North America’s gravel season has not outrun the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizers of Oklahoma’s The Mid South gravel race have canceled the 2021 edition, which traditionally has served as the unofficial start to the gravel racing season. The event was slated to run March 14 in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Instead, organizers are asking participants to race a variety of distances at home for a chance to win prizes.
Organizers said the surge in COVID-19 cases in the surrounding Payne County prompted them to call off the in-person event.
“Back in September we were feeling really good, cases were on the way down, and we were crossing our fingers. Then, after Thanksgiving, everything changed,” race co-founder Bobby Wintle told VeloNews. “I put myself into a participant’s shoes and asked how I’d be feeling right now. Every week went by and it felt like it was less safe for the community to bring people from all over the place here. We don’t want to do that.”
Wintle plans to offer 50 percent discounts to the 2,200 participants who signed up to compete in the event.
In place of the traditional race, The Mid South will hold an at-home event that allows participants to complete 100-mile, 50-mile, and 50-kilometer routes in their home states. Titled The Incredibly Socially Distance Mid South, the event will span the weekend of March 12-14, and allow registered participants to complete the routes for a chance to win prizes from sponsors, the race management, and partner bike shops.
According to Wintle, the grand prize is a lifetime pass to compete in the race, free of charge. Participants can also win a bicycle, racing wheels, and other gear.
“We wanted an inspirational and viable plan for us to do something socially distanced — instead of virtual — because we’re not asking riders to stare at a screen,” Wintle said. “You can go out and ride your bike and win stuff. Build your own route or do one of eight partner shop routes and win cool stuff.”
The Mid South attracts 2,200 cyclists and in 2020 was one of the final mass-start bike races to be held before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered events across the country. The race became the focal point of online criticism as it fell just days after business and events began to shut down across the country.
Since then a handful of mass-participant gravel and mountain bike races have taken place, including the Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City, the Pikes Peak Apex MTB, and other events. These events have operated with strict rules on social distancing, and event directors have instigated solo or staggered starts and other changes done to lessen the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Wintle said he and his team contemplated several options for 2021, including postponing the event until the summer or even going forward with protocols on wearing masks and social distancing.
In the end, he said, they decided on the stay-at-home event rather than push forward with the other two options.
“We decided not to postpone. The fall schedule was already getting busy, and we thought about July or May, but it’s going to be hot and hydration for volunteers and participants is going to be an issue,” Wintle said. “And what if we’re in the same spot with COVID? We just decided we’re going to have to do it differently this year.”