Racing a European gran fondo during the era of COVID-19

Writer James Jung participated in Switzerland’s inaugural Bern-Andermatt leg of the Chasing Cancellara series for an up-close view of bike racing during the coronavirus pandemic.

American writer James Jung raced the Bern-Andermatt leg of the Chasing Cancellara series on July 3. Jung takes us inside the event and examines its precautions for COVID-19. 

Gray morning light blooms in the east, backlighting the alpine foothills of northern Switzerland. A steady rain falls, making the cold air feel even colder. Racers click across a roadside roundabout in cleats. Volunteers clad in medical masks and rubber gloves hand out complimentary energy bars, gels, bananas, and cookies. Though from a distance this feed zone might more closely resemble a triage unit in a disaster movie, everyone here appears calm and patient. No one gathers too close, or makes the type of nervous chit chat that’s common at a European gran fondo.

The Chasing Cancellara event sent riders over three soaring Swiss passes. Photo: Chasing Cancellara

It’s 6:20 a.m. halfway up the Schwanden climb, a 14-kilometer stair-stepper that gently winds its way through the green hills of the Bernese Oberland, and riders are refueling at the day’s first checkpoint. We’re all here as participants in the inaugural Bern-Andermatt, a 200-kilometer gran fondo in the seven-event Chasing Cancellara series that sees riders tackle a treble of this rugged country’s most iconic climbs: the Grimsel, Nufenen, and Gotthard passes. The day began at 4 a.m., with 350 racers gathered inside Bern’s eerily empty Stade de Suisse (an indoor soccer stadium with a 32,000-spectator capacity) and by the finish in the sleepy ski town of Andermatt, riders will have ascended some 5,500 meters of elevation gain, the last of which will feel even more painful because they’ll have been climbed on cobbles.

Masked volunteers man a feed zone along the course. Photo: James Jung

And yet, despite the day’s daunting parcours, the biggest challenge already seems to lay behind us. That is to say, it’s a miracle this event is happening at all. Which is why I’m here. Though I’m woefully out of shape, I’ve decided to pin a number on my back for the first time in five years because I want to see what a mass participation cycling event looks like in the age of COVID-19.

“Honestly, with [coronavirus] it wasn’t an easy situation on the event side,” Fabian Cancellara tells me while standing at a safe distance. He puffs up his big cheeks, then lets out a long exhausted sigh of relief, as if he’s just completed one of the solo breakaways he was famous for during his decorated career. “We had many restrictions, from hygienics to the number of people to social distancing,” he adds. “For example I cannot hug people, I cannot give them medals.”

This seems a small price to pay given the alternative. When COVID-19 spread across Europe in late February and early March, with everything from borders and stores to schools and offices rapidly closing in a matter of days, the thought of throwing a mass-participant cycling event seemed delusional, even selfish, out of touch with the dire reality many folks were facing.

Riders were sent off from the start in groups of four. Photo: Chasing Cancellara

But slowly, as the virus’ spread was contained throughout Switzerland and the small country began to reopen, a glimmer of hope was offered. By the end of May, the Swiss Federal Council lifted the ban on events of up to 300 people, and by late June — just two weeks before Bern-Andermatt was scheduled to take place — that number increased to 1,000 participants. Though the Chasing Cancellara organizers were tempted to go big (initially, a cap of 500 participants had been slated for this leg of the series), they finally settled on a more manageable 350.

There were other stipulations, too, all handed down by the Federal Council as “protection concepts.” These included start numbers being mailed to registered riders rather than handed out in person the night before, race briefings being conducted online via Zoom, and a complimentary meal to be enjoyed individually at the finish rather than at a banquet and award ceremony. Aside from these minor tweaks, however, there wasn’t much pivoting to be done. In fact, it is the unique format of the Bern-Andermatt event that makes it so adaptable to racing during a pandemic.

