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Gravel safety 101: Eight suggestions for race promoters

Make a plan, keep it simple, and thoroughly over-communicate it.

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The gravel cycling scene continues to explode, and race directors across the nation are searching for that next great epic experience, no matter how remote, dangerous, or ridable. This quest, along with a massive influx of inexperienced gravel cyclists, creates a significant safety risk. In the hopes of avoiding tragedy, here are eight tips on how races can implement a safety plan to protect riders and potentially save lives.

For the past 20 years, I have served in the Marine Corps as an Infantry and Special Operations officer and have planned, executed, and participated in thousands of safety plans, briefs and medical evacuations in training and combat. I’ve witnessed hundreds of injuries treated and countless lives saved because of safety plans. Indeed, after getting shot by an enemy sniper in a remote village of southern Afghanistan, my life was saved by Marines and Corpsman executing a simple medical evacuation plan, which was overly communicated beforehand.

As part of my recovery, I started cycling and have since covered tens of thousands of miles on gravel. I have participated in gravel events around the country, experiencing the proliferating gravel scene from its relative infancy to the current day. To say I am concerned at the often-complete disregard of basic safety measures and protocol in rides and some organized events is an understatement.

By its very nature, gravel events occur in remote places, with little hope of the swift emergency and competent medical response that is available in more urban areas. This accepted risk can be mitigated by simple planning and communication. Having a plan in place, any plan, could help save the life of a rider and save future gravel events and rides. So here are my simple recommendations.

Step 1: Have a safety, medical and evacuation plan

Any plan, no matter how poorly crafted or executed, is better than no plan at all. As the race director, you presumably know the entire route by heart and have ridden or driven all of it on multiple occasions. With that in mind, analyze a map and imagery of the route and identify the most remote and dangerous part of the course, and then think about the worst cycling crash you’ve ever seen or witnessed and envision that happening to one of your riders, in horrific weather conditions with little to no cell service available. Craft your plan around this scenario and 95 percent of your problems will solve themselves.

Step 2: Identify and hire a qualified safety coordinator

This person is the point of contact for all safety planning, briefing and actual coordinator of any eventual emergency support. Once this key individual is appointed, gather your race support team around a whiteboard and brainstorm over the worst-case scenario you’ve identified. Analyze the likely horrific injury, who responds to the scene, how do they respond, how do you communicate the crash, injuries and required care? Who do the cyclists on scene communicate with? How do they communicate? Who does the safety coordinator, race director and staff communicate with? Who are the closest emergency response personnel? How will they get to the crash site? Are there any available life-flight landing zones, etc., etc.

Step 3: Write down the safety plan

Keep it simple. By simple I mean restricted to one page of information easily briefed and understandable by all staff, riders, support crews and medical personnel. Anything more complex and people will shut their brain off and not comprehend.

This plan should include a route description in written and map form that includes the start/finish, hazards, locations of First Responders and their contact information, plus phone numbers for the race director, safety coordinator and key staff.

And finally, it should include simple instructions on what to convey when calling race support or first responders:

Line A: Rider name and race number of injured cyclist(s)
Line B: Location (mile marker from GPS and description of area) of injured cyclist(s)
Line C: Summary of accident, extent of injuries sustained
Line D: Actions being taken by other cyclist to assist the injured rider(s)
Line E: Medical request (ambulance, support vehicle, etc.)

Step 4. Develop a simple and redundant communication plan

How does the injured cyclist, or more realistically other cyclists who witness the crash or come across the downed rider, contact the race director, safety director and staff and inform them of a down rider, with significant and life-threatening injuries, in the remote and dangerous part of the course? Keep it simple and redundant.

Primary: Cell phone call from cyclist to race director
Alternate: Text message or other form of phone communication that is more reliable than cellular
Contingency: GPS Emergency beacon from Garmin, SPOT tracker, etc.
Emergency: Old school — smoke, headlights, taillights, whistle, etc.

Step 5: Brief the plan to local, state and federal authorities

This coordination meeting can be done in person or via Zoom. A one-hour coordination meeting allows the race director and safety coordinator to meet all potential emergency personnel, brief the plan, gain local insight, refine the plan and gain confidence in the safety plan. At the conclusion of this meeting the safety coordinator refines the one-page safety plan and map and gains approval by the race director.

Step 6: Rehearse, validate and refine the safety plan

Ideally this is completed in race-like conditions and with the exact gear and equipment that cyclist and staff will have access to on race day. During this rehearsal the safety coordinator will validate the accuracy of phone numbers, cell coverage, location of emergency personnel, potential danger areas, areas with minimal cell coverage, etc. In addition, the safety coordinator will choose no less than three likely scenarios along the most dangerous and austere points of the route and specifically rehearse likely scenarios that require emergency support. Once complete, further refine the safety plan prior to publishing.

Step 7: Publish the safety plan

Publish a one-page safety plan, a one-page map, and a three-minute video. Push this out over as many mediums as possible: social media, website, hard copies on site, etc. Over-communicate the plan. The weeks and days prior to the event is the time to convey the safety plan, not the day of the race on the starting line, over a cheap loudspeaker system.

Step 8: Ask for rider feedback

After the event, review all the safety issues. Ask riders how it went. Identify what went right and what went wrong, along with what should be improved upon for next year.

Self-assessment

How do you know if you have a clear and easily understandable safety plan? Before your next event, pick a random participant and ask them what the safety plan is if one of the riders flips over their bars and needs medical assistance on a remote part of the course where there is spotty cell coverage.