Lauren Stephens was exhausted from outrunning the coronavirus.
Stephens, a veteran on the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank pro road team, had been in Italy in early March preparing for Strade Bianche when the virus quickly spread. As Italy canceled all sporting events, Stephens flew to Belgium to escape the growing pandemic. Maybe, she thought, the upcoming Dutch race Ronde van Drenthe would still be held. Just hours before the event, Stephens learned that The Netherlands, too, had banned all races. One day before most global air traffic was grounded, Stephens flew from Europe back to the United States.
She was not done. Stephens raced The Mid South Gravel race days after returning home. By the time Stephens crossed the finish line the next day, all major sporting events in the United States had been called off.
“I had been running away from the coronavirus for days and trying not to let the disappointment sink in,” Stephens told VeloNews. “And suddenly, I was done with running and I let myself be disappointed.”
Like thousands of competitive cyclists across the globe, Stephens faced the unfortunate truth that her beloved pastime was no longer safe to pursue amid the worst health crisis in 100 years. In mid-March the global sport of cycling ground to an abrupt halt, a sudden stoppage that impacted all cyclists, from Tour de France favorites to heroes of the local Saturday ride. Bicycle racing was put on hold, indefinitely, with no timeline for return.
And yet, in the weeks and months that followed, our sport did return, slowly, and often with caution — sometimes in a manner that made observers cringe. The sport adapted and changed, with new formats for riding and racing superseding the old ways. Riders headed indoors, or out onto long adventuresome rides. Other riders pushed themselves to achieve phenomenal feats, driven on by little more than bragging rights or the desire to feel the burn of lactic acid. As 2020 wore on, cycling adapted to COVID-19 in creative and unpredictable ways.
Lauren Stephens and her husband, Mat, are stalwarts of the Dallas racing community. As races and organized rides ground to a halt in mid-March, Lauren received calls and texts from her riding friends in the area. They lamented the loss of the weekly group ride, and all of the heart-pounding action and camaraderie that came with it.
“Mat and I spent hours brainstorming ways to come up with something for the community,” Stephens said. “I don’t know why but I had this passion to help everyone keep motivated.”
The Stephens’ created a local Strava challenge that local riders could tackle as a solo effort. She drew a new Strava route that connected four key sections of the most popular group ride. She tracked the finishing times on the section every week, and posted top-three rankings on social media.
“People could just go hammer it hard,” Stephens said. “It’s cool because otherwise you might just ride it at normal pace.”
Across the country, cyclists like Stephens launched similar solo challenges that both provided motivation and helped riders adhere to state-ordered rules for social distancing and safety. In Des Moines, Iowa, riders Scott Olsen and James Armstead plotted out weekly Strava solo challenges and awarded gift certificates from local restaurants to the male and female winners.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, riders on the local Speed Merchants team recreated the weekly Leg Wrecker group ride as a Strava segment and held bi-weekly challenges on the route.
Some readers may see these efforts as superfluous, given the deadly nature of the virus, and the Earth-shattering impact to local economies and businesses caused by the ensuing quarantine. Yet the sources who spoke to VeloNews for this story disagree; they saw a modified return to outdoor riding as a much-needed emotional boost for cyclists who, like everyone else, were stuck at home and worried about loved ones and friends. For them, getting back to what they loved was one way they could control their lives amid an upended world.
“It gives us a way to connect,” said Scott Gustafson of the Speed Merchants team. “And, until the quarantine is up, it’s our only way to do it.”
Racing an imaginary summit
As races postponed their original dates, and others canceled outright, communities banded together to offer up new ways to ride long and hard. Top riders looked for new ways to push themselves and to engage their fans. Brands saw marketing goals erased by the racing shutdown, and urged their sponsored riders to tap into the countrywide desire for a challenge.
Throughout the spring, top gravel pros like Ted King and Amanda Nauman created solo challenges to recreate the events that had been called off. King’s #DIYGravel sweepstakes asked riders to complete the approximate distance of canceled events on their original date, with the chance to win prizes from sponsors. Nauman launched the Grava de Mayo challenge in May, and asked riders to tackle a 18-mile trek with 1,800 feet of elevation gain in their local communities.
“With these events getting canceled, their budget was threatened to be cut from higher up, with the argument that with no athletes going to races, why are we paying them?” Nauman said. “It wasn’t a threat, but rather saying, ‘What can you do instead of racing?’”
There were other individual riding challenges that blossomed in a more organic nature. As the racing shutdown entered its second full month, riders began to tackle the brutal Everesting challenge, which requires a rider to climb the elevation of Mt. Everest (8,848 meters) by completing laps on a single climb, non-stop. The challenge was reportedly started in 1994 by the grandson of mountaineering great George Mallory, and in 2014 Australian rider Andy van Bergen codified it with rules and a record book.
It’s a brutal test of strength and determination that takes elite riders eight or so hours to finish — top recreational riders can take upwards of 10 hours of hard climbing to take in that much elevation. Yet during the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling a major challenge, often with the intention of raising money for charity, became more popular than ever.
“People are desperate to do something meaningful right now,” said retired pro Phil Gaimon.
Gaimon set a new world record in early May, completing the height in 7:52:12 on a steep ramp in Southern California. Four days later U.S. mountain bike champion Keegan Swenson set a new record on a climb in Utah, shaving 12 minutes from Gaimon’s time.
“That was a big effort — everything was pretty wrecked afterward,” Swenson said.