All riders battled through the rain and chilly temperatures in the Alps. Photo: Chasing Cancellara

Riders could compete individually or in teams of two, and the start itself was staggered, with pods of four taking off at one-minute intervals. Once the first checkpoint had been reached, roughly 30 kilometers into the route, drafting was only allowed between riders competing in two-person teams, thus limiting large packs along the road and the risk of exposure. Add a torrential downpour hammering riders for the first three-hours of racing, and a 26-kilometer slog to the top of the Grimsel in which the fog was so thick it was hard enough to see your front wheel, let alone another rider, and to many the event felt more like a 200-kilometer time trial rather than a traditional road race.

Rain soaked the riders for much of the day. Photo: Chasing Cancellara

If all this doesn’t sound like your typical European gran fondo, where entrants can number in the tens of thousands, well, that’s precisely the point. Now in its third year, the Chasing Cancellara series has sought to differentiate itself by providing a more boutique-y and exclusive atmosphere. In addition to dramatic locations that range from the Alps of Switzerland to the cobbles of Flanders, the draw of each Chasing Cancellara event remains the chance to ride and chat alongside the series’ namesake star — perhaps the last true Patron of the modern peloton. It’s an opportunity that today’s racers have paid anywhere between 230 and 380 CHF ($247 – $410) to experience.

“Here you can talk to people, spend time with them, interact,” Cancellara tells me hours later in Piazza Gottardo, a cobbled square at the center of Andermatt’s posh resort hub. The man once known as Spartacus will be the first to admit that at 12 kilos over race weight he can no longer power up climbs like he used to, and perhaps in his new role as race impresario that’s a good thing.

Rainy conditions and COVID-19 precautions shrunk the size of the 2020 event. Photo: Chasing Cancellara

Having started last on the grid this morning, alongside a partner, Cancellara completed the 200 km course in a little over 9 hours (compared to the winning time of 6:49:20 clocked by former World Tour rider Marcel Wyss). Along the way, Cancellara chatted up the racers he passed, and when I spotted him along the misty shores of the Brienzersee, he was relaxed, riding out of the saddle, his BMC swaying deftly underneath him, and wearing a grin so big that not even the freezing downpour could dampen his spirits.

“I don’t want 10,000 riders,” Cancellara continues telling me at the finish, gamely pausing to pose for photos with weary-legged finishers, many with a medal around their neck and a craft beer in hand. “I want quality. Quality and interaction with the people.”

That seems to be the common thread of the day. After months of self-isolating, many exhausted riders come across the line and congregate in small groups with smiles that say they’re just happy to be here, back among people who share their passion for the bike.

“It’s about going to an event, pinning on a number, going to a start line,” Cancellara says, looking around and beaming at all the finishers. “Even during the Corona [pandemic] people were very happy to come.”

As for the risk factor, most people I spoke to at the finish said they thought the event was handled very well, with masked workers mitigating risks at each of the feed zones, and the staggered starting format and no drafting rule keeping on the bike interaction to a minimum. Some racers went a step further, taking safety measures into their own hands.

Riders kept their distances from one another during the event. Photo: Chasing Cancellara

“I used the Corona app, meaning if someone I was in close proximity with during the race had Corona I would get a notification on my phone,” said Konstantin Kleine, a PHD student based in Geneva.

Others were less concerned, saying that decorum at the feed stations deteriorated as the day wore on.

“Everyone was just grabbing food from the same trays,” said Brecht Gosselé, who’d come all the way from Belgium. When asked if this concerned him he laughed and shook his head. “No, I was too hungry.”

Fabian Cancellara was at the finish to welcome riders. Photo: Chasing Cancellara

As for this writer’s day, it ended 60 kilometers shy of the finish, where I dismounted — bleary eyed and bonked — at the foot of the Nufenenpass. A stay in Bern’s Bellevue Palace hotel proved so luxurious that I opted for an extra hour of sleep instead of eating breakfast, figuring that I could simply fuel up on the bike. Turns out five years away from racing can make you forget some of cycling’s simple truths, like the importance of carbo loading before a big event. In the end, as I hopped a bus over the Furkapass toward the finish, I thought of how hard bike racing can be, pandemic or no pandemic.