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How the Pikes Peak Apex MTB stage race operated amid COVID-19

The four-day Pikes Peak Apex MTB stage race commenced last week with a series of safety measures around COVID-19. We spoke to riders about the race and its health rules.

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COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO (VN) — Morning sunlight illuminated the red rock formations in Colorado’s Garden of the Gods state park. To the west, the 14,115-foot-tall Pikes Peak dominated the landscape. The road adjacent to the Garden of the Gods Trading Post was lined with orange metal fencing, a start line banner, and a timing truck.

Mountain bike racers convened among themselves, double-checking tire pressure and warming up their nervous legs.  It’s was a familiar scene for a bike racer — except for a few dramatically different exceptions.

As riders approached the start gate, two race officials pointed towards a tent. “COVID testing, COVID testing,” they barked. Racers had to answer a questionnaire about COVID-19 symptoms and have their temperature taken. If they passed, they received a sticker for their number plate. Without a sticker, they were not allowed to race.

This was how the Pikes Peak Apex managed a mass-participant bicycle race amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The four-day race was held this past week, September 24-27 in Colorado Springs, and it was one of the first mass-participant cycling races to be held in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most events back in March. For the inaugural edition, 161 riders participated, including a strong lineup of pro riders.

Before entering the start corral riders had to pass a temperature check Photo: James Stokoe

Organizers developed the safety measures earlier this year as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down events across the country. Large scale gatherings are a key culprit for spreading COVID-19, which has led to the cancellation of marque events like the Epic Rides series and USA Cycling’s Mountain Bike National Championships. A vital component of running a bike race during a historic, deadly pandemic would be limiting the spread of COVID-19 between participants, as well as ensuring the safety of the surrounding community.

“It was always our goal to make a bike race that was as safe as going and picking up groceries at the grocery store,” said Micah Rice, executive director of the race. If we could make a bike race as safe as something as common as that we felt we would meet the threshold of something we could feel good about putting on.”

To accomplish this, the race hired Dr. Michael Roshon, USA Cycling’s chief medical officer, to create a safety plan. Stages would no longer begin in downtown, but rather on the outskirts of town, closer to the trail. Spectators would be discouraged from congregating at the start and finish areas. There would be no beer gardens, concerts, or handshaking on the podium.

The main impact on the race format itself would be the design of the start. Instead of a mass start with hundreds of people packed together, racers would roll out in waves of 25 determined by their result from the stage 1 time trial, with age categories intermixed.

While many races have been called off this year, Rice said that transparency and communication between the race, local government, and the racers are what allowed the Apex to forward. In the lead up to the event, organizers disseminated safety information and rules on their website and social media channels. They also offered registered racers a refund or chance to defer to next year’s event, if done by a specific date.

The question leading into the race was could organizers walk the walk. The event is one of the only stage races—road or mountain—to take place this year in the United States. It has attracted big names like 2016 Olympian Chloe Woodruff and 2019 marathon national champion Russell Finsterwald. Would racers show up? And more importantly, would they feel safe?

The race drew lots of local participants, but people flew in from as far as the East Coast. According to the stage 1 results sheet, 200 racers started the time trial. Participant numbers fluctuated from stage to stage because organizers allowed racers to sign up to race just one stage instead of all four. However, 161 total racers completed the full four stages.

Local bike shop employee and racer Ty Wehring was excited to be able to support and participate in a local event, despite the ever-present risk of coronavirus. “I’m willing to take the risk because I’m getting to do what I love, where I love to do it,” he said, adding that the risk level felt “very, very low.”

This sentiment was common among all levels of racers at the event, from junior, to masters, to professional. There are always risks associated with bike racing, like crashing and breaking a bone, but there are also things that help mitigate risk. Racers cited widespread mask-wearing, social distancing, and clear guidelines from the race organizers as reasons they felt relatively safe at the event

“I try to be smart about the decisions I make and be really careful, but by the same token I’m happy to be here,” said Woodruff, who claimed victory in the women’s race.

Riders kept their distances at the feed stations, where volunteers wore masks and gloves. Photo: James Stokoe

At the venues, racers were required to wear masks at all times, unless they were racing. At the start line, a USA Cycling official instructed the racers that they could take off their masks about a minute before the gun goes off. In the waves of 25, racers kept a respectful distance away from each other, instead of packing themselves bar end to bar end. Then, they rolled off at a casual pace, anticipating the significant climbs that began each stage.

Robbie Day, a u23 racer who placed second overall in the men’s field, noted that the wave system worked well, and it didn’t have a huge impact on the racing. “It feels pretty much like normal bike races, he said. “It’s maybe a little bit spaced out. Maybe you have a little bit less people attacking really early.”

Out on course, there were aid stations available for racers. They featured hand sanitizing stations, and volunteers used masks and gloves to hand out packaged single-servings of food and drinks.

For stages 2-4, the finish line was located away from the start line. Racers had a 15-30 minutes downhill coast back to the starting area. This made for a ghost town feel for the start and parking areas with races coming back at their own pace, but it allowed for plenty of physical distancing and crowd control.

Each day, there was a one-person podium ceremony for the overall women’s and men’s leaders, with limited spectators. After stage 4, there was a podium ceremony for the top three overall winners and top three overall winners from each age category.

By the end of the weekend, Finsterwald, a Colorado Springs local, extended his lead to almost 10 minutes. And Woodruff won by over four minutes.

Mass participation events are a hotbed for American bike racing—look at the popularity of gravel, the Epic Rides series, or the NICA leagues as proof. In the coming months, how events are able to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic will be essential for the continued growth of the sport.

Pikes Peak Apex could serve as an example for other race promoters. They pulled off a race, racers attended, and they felt safe. Risk tolerance is the modus operandi in pandemic-struck America. How much riskier is attending a bike race versus going to a restaurant? Each individual racer must make that call.

For many racers, the vibe at the race venues was an excitement to get back to racing and see the extended race family, even if it was behind masked faces.

“If you want to race and show up, by all means, the opportunity’s here,” said Rose Grant, who finished third in the women’s race. “I’m grateful to be here.”