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COVID cases are upending cycling, and the Tour de France starts in 2 weeks

Cyclist Aleksandr Vlasov was leading the Tour de Suisse before a positive coronavirus test forced him to abandon the race — a fate shared by many other riders. Vlasov is seen here in March, at the Paris-Nice race.
Russia's Aleksandr Vlasov arrives for the first stage of the Paris Nice cycling race over 159.8 kilometers (98 miles) with start and finish in Mantes La Ville, north west of Paris, France, Sunday, March 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Two races that are supposed to be tune-up events for the Tour de France are instead raising worries about COVID-19's impact on cycling's biggest event, with dozens of riders forced to withdraw because of positive tests.

"It's just crazy," Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas said at the Tour de Suisse on Friday. "Kind of thought all of this was behind us now."

A mass exodus includes the sport's top riders

Around 30 riders abandoned the Tour de Suisse on Friday alone, including race leader Aleksandr Vlasov of the Bora-Hansgrohe team — who was coming off of winning Thursday's stage. Several teams withdrew their entire squads.

The sudden exits were the talk of the bus ride to the start of Friday's stage, Thomas said: "This rider out; that rider out; this team; whole team; another whole team."

"Despite all precautions, corona has crept into the team again," Dutch team Jumbo-Visma, which withdrew Thursday, said via Twitter.

In addition to Vlasov, the departures include some of cycling's most well-known names, such as Adam Yates, Rui Costa, Marc Hirschi, Rigoberto Urán and Tom Pidcock.

The outbreak of cases has teams feeling jittery

"It's a bloodbath!" the French news outlet Ouest France declared, as news of the positive tests spread.

"Everyone has the jitters," sports director Philippe Mauduit of the team Groupama-FDJ told Ouest France. His team is crossing its fingers, he said, adding that he's now seeing more people wear masks.

Thomas said he'll keep riding in the Tour de Suisse, but it's not a certainty that the race will finish as planned: Organizers said they are "monitoring further developments and will assess the situation together again on Saturday morning."

The abrupt exits are another reminder that the pandemic isn't over — and similar scenes are playing out on a smaller scale at the Tour of Slovenia, where defending Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar won Friday's stage despite losing two teammates to positive coronavirus tests.

The Tour de France will start in Denmark this year

The 2022 Tour de France is slated to begin in Copenhagen on July 1, further expanding the footprint of a race that sprawls from the north to the south of France in this year's route.

At least one team official has called for the organizers of the French race to reimpose a tight bubble and other COVID-19 protocols, according to Cycling Weekly.

France has reported the most COVID-19 cases in Europe, with more than 30 million. This month, transmission rates have been rising across Europe, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, although the agency notes that death rates have continued to fall.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.