As the coronavirus spread across the globe, North American cycling also changed drastically in a matter of days. The Mid South gravel race in Stillwater, Oklahoma, held March 15, ended up being a line in the sand, as the final major event to be held amidst the tidal wave of global race cancelations.
We drove to Stillwater the Thursday before the event to cover the race and participate in it. In less than 48 hours, the public sentiment toward the event made a dizzying shift, from positive to negative.
Prior to the event we had covered COVID-19’s spread from the ground. Our contributor Jim Cotton was quarantined in a hotel in Abu Dhabi when the UAE Tour was shuttered in late February. Thursday morning brought a fresh spate of European race cancelation news, although Paris-Nice still soldiered on. But way out in Oklahoma, where no COVID-19 positives had been reported, the virus seemed far away and remote.
Race organizer Bobby Wintle hurried to make changes to the event, canceling his traditional post-race hugs at the finish line, and setting up hand washing and sanitizing stations around the venue. Local health and government officials greenlighted the event to proceed. Many riders who were planning to fly to the event made the last-minute decision to stay home. More than 900 of the 2,200 registered riders did not show.
“While I love bike racing and any opportunity to suffer and have no intentions of stockpiling toilet paper, the reality is that my choice to travel to a mass start event puts my daughter, husband, and local community at risk,” said USA Cycling marketing director Lindsay Goldman, who was slated to race.
For the 1,200 or so riders who did race The Mid South, many expressed a similar story: they were already in Stillwater or en route to Stillwater when the tenor of the situation changed from cautionary to a national-level threat.
Many riders told us they altered their behavior, opting not to touch other riders or touch their own faces, and to fanatically wash their hands throughout the race weekend. Many avoided the race expo and the other social activities that surround the race weekend.
We adopted a similar perspective. We’re already in Stillwater — let’s distance ourselves from others, practice good hygiene, and then report on the event. As of Friday, March 13th, being outside away from big crowds still seemed like a good idea. That day I spoke to a doctor who was in Stillwater to race.
“It’s usually the exposure of being in an enclosed area in close proximity that is the risk. Here, the biggest risk is the expo, much more than the race itself,” said Dr. Bennett Hooks. “I don’t see the race itself as being much of an issue.”
The race carried on with Payson McElveen and Hannah Finchamp winning. Public sentiment toward the race, and those who attended it, had become mixed, with critics arguing that the event should have shut down, and the riders and media should have stayed at home.