Tour de France and COVID-19

A report in VeloNews on the eve of the Tour de France stated that the French government had insisted that the “two strikes and you are out” policy must be enforced by the ASO. This means that if two positive COVID-19 test arise within a team or its support staff, the team will be removed from the race. This raises the possibility of the yellow jersey rider being ejected from the race if, for example, two mechanics record positive tests. This would be particularly unjust if it turns out that a test result was a false positive. So what are the chances that this might happen?

False positives

One of the great frustrations of the reporting on COVID testing has been the lack of clarity about what type of testing is being discussed. Tests fall in to two categories. Antigen tests use a sample from a nasal or pharyngeal swab to detect patients who currently have the disease, whereas antibody tests use a blood sample to identify patients who have developed antibodies as a result of exposure to the disease in the past – more than 28 days earlier.

There are two general types of antigen test. Real time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests looks for specific viral fragments and need to be conducted in a laboratory, typically requiring at least 24 hours for a result. Less reliable rapid tests look for proteins associated with the COVID-19 virus, producing results in as little as 15 minutes.

The UCI requires riders and staff to be tested using RT-PCR, which is a very reliable method, having both high sensitivity (ability to detect those with the disease) and high specificity (ability to clear those without the disease). The relevant question for the Tour de France is the probability of a false positive RT-PRC test. Indeed Larry Warbass recently said he thought his result was a false positive, as he had experienced no symptoms and had maintained strict self isolation during training.

The evidence indicates that the machines performing the RT-PRC test are extremely unlikely to generate a false positive, because the test needs to find significant levels of three different targets to confirm the presence of COVID-19. In FDA experiments, 100% of negatives where correctly identified – there were no false positives. However, it remains possible that, in the moving circus of the Tour de France, a sample could become contaminated before it is tested or that samples might somehow be mislabelled. A high level of responsibility falls on the shoulders of team doctors to minimise these risks, but we can never be sure that it is zero.

One in a thousand

As a thought experiment, suppose that a negative RT-PCR test is 99.9% reliable, i.e. that one COVID-free person in a thousand somehow produces a false positive result. What is the chance that a team is unjustly sent home from the Tour?

Each team has eight riders plus support staff. Although teams might want to reduce the number of staff in the team bubble, it may be necessary to have extra catering staff in order to remain self sufficient. Let us assume an average of 17 staff on each of the 21 teams and that everybody has passed the required two negative tests prior to the start of the race. Assume further that nobody contracts COVID-19 throughout the race.

It has been indicated that everyone will be tested on the two rest days. Reassuringly, the probability of two or more false positives in a single team bubble of 25 people would be 0.03% (1-0.999^(25*2)). However, the probability that every team rider receives a negative result would be only 85% (0.999^168), meaning that there would be a 15% chance that at least one rider is unjustly ejected from the race. In fact, since at total of 1,050 tests would be taken by everyone in a team bubble, the chance of at least one person receiving a false positive would be surprisingly high: 65% (1- 0.999^1050).

Perhaps the assumption of 1 in a thousand false positives was a bit alarmist. Reducing it to 1 in thousand still produces a probability of 10% that somebody would be sent home during the Tour.

Blind eyes

In some situations, draconian sanctions might deter team members or staff from reporting symptoms. One could imagine a soigneur or mechanic having to go home quietly after mysteriously spraining a wrist. However, this could create very negative press coverage if word got out that this person was infected.

Furthermore, the UCI rules place responsibility on the teams and specifically the team doctors to apply strict daily monitoring and controls to detect suspected COVID-19 cases.

Champs Elysées

While in the above scenarios no one actually contracted COVID-19, there is, of course a not inconsiderable chance that one of the 525 people in the team bubbles does actually become infected. If the virus spreads to more than one team, the whole race could become a fiasco.

But let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope Tour makes it to the Champs Elysées.

Betting on the Tour

Source: ASO Media

On the eve of the Tour de France, the pundits have made their predictions, but when the race is over, they will be long forgotten. One way of checking your own forecasts is to take a look at the odds offered on the betting markets. These are interesting, because they reflect the actions of people who have actually put money behind their views. In an efficient and liquid market, the latest prices ought to reflect all information available. This blog takes a look at the current odds, without wishing to encourage gambling in any way.

The website oddchecker.com collates the odds from a number of bookmakers across a large range of bets. It is helpful to convert the odds into predicted probabilities. Focussing on the overall winner,  Egan Bernal is the favourite at 5/2 (equating to a 29% probability taking the yellow jersey), followed by Geraint Thomas at 7/2 (22%) and Jakob Fuglsang at 6/1 (14%). This gives a 51% chance of a winner being one of the two Team Ineos riders. The three three leading contenders are some distance ahead of Adam Yates, Richie Porte, Thibaut Pinot and Nairo Quintana. Less fancied riders include Roman Bardet, Steven Kruijswijk, Rigoberto Uran, Mikel Landa, Enric Mas and Vincenzo Nibali. Anyone else is seen as an outsider.

Ups and downs

The odds change over time, as the markets evaluate the performance and changing fortunes of the riders. In the following chart shows the fluctuations in the average daily implied winning chances of the three current favourites since the beginning of the year, according to betfair.com.

The implied probability that Geraint Thomas would repeat last year’s win has hovered between 20% and 30%, spiking up a bit during the Tour of Romandie. Unfortunately, Chris Froome’s odds are no longer available, as he was most likely the favourite earlier this year. However, his crash on 11 June instantaneously improved the odds for other riders, particularly Thomas and Bernal, though expectations for the Welshman declined after he crashed out of the Tour de Suisse on 18 June.

The betting on Fuglsang spiked up sharply during the Tirreno Adriatico, where he won a stage and came 3rd on GC, and the Tour of the Basque country, where he finished strongly. Apparently, his three podium results in the the Ardenne Classics had no effect on his chances of a yellow jersey, whereas his victory in the Critérium Dauphiné had a significant positive impact.

Egan Bernal, appeared from the shadows. At the beginning of the year, he was seen as a third string in Team Ineos. His victory in Paris Nice hardly registered on his odds for the Tour. But since Froome’s crash and Thomas’s departure from the Tour de Suisse, he became the bookies’ favourite.

With 65% of the money on the three main contenders, there are some pretty good odds available on other riders. A couple of crashes, an off day or a bit of bad luck could turn the race on its head. Clearly the Ineos and Astana teams are capable of protecting their GC contenders, but so too are Movistar, EF Education First, Michelton Scott, Groupama-FDJ, Bahrain Merida and others.

References

Code I used can be found here