BERLIN—Danish cyclist Michael Morkov spent 34 hours in isolation here this weekend, trying to remember if anyone had coughed on him.
Morkov had more reason to worry than most. On Thursday, he had left a bike race in the United Arab Emirates hours before it went on lockdown because of two reported cases of the novel coronavirus. And on Sunday, he was supposed to race in the track cycling World Championships.
Unsure if he’d been exposed, Morkov locked himself in his hotel room in Berlin. But by Sunday night, Morkov had two things going for him again: not only did he not have coronavirus, he was also a world champion.
“Two days ago, I was afraid to not even participate,” Morkov said after taking gold in the two-man “madison” relay. “But I just focused on my preparation by myself, in my isolation.”
Though the two cases in the U.A.E. came back negative for coronavirus, Morkov’s bizarre weekend highlighted professional cycling’s unique vulnerability to the epidemic. The elite road circuit consists of just 19 men’s teams and 12 women’s outfits whose entire business hinges on sending skinny athletes with threadbare immune systems to races around the globe for 10 months of the year.
Already, the spread of coronavirus is threatening to blow a hole through the cycling calendar. Races in China are already postponed through April and May. And just as the season turned its attention to high-profile events in Italy, the country turned into a coronavirus hot zone with more than 800 confirmed cases.
“When you have a look on what the potential effects in the season can be, they’re huge,” said UCI president David Lappartient. “But who knows what the situation will be. For today all the races are maintained in the world calendar.”
That might not be the case for long. RCS Sports, the Italian organizer of the disrupted U.A.E. Tour, is concerned about holding the Strade Bianche race next Saturday, Tirreno-Adriatico the following week, and Milan-San Remo on March 21.
“There is no Plan B,” RCS Sport’s head of cycling Mauro Vegni told the Corriere della Sera.
The loss of income from any of those would be significant for a sport that seems to live permanently on the verge of financial crisis. But that would pale in comparison to the impact of scratching off one of cycling’s Grand Tours. Should the situation devolve any further, that’s exactly what RCS might have to do: the Giro d’Italia, which runs from May 9 to May 31 and draws millions of fans to the roadsides, could be in danger for the first time since 1945.
Questions would then follow about the Tour de France in July. France on Friday banned all gatherings of more than 5,000 people that were likely to bring together large groups of foreign visitors.
“Cycling can deal with a few cancellations. It isn’t going to affect the whole picture,” said EF Pro Cycling team manager Jonathan Vaughters. “But if the Tour gets canceled, oof, that’s a blow.”
But even if the season unfolds as planned, the epidemic is clearly on cyclists’ minds. They are already notorious germaphobes—their favorite performance enhancer these days might as well be hand sanitizer. And that’s when there isn’t a global epidemic.
Three-week races like the Tour de France are so punishing to their immune systems that riders are constantly coming down with colds, flu and chest infections, even in the middle of the summer. Team doctors will quarantine them in hotels and make them eat meals by themselves at the slightest hint of a cough or sniffle.
What happened at the U.A.E. Tour last week showed just how devastating even a single case of coronavirus could be for the sport.
The panic began Thursday evening when organizers reported that two staffers of an unnamed team had come down with the illness. The final two stages of the race were canceled and Emirati health authorities put everyone on lockdown. Riders, staff and media were all confined to their hotel rooms until tests could be carried out.
As of Sunday afternoon, a few teams had been cleared after more than 160 tests came back negative, but several more were stuck in their hotels and tearing up airplane tickets.
Morkov had escaped just under the wire. His plan was always to pull out of the U.A.E. Tour on Thursday and compete here over the weekend. He had no idea what kind of circus he would be leaving behind. After the call came at around 10 p.m. in Berlin, Morkov spoke with Team Denmark to sort through the conflicting reports. It was clear that there was only one place for him: his locked hotel room.
“As responsible people, we decided, let’s just do this,” Danish team official Morten Anderson said.
Stuck with nothing but a bike on rollers and German television, Morkov replayed the whole journey in his mind. He had eaten at the team hotel on his way out of the U.A.E. He had spent seven hours on a plane—potentially a flying petri dish. He had come to the velodrome in Berlin and hugged his teammates after Denmark won gold in the team pursuit. And come to think of it, when was the last time he washed his hands?
“I felt lucky that I left in time,” Morkov said. “But I also realized I could be affected too so I had to take the precautions.”
By Saturday morning, it no longer mattered. Morkov received word that the pair of U.A.E. Tour coronavirus cases had been false positives and he was cleared to compete (even though he hadn’t been tested). His weekend in solitary, it turned out, hadn’t slowed him down. He might even consider trying it again.
“I hope it’s not because of the virus,” Morkov said. “I can do isolation voluntarily.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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