Organizers in Colorado Springs, Colorado believe they have a game plan to hold a mass-participant mountain bike stage race amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The key, they say, is thinning masses of participants throughout the event.
That means no pre- or post-race celebrations, no crowds around feed stations, a video conference pre-race meeting, and no mass starts.
“We can put plans in place that will allow the local health department and city to say ‘this is not a risky event from the standpoint of a lot of people getting together,'” said Micah Rice, director of the event. “We should be more worried about what’s going on at bars and restaurants downtown than the bike race.”
The four-day race is called the Pikes Peak APEX, and it is slated to run this fall, from September 24-27. If the event occurs, it could be one of the only stage races, road or mountain, held on U.S. soil this year. Every major professional road stage race has canceled due to the virus, most recently the Colorado Classic. The Breck Epic mountain-bike stage race called off its 2020 edition, vowing to return in 2021.
Rice holds the title of executive director and vice president of event strategy & operations of its parent company, Sports Strategies. Rice is a familiar personality in the U.S. cycling scene; he was vice president of events at USA Cycling for eight years, and prior to that he oversaw the Jittery Joe’s pro cycling team.
Rice started planning the four-day race earlier this year. As the virus shut down professional and amateur events alike across the country, Rice sought guidance from experts in the cycling world for how to hold the event.
He hired on Dr. Michael Roshon, USA Cycling’s chief medical officer, as medical director of the event, and in the springtime began adjusting the event’s format to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Rather than stage the starts and finishes around downtown, Rice sought areas closer to the edges of town.
Perhaps the biggest shift involved the planned starts for each stage. Rice had originally planned a traditional mass-start format, with all participants meeting at the start line and beginning each stage together. After performing a survey of registered participants, Rice decided to seek a different format.
“We asked them what format they would be interested in, and only 10 percent said ‘man, I need a mass start,'” Rice said. “While 35 percent said they preferred a smaller group or evens ingle rider starts.”
For its short 10-mile opening stage, the race will send riders off by themselves. The finishing times from that stage will then determine the staging for subsequent days.
Rice said he is likely to group riders into starting waves of no more than 25 riders for the subsequent three stages. Riders can also request solo starts, or starts alongside friends and family, for the three remaining stages.
Dr. Roshon, who helped Rice develop the plan, said that the smaller waves should prevent grouping of riders along the trail and at aid stations.
“If I’m in the middle of a pack of 500 people and one guy has [COVID-19], then I’m at a greater risk because we’re packed in so close. If you reduce that number to 25, then you’ve reduced the risk — it’s a simple math equation,” Dr. Roshon said. “If somebody comes down with the virus and you do contact tracing, there were 500 people together, and you must contact all 500 people. If you cut it down to 25, that is a much more achievable thing.”
Dr. Rashon has led USA Cycling’s mitigation strategy for the virus, and earlier this year he helped create an online tool for race promoters. The tool assesses each event’s overall risk for spreading the disease and presents a score, from 1-100, on an event promoter’s mitigation (100 representing a perfect score for safety). The tool then provides tips for reducing the risk of transmission.
According to Rice, the Pikes Peak Apex scored an 81 on the mitigation checklist.
Of course no event is entirely safe from the virus, and all bike races present a level of risk of spreading the virus to participants.
“There’s no such thing as a risk-free bike race,” Dr. Roshon said. “Nothing you can do can drive that risk number to zero.”
Still, Dr. Roshon said the Apex race’s lack of pre- and post-race gatherings, plus the small wave starts, has greatly reduced the event’s overall risk of transmitting the event.
“When you rethink things like the post-race beer garden and mass starts, what you’re left with is people riding on a trail, mostly separated,” Dr. Roshon said. “They did an awesome job of using the toolset we created to think about each element independently and come up with a risk assessment and mitigation checklist. You end up with a score that is a reasonable risk assessment, and man, it sure looks like a reasonable risk to me.”