Only last century's two world wars have ever interrupted the Tour de France, but this year COVID-19 might bring the riders to a shuddering halt.
French authorities have made it harder for Tour de France teams to reach the finish line in Paris by deciding they will be expelled from the race if two or more of their members, including staff, test positive for COVID-19 within a week.
The move was announced on Saturday by Tour organisers just a few hours before the start of the three-week race's opening stage in the Riviera city of Nice. It overruled a decision from the world cycling governing body, the UCI, that it had eased the Tour's exclusion rules.
Under the UCI protocol announced on Friday, it would have been up to organisers to decide whether to throw a team out after two positive tests, with staff members not counted.
There are 22 squads of eight riders competing in the Tour, but a total of 30 members per team when staff are included.
"From two positive cases in a group of 30, there is a real risk of elimination of a team,'' Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme told France Info radio.
The UCI's revised protocol had excluded staff members from the calculations following complaints from teams who feared their riders would be unfairly excluded from the race.
This week, four staff members of the Belgian team Lotto-Soudal were sent home 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.
In case of a positive result during the race, the UCI has urged organisers to ``do everything possible to perform a retest and a blood analysis before the next stage.
The measure is aimed at avoiding false positive tests that could rule out healthy riders.
Tour organisers 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.
Coincidentally, this year the race will also no longer feature the tradition of the winning riders embracing women - also known as "podium girls" - which has long drawn criticism that it's sexist and very unnecessary.
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