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Inside the Colorado Classic’s plan to return

The Colorado Classic could become the first U.S. pro race to return following the coronavirus shutdown. The race's safety plan calls for major restrictions to crowds and congestion.

In 2018, the Colorado Classic took on a major challenge when it dropped the men’s race from its portfolio and pivoted to a women’s only event.

For 2020, the race is taking on an even more daunting challenge. The race plans to continue with its August 27-30 date, thus becoming the first U.S. professional bicycle race to be held after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lucy Diaz, CEO of RPM Events Group, which operates the race, told VeloNews that her organization has spent the last months working on how the race can operate amid Colorado’s safety restrictions for COVID-19. They have examined every element of the race, from the expo, to media access, to crowd size.

While the easiest solution may have been to cancel the event outright, Diaz said, forging ahead seemed right.

“It’s just not in our DNA to say ‘oh it’s hard, oh people don’t like it,'” Diaz said. “If that was the case we would have given up last year.”

Reality sinks in

Race organizers held a kickoff event at the Colorado State Capitol on March 9, and during the event, Colorado Governor Jared Polis gave an address. Yet Polis appeared distracted, and was quickly whisked off the podium due to his busy schedule.

As it turns out, Polis and other state officials were busy overseeing the state’s early response to the virus.

Diaz was in a similar situation. March was a pivotal month for the RPM group, and Diaz had numerous meetings and events on her schedule at host cities across the state.

“When we left Avon Wednesday, we were going to do an event in Boulder on Thursday,” she said. “We ended up canceling that. There was poor attendance in Avon, and people were starting to say, ‘I don’t want to be out with other people.'”

While the threat of the pandemic seemed to transform the world overnight, it took the Colorado Classic team a few weeks to grapple with the disease’s impact on the upcoming event. Diaz says that for her, it wasn’t actually until the announcement of the postponement of the Olympics in Tokyo that she realized that the Colorado Classic could also be canceled.

“At first, we didn’t have that vision into a three-month standstill,” Diaz said. “We were still very optimistic. Up until that point, it was like ‘of course it’s happening. It’s at the end of August. There’s plenty of time to move through this and flatten the curve.'”

Nevertheless, by the end of March, with much still unknown on how the new disease would unfold, the organizers had decided on one thing: they would build on the success of last year’s livestream with a concept that would deliver even more race content to viewers, whether or not they could attend the race in person.

The “made for TV” streaming model will allow viewers to watch the entirety of the race on their phone, computer, or TV and will be available through multiple distribution channels. The race organizers are looking at adding more point-of-view cameras on bikes and cars, as well as documenting the start and finish since those areas will be closed to spectators this year. Diaz says that Meredith Miller and Brad Sohner will be back to commentate, yet the race might also utilize technology that allows other commentators to call the race, as well.

In addition to using technology to give spectators the best experience ever, the race organizers have been considering what they can do to serve the athletes and press corps, as well. From “virtual cowbells,” piped through a sound system at the beginning and end of the races to replace the sound of fans banging on race panels to a virtual media center where the press can get up-to-date information about the race, the Colorado Classic is committed to making the race as relevant as possible given the circumstances.

“The race is a platform for these athletes,” she said.

Furthermore, she added, the innovation of this year’s race could serve as a model for years to come, COVID-19 notwithstanding.

“The journey on thinking about the Made for TV model over the last three months has been invigorating,” Diaz said. “‘How do you take the practices and processes for the event and rethink those?’ Everything from rider sign-in to awards to the race itself. It’s been challenging us to think about things differently. This could be a great forced practice that could change racing.”

The race’s innovative streaming model will enable the race to be broadcast on a number of platforms. Photo: Colorado Classic

In real life

While the race may unfold on the screen in a way that feels natural, there will be huge changes on the ground in order to comply with health and safety regulations. Although some of the biggest questions as to how the Colorado Classic will deal with things like COVID-19 testing for athletes and personnel remain, the organizers have already committed to certain adjustments in all of the host communities.

They will forgo all expos and stages at the start/finish areas. The usual post-stage awards ceremony, where race sponsors award riders, is canceled. The team parking area will be closed-off, and this year the event will not have a VIP tent.