After Swenson’s efforts the flood gates seemed to open. German Tour de France ace Emanuel Buchmann completed an unsuccessful attempt in Austria. U.S. road champion Ruth Winder Everested in Boulder; her compatriot Katie Hall set a new women’s mark on a steep road outside Santa Cruz, California, only to see it bested a week later by retired pro Lauren De Crescenzo. Hannah Rhodes and then Emma Pooley eventually set new records.
The men’s record book continued to tumble, as Lachlan Morton got the record on his second attempt in one week, only to see it smashed by Alberto Contador two weeks later. And then, a week after that, a little-known Irish rider named Ronan McLaughlin set a seemingly untouchable mark of 7:04:41.
Van Bergen, a data analyst and recreational cyclist, peruses each Everesting submission personally in his spare time. Prior to the pandemic, van Bergen said that maybe 150 or so riders would submit files for him to analyze. As the pandemic shut down races and rides across the world, van Bergen said more than 1,200 riders tackled the punishing challenge each month.
“I get to read the most incredible story of the hardest day they’ve ever done, or they’ve raised an incredible amount for charity, or they’ve overcome some adversity,” van Bergen said. “It’s impossible not to be addicted to the stoke I’m feeding off of.”
The sport heads indoors
Just as professional road races shuttered across the globe, elite riders of a different variety clicked in to their bicycles to battle each other on the virtual tarmac. Throughout the spring and summer, virtual riding and racing platforms Zwift and Rouvy launched racing leagues.
Zwift had the biggest head start, having launched in 2015 and built up a racing community. Zwift debuted its first pro series of 2020, called the Zwift Classics, just weeks after Milano-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, and the sport’s other biggest one-day races were called off.
In the blink of an eye, spectator focus shifted from the canceled events toward the virtual ones. A handful of WorldTour pros signed up for the Classics races, and Zwift beamed them out for free on YouTube.
The virtual events were short — the Classics maxed out at 45 minutes — and the racing was impossible to predict. A 17-year-old Italian rider beat top road pros in one of the men’s events, while seasoned Zwift racers dominated the pro roadies in women’s racing.
“Knowledge of the course and the tactics is the key for success,” said Lars Usballe, a Zwift veteran and director of the Heino women’s team. “You see pro riders on Zwift right now and they don’t win races. They are strong but they don’t understand the dynamics yet.”
But, of course, the pro riders found ways to learn. One early adopter was South African rider Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, who became an overnight convert to Zwift after Spain imposed a ban on outdoor riding in March. Moolman-Pasio normally trains outside her door on the Rocacorba climb in Girona, Spain. But for April and May she dedicated herself to riding and racing invisible miles on her stationary trainer.
The experience paid off, and Moolman-Pasio won the two final Zwift Classics races in dominating fashion.
“Indoor racing is harder than [regular] racing because there is nowhere to hide,” she said. “At some point it’s all about raw power.”
As the Zwift Classics drew to a close, officials at the virtual cycling company realized they had a monopoly on televised bike racing, perhaps for months. The company’s goal of one day becoming an Olympic event suddenly seemed attainable. But, Zwift needed to come up with new events on the fly to capitalize on the attention.
The whole year taught me to be ready for anything — to be really flexible.
In May Zwift took a huge step forward with its Tour for All, a series that pitted bona fide WorldTour riders against each other on challenging courses. For the Tour for All, Zwift became broadcast partners with Eurosport and GCN, and all of a sudden, virtual racing became prime time television.
“We realize that this crisis has happened, and we see people coming in who normally wouldn’t have been competing, and we think about what we can look like in the future,” said Charlie Issendorf, race director for the Tour for All. “We’re deciding right now, very quickly, what races we can do in the future.”
What race did Zwift choose? The biggest one of all — in July Zwift debuted its inaugural Virtual Tour de France, a six-stage race for pro men and pro women that attracted stars of the sport like Egan Bernal, Chloé Dygert, and Marianne Vos, among others. The competition was televised and heavily promoted across the cycling press. Mainstream publications like National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal covered the momentous occasion. For the first time ever, the world’s biggest bike race would take place in a virtual setting, due to the global pandemic.
At her home in Dallas, Lauren Stephens was ready for the gun to fire. After promoting her local Strava rides, Stephens and her husband had adopted Zwift racing into their weekly routine, and quickly took to the fast, furious efforts. Stephens had a knack for the short and painful efforts, and she even won virtual stages of the Joe Martin Stage Race and the Zwift Tour for All.
But a woman’s Tour de France was a far bigger platform for her, and Stephens set out to make the most of her quarantine. She put in a huge effort on the second stage to win a sprint after a brutal climb. Then, four days later, Stephens won on the virtual Champs Elysées to take the individual and team classification. Stephens, a pro since 2013, had never enjoyed attention or fanfare at that level.
Winning the Virtual Tour de France, Stephens explained, was simply a byproduct of her effort to make the most of the COVID-19 era. Traditional road races were called off, alongside group rides and training camps. Someday the sport would return to normal, but in those anxious months of 2020, nobody knew what to expect. All Stephens knew was that she wanted to return to racing, any way she could.
“The whole year taught me to be ready for anything — to be really flexible,” Stephens said. “I enjoyed being home for five months, for not going anywhere and not having anything to worry about. Maybe, [COVID-19] taught me to go with the flow. You need to emotionally be ready for anything to happen, because then you can move on.”