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The Grote Prijs Vermarc Sport, one of the first mass-start races since the coronavirus pandemic halted all sporting events in March, was completed with a mix of concern and acceptance on Sunday, with riders reacting to the attention paid to virus safety measures to Sporza.be.
More than 160 riders took the start in Rotselaar, with Deceuninck-QuickStep's Florian Sénéchal taking the win. It was only a dip of the toe into the murky waters of getting hundreds of people together for a sporting event before the COVID-19 pandemic has been eradicated.
Toon Aerts, a former Belgian cyclo-cross champion, says that the WorldTour riders kept the peloton in line when it came riders spitting or clearing their noses. "It struck me that especially some riders of Deceuninck-Quick Step and Lotto-Soudal took their responsibility. They spoke to the guys in the peloton who spit at random or blew snot from their noses," Aerts told Sporza.
Once the race split up into smaller groups it was easier to get to the side of the group to do so more safely, but Aerts said that didn't stop him from getting some droplets from another rider in his face.
"Under normal circumstances you don't question that, but now you do. Was it sweat drops or was it snot, saliva or just water from a bidon? Yeah, I had a bit of a problem with that, I have to admit."
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is transmitted person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Scientists are not clear on how likely it is to be passed along in groups of riders outdoors, with most outbreaks coming from indoor activities. However, other researchers have shown it is possible for respiratory droplets to trail well behind a rider - but whether those can cause infection remains to be proven.
Jasper De Buyst (Lotto Soudal) admitted to lecturing some riders about being more careful. "To my annoyance there were still riders who didn't have the reflex to point their snot and saliva to the ground. It's not difficult to aim to the ground instead of in the wind," he said.
However, De Buyst said the organisers did all they could to help the race go ahead with safe conditions. There were a lot of spectators - some with masks but many without. "Everyone has to take responsibility. A lot will depend on that", De Buyst said.
His teammate Nikolas Maes said riders took a calculated risk to race but he questioned the lack of cohesive testing efforts. "As riders from the WorldTour, we have already been checked twice. But we are at the start with a large number of other riders who have not or never been checked for the coronavirus," Maes said, advocating for a sort of coronavirus passport. It would take only one positive rider to spread the virus through the peloton.
"In this way every rider would be able to prove that he has been tested and found negative, for example one week before competition. That would bring a lot of peace of mind."
Riders largely abided by the rules against throwing empty bidons to the fans, but Jan Bakelants (Circus-Wanty Gobert) said he had expected temperature checks before the race.
"I expected that before the start someone, a nurse or doctor, would have measured the temperature of each rider with a forehead thermometer. That's perfectly possible without an extra cost," Bakelants said.
"Let me put it this way: for every rider who stuck to the rules, there was also someone who didn't," he said.