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If the race environment at the recent Strabag MTB Cup in the Czech Republic was any indication, the UCI has a lot of work to do to prepare for the upcoming mountain bike World Cup opener in Nové Město on September 29.
Riders told VeloNews that the event did not feel dramatically different than a normal pro race, other than the lingering fear of COVID-19 infection looming in everyone’s minds.
“I was surprised how in the Czech Republic, they almost behaved a little like nothing was going on,” Danish champion Annika Langvad told VeloNews. “It was super weird. For example, the organizers of the race, if you didn’t stop them, they would come and shake your hand. As soon as you signaled, ‘no I’m not gonna do that,’ they understood.”
The lack of an official COVID-19 protocol from the UCI for professional mountain bike racing has some riders concerned. With the professional road cycling season well underway, the peloton is now well-versed in how to stay safe. Team “bubbles,” extreme physical distancing from media and fans, and pre-race testing have managed to keep riders and staff safe thus far. After a few early hiccups, teams and race organizers know what they have to do to comply with the UCI’s protocol.
Mountain bikers, however, have not received this level of guidance. According to Louis Chenaille, a media relations officer at the UCI, the governing body has not yet completed its rules on COVID-19 safety for mountain bike racing.
“The particular characteristics of international MTB competitions require a complete revision of the rules issued in June for road races,” he said. We are aiming at a publication of organizational instructions by the end of August.”
Mountain bikers, who have had far fewer opportunities to race this year than road riders, have less experience to draw on when it comes to how to approach racing during the pandemic. Langvad, who rides for Specialized Racing, says that this has forced teams to create their own safety systems.
“Between our team, we made a protocol kind-of like the road has,” she said. “We create our little bubble and respect that. We try to limit contact with people outside of our bubble. To keep things safe between riders on our team, it’s all we can do.”
American Haley Batten says that the announcement of a formal protocol might also have effects beyond keeping riders and staff safe, especially for those not based in Europe.
“It might affect if those riders even decide to go,” she said. “If they feel comfortable and safe going into them [the World Cup races], it would make them put more effort into making travel happen because they feel like it’s worth it.”
Batten, a U.S. citizen who has been based in Canada as a university student, decided to come to Europe to train and race ahead of the World Cups and world championships. She also raced in the Czech Republic, and she and Langvad are partnering up for the upcoming Swiss Epic. Batten says that the safety protocol that the race organizer Epic Series Global MTB has put in place for the Swiss stage race is a world apart from what she experienced at Strabag.
“The way that they’re managing the situation for the Swiss Epic is incredible,” she said. “They’re providing information, setting expectations for athletes, staff. Whether it’s masks, social distancing — there’s a lot of info about what to expect and what’s expected of you. If the same precautions are taken going into World Cup, then we can do it. The info needs to go out in advance.”
Batten is currently the only rider from North America who is in Europe right now, and the decision to travel abroad given the uncertainty about the virus and its trajectory was one she didn’t take lightly. Ultimately, she says, she felt empowered by the information she had about how to stay healthy and protect others with her behavior. She also has a place to base herself in Austria and felt supported by her team.
Certainly, it’s not just a lack of communication from the UCI and race organizers that has other athletes unsure of their travel plans. The greatest denominator is the virus itself. Coloradan Erin Huck has begun to look into travel options to Europe, yet the volatility of the pandemic makes planning feel futile.
“I feel like I’m playing poker,” she said. “Are races actually going to happen? Or, am I going to spend a bunch of time and energy only to have to turn around and come home?”
As the road peloton charges full steam ahead, mountain bikers continue to wait patiently for their time to shine.