Gravel racing in North America shut down after The Mid South on March 14, a race that some said should not have happened as the COVID-19 tsunami began sweeping through the United States. The first major gravel race since then happened this past weekend with Belgian Waffle Ride in Cedar City, Utah. Was it safe to race? Was it too soon? The answers to those questions, for now, depend on who you ask.
I drove there from Colorado, and I spoke to race organizer Michael Marckx, dozens of racers who attended, and several who opted to stay home for their thoughts on gravel events now. Here’s what they had to say.
- Video: Racing an Allied Able at Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City
- Swenson wins BWR without a front brake, as Grant takes the women’s race
- Gallery: Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City
A promoter’s perspective: A hope that rigorous protocols are enough
Marckx and his team put together COVID-19 protocols in conjunction with health commissioners in Utah and California, and hired a public health doctor in California to draft a plan for the race. Masks or neck gaiters over the face were required at the start, during the neutral roll-out, in the feed zones, and after the finish. Race food was distributed in individual packages, and riders refilled their own bottles. In a departure from normal gravel racing rules, Marckx also allowed riders to take feeds anywhere on course from friends or family, in an effort to reduce crowding in feed zones.
“It was a long process,” Marckx said of how the protocols were assembled. “It started with county health commissioner here. What was going to work with them here was fairly lax. So we got a health official in San Diego where things are much more strict, I would say appropriate, to build a much more rigorous plan than the health officials here wanted us to use.”
“I’m part of a coalition of race directors, both running and bike races. None of them have any COVID-19 protocol plans,” Marckx said. “So I shared our plan with everybody. I said here’s our blueprint for success; please use it. I want everyone to abide by the most rigorous protocols as possible. And it still may not be enough. That’s my worry. It could be as rigorous as possible, and something slips through the net.”
“The stress of this event is not, oh, is someone going to crash, is someone going to flat, is someone going to be unhappy?” he said. “It’s, are we all going be safe? And two weeks from now, are we all going to be safe? I haven’t enjoyed carrying that burden. I don’t want to do that next year in San Diego. If there is any question, then we just won’t do it. The San Diego event is too big.”
Stay-at-home perspectives: It’s too soon
A number of elite gravel racers declined to attend because of the risk of either contracting or inadvertently spreading COVID-19. I spoke to a few riders who didn’t want to go on the record about Belgian Waffle Ride in particular, but who felt that the risk of having a large number of racers in a bunch, gathered together from a few states, just wasn’t worth the potential harm.
Other riders wished to keep their remarks simple. “Me not showing up is enough of a statement,” said former BWR winner Amanda Nauman, who had raced at The Mid South.
In Vermont, Ted King explained his perspective as both an elite gravel racer and an event promoter who remains cautious.
“I need to preface all this by saying that I can’t wait to get back to normal, to return to events, to throw down in competition and hang with my buds from all across the gravel scene,” King said. “My immediate fear is that by holding a mass event, it’s an invitation for bad behavior. You can have a mountain of ironclad safety protocols, but when the flag drops people inevitably let their guard down. When a promoter or town says that it’s safe to hold an event, participants take that as truth and trust that everything is safe. It’s my estimate that event promoters and town officials aren’t epidemiologists, and the rules and regulations seem like a moving needle over time and over different geographies making it hard to get straight answers. Here in Vermont, which has done an amazing job keeping COVID-19 in check, for example, mass events are capped at 150 people. Different states, different times, different regulations.”
“Picking dates for business as usual seems awfully arbitrary, but there are so many elements of nuance,” he said. “Perhaps a much better metric of ‘when can we turn to normal’ is whenever there is a vaccine is available. This is all very personal as everyone has levels of risk aversion. The entire topic is so difficult with very few cold, hard facts.”
Participants’ take: Cautious and grateful
Many of those I spoke to at BWR were simply to happy to be at any type of event. The women’s and men’s winners, Rose Grant and Keegan Swenson, are both pro mountain bikers who wouldn’t have been there if they had options in their own discipline. A few triathletes said the same thing.
Emmett Clark from Orange, California, bought a bike just for the race. “This is my first gravel race. I needed something to feed that endurance athlete in me,” he said. “My friend said, ‘do this’, so I registered and bought a gravel bike.”
Clark said he had no coronavirus concerns with the event. “The CDC has made it clear that it’s hard to contract it when outside,” he said. “For me, seeing that the Tour de France had no positives was big.”
Rob Christman of Murrieta, California said he had “no concerns” about racing.
Ironman pro Heather Jackson called the race “a shining light for the last month” as an event to look forward to. “We are probably in this for the long haul, and I think we can come to an event this with protocols in place like Marckx made sure to enforce,” she said. “It is certainly always a concern. I think people are being more and more cautious and aware when they are out and about. But there are still safety precautions we can take while still getting to be together at a bike race.
Neil Shirley is a former BWR winner who is now the marketing manager at ENVE, a Utah company that had a presence at the event.
“It was definitely something we considered and took seriously,” Shirley said. “As much as we want to take part, this is our community, and the health of everyone here is important. But we feel the measures taken by the race were good, and we felt comfortable enough to be here.”