to the Shay Elliott memorial stone this weekend, our own little Climb for Charlie perhaps with the promise too that all good charity begins at home.

By Wednesday evening it had all changed and changed utterly, hands and feet and face uncomfortably numb as the idiot wind blew derision at our efforts, TS Eliot wrong again about the cruellest month, at least by one day. I’ve never known the spring to turn so quickly into autumn.

Oh Gulf Stream, where art thou? Some people say the best way to build a strong immune system is to get out in all weathers, others prefer to keep their hot and cold treatment to the sauna and the sea, thank you. It doesn’t matter anyhow when all we do is ride our bikes in the Garden of Ireland for the sheer pleasure of it. Which is why the bike is back in the garden shed.

It’s a different story for anyone who rides their bikes for a living, or so it always seemed. We all know there is no hardier b*****d in sport than the pro cyclist, and you don’t need an Ivy League degree in biology – or me for that matter – to also know that any strenuous exercise can compromise any immune system, especially at this time of the year. It’s why some people will never cast a clout until May is out.

Still the pro cyclist was always that rare exception, out in all weathers even when feeling as if they're standing at death's door. I'll never forget the story Sean Kelly told me one time about losing his gloves somewhere along the fabled pavé of Paris-Roubaix and it was several days later before he recovered any sense of feeling in his hands. It's nearly always freezing cold up there, even if they do call it the hell of the north.

This year's Paris-Roubaix is still a couple of weeks away, and already there's been a surely unseasonable number of absentees and withdrawals from cycling's Spring Classics, continuing with Sunday's Tour of Flanders. Among the non-starters is Peter Sagan, who won the monument race in 2016 and always fancies his chances of winning again, only he withdrew earlier in the week suffering from some sort of general illness and loss of form.

The popular Slovakian has always been one to ride in all weathers, his team Total-Energies explaining on Monday that he was suffering from a “physical problem”, and he’s gone back to his home to Monaco. In January, Sagan caught Covid-19 for the second time, forcing the delay to his season debut, which may or may not be a factor behind his apparently weakened immune system. Either way, he’s certainly not alone.

There was a light dusting of snow in northern Belgium overnight on Thursday, still that alone doesn’t explain why so many other pro riders have decided they’d rather not start the 272km of hard racing on Sunday.

The chief home favourite among those is Wout van Aert, winner of two spring classics already this year, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, and the E3 Saxo Bank Classic last month. Whatever the conditions van Aert was the race favourite, a strong Jumbo-Visma team to back him, only he’s not feeling well enough to ride this one either, and has since tested positive for Covid-19.

On Friday morning, the entire Israel-Premier Tech team announced their withdrawal from the race, in part because of two Covid-19 cases among the squad: in combination with already existing illnesses among the riders they had, in their own words, “very few healthy riders who could take to the start line”.

At Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, Israel-Premier Tech started with only three riders after Guillaume Boivin and Jenthe Biermans both withdrew because of illness, and on the morning of that race team leader Sep Vanmarcke talked of a “funeral atmosphere” among the team, the Belgian rider himself only back to race fitness after illness earlier in the season.

Plenty other big-name riders are out too, in some cases due to symptoms generally associated with the common cold. Stefan Bissegger of EF Education-EasyPost would have been in the running for it, only he got sick at Paris-Nice last month, and now the Swiss rider is sick again. Also out sick is the young American Quinn Simmons of Trek-Segafredo, as is Sagan’s team-mate at Total-Energies Dries van Gestel, another of the home contenders.

A fall in cycling is all part of the business, a risk heaped beyond any reasonable doubt, same as it is for jockeys, skateboarders and surfers, only typically at higher speeds and on to harder surfaces. "Every rider has a bad day at the Tour," Dan Martin told me, before the start of the 2018 Tour de France. "It just depends on whose bad day is the least bad."

Indeed we’ve all seen them spill serious blood before they abandon their bikes, which makes all these spring withdrawals that bit more mysterious. It’s certainly not isolated either when you look at last month’s Paris-Nice, the so-called race to the sun, where the peloton was slowly and then suddenly decimated.

Of the 154 riders which made up the 22 teams at the start, only 59 made it across the finish line in Nice, most of the rest struck down by the flu. Two years ago, when the race took place early in the Covid-19 pandemic and only 17 teams started, still more than that finished. Simon Yates, winner of the final stage, was the sole finisher for his team Bike Exchange-Jayco, and our own Sam Bennett, who won two stages in last year's race, also withdrew on the last stage, meaning none of his Bora-Hansgrohe team finished.

Unlike us casual riders they can’t be all gone soft, and it may only be coincidence that so many immune systems are ailed at the same time. Hardy or not, it doesn’t feel right.

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