Lauren Kitchen (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) is preparing for another season of uncertainty on the back of a 2020 campaign in which the COVID-19 pandemic caused anxiety within the women’s peloton.
Kitchen left her base in France and underwent Australia’s strict two-week hotel quarantine to return to her native New South Wales for the summer and pre-season, when she reflected on and realised how tense it was competing in a multi-national bunch across Europe with the threat of the pandemic constantly looming last year.
“Here … I can walk down the street and I feel safe, and you don’t have masks on outside, you do inside now, that sort of stuff, it’s so different. Whereas in France you really want your mask on all the time, not just because you have to [but] because there is a genuine concern with it and not even for my own health but for passing it on to others,” Kitchen said from Australia. “We’re very lucky here, we really are. I didn’t realise how much anxiety it was causing until I got back.
“In Europe they say this is the amount of cases, and this is the amount of deaths and make your own opinion, [whereas] here they give you an opinion as well with information and I think that creates a lot of fear. And that might also be because I don’t understand every language completely fluently in Europe as well.”
Kitchen believes that despite rigorous COVID-19 testing during the revised and condensed season last year, of which she missed a sizeable chunk due to injury, many women suffered from the virus after competition resumed following a lengthy shutdown over the European spring and early summer.
“We all know lots of people that have had the virus and I think there’s a lot of women who have had it that haven’t been publicly announced within the peloton. There’s a lot more than what’s been said, and I think there’s a genuine concern but the teams at some point are like you have to race because they need to promote the sponsors, so it’s really hard,” Kitchen said.
The 30-year-old Tokyo Olympic hopeful has recovered from a broken collarbone and debilitating concussion that affected her return to competition last year during with time invasive COVID-19 testing became a regular occurrence that she sometimes had to organise herself. Unlike other international sports that have operated within ‘hubs’ or ‘bubbles’ cycling, by its nature, cannot do so to the same degree, compounding fear.
“The team helps [with testing]. You need to have the test at three days and six days [before a race] but you’re not always with the team six days before a race,” Kitchen said.
“I was in France and that was good and bad because in France it was free testing no matter what, if you have symptoms or not, but that creates its own issues because they have hundreds and thousands of people having tests every day, so you need an appointment and to get an appointment you needed to organise all of that and how to do that when everyone is trying to do that, to have it on the right days. Even though the team was very helpful, it was still stressful because I don’t understand their healthcare system.
“I think it’s pointless as well, well, not pointless but you’d have a test at six days and even have a test at three days and then I’d travel to the race and go on the Paris Metro,” Kitchen continued.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah look, here’s my negative test but I just travelled on the Paris Metro, which we know is a huge percentage of positive tests.’ You’re sort of just box ticking and that itself creates anxiety. I know I’m doing that so what are the other teams doing coming from everywhere?”
The FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope road captain opted not to open her season as part of a composite national squad at last month’s Santos Festival of Cycling South Australia, with consideration given to FDJ, which supported the decision to return Down Under but has been equally mindful of the current global climate, travel restrictions as well as rapidly triggered state border closures within Australia.
“The national team wanted me to race … and I was like I’m not doing that. Firstly, all of this travel with borders, I’ve already had it the whole year and it was so stressful. I didn’t realise how stressful it was until I got back, and with all the testing,” Kitchen said.
“The team also doesn’t want me to get stuck anywhere and they don’t want me to crash in a non-UCI race.”
Kitchen instead will open her season on Sunday at the Australian Road Championships, which have been moved from the traditional January time slot following the near wholesale cancellation of summer racing.
“Because the season ran so late last year it’s actually, when the nationals are, the same amount of time you would normally have for the nationals. We’re a month later than usual actually in training and stuff anyway because the season ran that much later,” she said.
Kitchen is anticipating the when she does return to Europe after the Nationals, it will be to face a season not dissimilar to last.
“There’s more pressure and anxiety around everything so people take more risks but also are more nervous and more stressed, so more things happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues a little bit,” she said.
The former Oceania road champion believes rivals who had a full campaign and, specifically, competed at the Giro Rosa last season were at an advantage.
“You don’t know what to expect and that’s what it was like in every race but the girls that raced the whole 12 weeks were definitely better. If you missed the Giro, you were hopeless after and you could see that. There was no one good. If you didn’t do the Giro, you were not good in the classics. That’s just how it was. And I didn’t do it because I broke my collarbone … you just didn’t have the legs,” Kitchen said.
As for what is ahead this year, the uncertainty remains.
“It’s a bit extreme over there now so I don’t know what to expect.”
“Our team has applied to lots and lots of races and then they’re going to pull out if they don’t go ahead but they’ve applied with the assumption a lot will be cancelled and they’ve shared that with us,” she continued.
“The big races are all going ahead from what we can see. I think it’s more a case of if countries start reacting again and I think Holland could do that, and Belgium. If Holland and Belgium do that then it will be a very different spring.”