Yet spectators are still encouraged to attend the event while adhering to social distancing guidelines. While the event venue itself might be closed off, Diaz says local communities can decide how they want to communicate safe spectating to their community members.

“We’re trying to control what we can control,” she said. “We feel that we can control start/finish and where athletes are. If people want to watch along course, they have to follow the appropriate social distancing rules at that time.”

In terms of health and safety protocols for teams and riders, Diaz says that they are still considering a variety of options and are looking closely at how other sports and industries have begun to resume business. The athletes, she says, will have a different set of protocols than staff and volunteers.

“There will be an additional level of testing for athletes,” she said. “We’re talking with medical about that right now. ‘What is the responsibility of the athlete and team coming in and what is the responsibility of the event?’ We’re still defining that.”

One consideration is that athletes have to come to the event with a ‘passport,’ i.e., a negative COVID-19 test.

For staff and volunteers, the race is looking toward protocols already in place that have to do with people gathering. Diaz said that the processes that restaurants have established are a good example in terms of mask and glove policies for both staff and guests.

The race team is working closely with USA Cycling, consultants from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and their own ‘COVID czar’ to create a finalized medical plan to present to stakeholders by the beginning of July.

“At the end of the day, it’s the health department’s decision to approve that plan we have,” Diaz said.

The communities and the courses

DNA Pro Cycling rider Heather Fischer says that it’s not so much her health and safety at the race that concern her, but rather that the race communities feel comfortable hosting the riders.

“It would make me more comfortable knowing that the communities we’re going into are receptive to what we’re doing,” she said. “I don’t want to go into someone’s home or to be somewhere that people don’t want us to be. I want them to agree to it and to support the event and support what we’re doing.”

Diaz says that all four host communities are still committed to hosting stages of the race, yet their local health authorities also have a say in how things should be run.

“We have to check all the boxes in each county, as well,” she said. “We don’t just need one person to say ‘yes, we can do this,’ we need a lot of people to feel comfortable.”

With gathering size and behavior the most prescient concern, the race organizers have had to reassess race routes and start/finish areas in certain communities. In Denver, the host of the final stage which usually draws the biggest crowds, having the start/finish area in Civic Park is no longer an option. Diaz sees this is a blessing in disguise; the team is now looking at routing the course through the Red Rocks park area, which would normally be off-limits due to the summer concert series.

“It’s contained, gorgeous, and challenging,” Diaz said.

Another unknown is exactly how the peloton will look at the start line. Colorado currently has a restriction on gatherings of greater than 10 people. Furthermore, even 10 riders standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a start line would not be considered an example of social distancing. Diaz says that the Colorado Classic is looking at different events and sports for guidance. However, she says, at some point, they run the risk of breaking down the structure of the race too much.

“One of our considerations is to make sure that we can do it without ruining the sense of competition within the race,” she said. “We have to be considerate of the race itself. If it were four days of time trials, would that really serve the athletes?”

For Fischer, a professional cyclist who has yet to see a start line in 2020, the format of the race is less important than actually getting to compete.

“I’m not opposed to doing things in a new way,” she said. “If anything, it’s an opportunity for us to be more creative.”

Why risk it?

Even if the Colorado Classic leaves no stone unturned in their COVID-19 race rulebook, the decision to proceed on August 27 ultimately isn’t theirs to make. Professionals within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will make the final call, and Diaz and the Colorado Classic team have to be prepared for whatever that may be.

“The state wants it to happen as much as we do,” Diaz said, “but ultimately it is a bike race, and there’s a global pandemic going on. We have to be responsible on a global level when we make these decisions.”

So why dedicate so much time and resource to revamping a race that might not happen? Especially when no precedent has been set by any other international or domestic race organizer?

Diaz says it’s precisely those reasons that have inspired the organization to forge ahead.

“We got to a point last year where we really hit our stride and had a really strong purpose around our point of view on racing,” she said. “We were doing something that we felt was on a path to change the sport for women. I feel and felt a sense of responsibility to our athletes. If we give up, don’t have the race, what opportunity do the domestic teams have to race this year? Especially at this level and this format.”