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Explainer: Is it safe to go on a group ride?

As of now, group ride size regulations are specific to locale and are constantly evolving.

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For many people, the last 10 weeks of social distancing have had a significant impact on what is often a very social activity: riding bikes. Across the globe, cyclists were forced onto indoor trainers or encouraged to ride alone, close to home. Now, as restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic have begun to ease worldwide, many cyclists are wondering if it’s OK to ride with others.

We sought advice on this topic from several sources. Last week Dr. Michael Roshon, chief medical officer at USA Cycling, addressed group riding in a webinar for riders, race directors, and media. USA Cycling also put together a helpful COVID-19 resource page for racers, event promoters, and even casual riders, and we recommend you check it out.

We also sought perspective from Jeff Wu, an emergency medicine physician in Denver, Colorado. They provided us perspective on a few pressing questions about group riding.

I want to go on a group ride. Should I? 

First, you should learn about the risks and do as much as you can to minimize situations that could contribute to virus transmission.

Like any potentially risky behavior, the safety of going on a group ride can be assessed on a risk continuum. It’s important to note that, while the lowest risk option is to ride alone or with members of your household, riding with others doesn’t immediately swing the pendulum to high risk.

“It’s really about the size and scope of what you have going on,” Roshon said.

Roshon said that the risk gets higher depending on the activity you do off the bike before and after the ride. Ask yourself how many riders are on the ride, where you will congregate before riding, and what type of community resources such as restrooms, restaurants, or coffee shops are part of the experience. These off-the-bike elements of the ride pose the highest risk for transmission, Roshon said.

You can read USA Cycling’s advice on group rides here and here.

The act of riding itself presents a much lower risk. Although official data on the subject remains sparse, documented cases of outdoor transmission of the virus are exceedingly rare. According to Roshon, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is 19 times higher in enclosed spaces than in the outdoors. Thus, it’s best to minimize your time spent in a closed space with other people before or after your ride.

There are other basic epidemiological factors to consider, as well. What is the incidence of disease in your community? Have the other riders traveled or stayed within their locality? Again, while the least risky option will always be to ride solo, riding with others who have not traveled and who live in an area with a lower incidence of disease makes a difference.

“Think about what local transmission rates are,” he said. “Look at North Dakota versus New York City.”

How many people can I ride with?

Unfortunately, there is no straight answer or magic number to this question.

As of now, group size regulations are specific to locality and are constantly evolving. While one state may allow gatherings of up to 50, another city might only allow groups of 10. According to many experts, these numbers are often a best guess. For many group ride organizers, the uncertainty around safe group size has been the primary hurdle in re-starting.

Dr. Wu says that riders will have to learn to accept this type of uncertainty going forward and make the best decisions according to the situation.

“Without a treatment or a vaccine, we’re going to be living under the curve, whether it’s flat or steep, for a long time,” he said.

While riding with a small group of known contacts is generally considered the safest way to ride with others, even riding with a group that includes some unfamiliar contacts can be mitigated with behavioral changes like wearing masks and eliminating off-the-bike contact. As group sizes get larger, the challenge becomes more about getting people to adhere to the same set of precautions.  While a large group that practices extreme precautions can ride safely together, USAC does not currently recommend large group rides.

Wu also mentions that community readiness is an important factor to consider in determining group size.

“If the rest of the community isn’t ready to see it, you could get shut down completely,” he said.

Risk increases as group size increases; however, precautions such as masks, little off-the-bike activity, and thoughtful distancing are important mitigating behaviors.

Should I wear a mask?

Yes. Wear a mask.

However, given the lower risk of COVID-19 transmission while on the bike, some experts say that wearing it while riding solo or with a small group of trusted contacts isn’t necessary. Since the virus is spread through droplets and direct contact with those droplets, in general, the outdoors presents a lower-risk setting (droplets disperse quickly in open air) than being indoors. Aerosolized transmission — in which very fine particles of the virus remain suspended in air — is both subject to further study and also far more likely indoors. This makes the spread of COVID-19 controllable.

“Our real-world experience is consistent with droplet and contact spread,” Roshon said. “If we were faced with a virus that spread as easily as measles or chickenpox, we would not be talking bicycling.”

A very simple way to mitigate the risk of potential transmission is to wear a mask when in close proximity to others. “A simple cloth mask to prevent you from coughing out droplets and from touching your face is all you need to do,” Roshon said.

The function of a face covering is to protect others in the case that you are infected and asymptomatic. Whether you are riding with a larger group or know that you’ll be entering establishments during the ride, a mask is an easy way to ensure that you are protecting others if you are carrying the virus but not displaying any symptoms.

“The actual risk of riding is low,” Wu said. “Invariably on group rides, there’s places you stop, places you might go indoors for a period of time. Bring something to cover your face for those occasions.”

I feel comfortable riding and am willing to take extra precautions. What should I do? 

No snot rockets. Bring your own tools and spare tube and fix your own flats. And be smart.

“It’s our responsibility to not spread this to others,” Roshon said.

In absence of black-and-white guidelines for the size of your group ride or the distance you should maintain, the best option is to continue to modify your behavior in the name of caution. According to Roshon, each rider has two responsibilities: to assume that you have the virus and to assume that other riders do, too. This isn’t meant to scare people away from riding together but rather to instill some basic behavioral changes.

Utilizing a mask is one. Assuming that you have the virus, the mask will prevent you from spreading it. Assuming that someone else does, it prevents you from having access to your mouth, a portal of entry. Also, masks are not a substitute for aggressive hand hygiene. Bringing a small bottle of hand sanitizer is another way to mitigate risk; washing your hands before and after entering any establishment goes without saying.

This is not the time to assume that someone else will have a tube, snack, or water bottle to loan you. Reducing contact with other riders, and their belongings is another simple way to proceed with caution on a group ride. If you do make contact with someone or something, use that hand sanitizer afterward.

In terms of bodily fluids, riders need to become conscientious of where they are in relation to others when sneezing, coughing, or blowing their noses. By dropping back in the group and ensuring that no one is behind them, riders can still do these things safely. Regarding sweat, there is no reason to believe that sweat contains any live virus, Wu said.

And let’s cool it with the snot rockets.

“With this kind of thing, if I’m riding with someone, I’m conscious not to do [it to] them.” Wu said. “It’s just another behavior modification that we have to deal with. The new normal: no snot rockets!”

Finally, take responsibility for your own actions and your own state of health. If you’ve been around a known sick contact or have been traveling in an area with a high incidence of disease, don’t ride with others. If you have any symptoms or simply don’t feel well, do not ride with others. The feasibility of group rides during this time depends on people’s willingness to modify their behaviors to lower risk.

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