Even though the 100-mile Telluride 100 mountain bike race is longer and harder than the World Cup cross-country races she’s accustomed to, Olympic hopeful mountain bike racer Erin Huck is looking for any way to get her racing fix at this point in the season.
“Ever since I hit the ‘register’ button, my mood has improved,” Huck told VeloNews.
Huck will join 200 other riders at the start line of the high-country endurance mountain bike race on Saturday, where race organizer Tobin Behling has put COVID-19 mitigation plans in place that he believes will not only keep riders, volunteers, and the community safe but also demonstrate that, done responsibly, racing is possible amid the global pandemic.
Like many event organizers, Behling has been working on the Telluride 100’s COVID-19 mitigation plan for months. Unlike others, who determined that the risk to the local community was too high or that modifying the event would sap too much of its spirit, Behling decided to forge ahead with the event.
“We’ve gotta get creative,” he said. “COVID is going to be with us for a long time, we’ve got two choices — we can dig a hole and bury ourselves for five years or figure out a way to live a responsible life.”
The race saw steady registration numbers through mid-March, and when the gravity of the coronavirus situation peaked in the United States, Behling told riders that he would make an announcement on May 25 regarding the status of the event. In the interim, he and his team worked out how the event might look, worst case scenario. Ahead of the May 25 announcement, they presented the plan to Grace Franklin, the director of the San Miguel County Public Health Department, who gave it an official stamp of approval.
“At that point, we opened registration again and it was very healthy until the point that we sold out,” Behling said.
The race, which includes 100 and 50-mile courses, had always been capped at 200 participants due to the limits of its U.S. Forest Service permit. What will look different this year is the process by which racers actually arrive to the start line.
Behling has honed in on racer check-in, the start line, and feed zones as primary areas of risk mitigation. Masks and gloves will be required for all volunteers at all times, and riders will be required to wear them at the start, as well as during check-in on Friday.
“We’ll check in 10 racers every 10 minutes,” Behling said. “Line ’em up, take their temps, and send one at a time through packet pickup. We’ve done a dry run and timed it and think it will take 15 seconds per person. One minute per person should be ample time.”
On Saturday morning, the racers will line up in groups of 10, spaced six feet apart. The small groups will start from fastest to slowest so that riders create the most distance possible from the gun. “It’s already a pretty distanced race,” Behling said. Feed zones will be manned by volunteers in personal protective equipment, and all snack offerings are single-serve, prepackaged items.
Huck, as well as national champion marathon mountain biker Russell Finsterwald will be two of the riders in the first, fast heats. Both of them told VeloNews that they are confident with Behling’s COVID-19 plan.
“I’m by no means an epidemiologist,” Huck said, “but I do work in risk management, and from a statistical standpoint, the risk of catching something outdoors, while moving, in Colorado — which has a low incidence anyway — I think it’s pretty low, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take. And, I’m perfectly comfortable with quarantining myself after, that seems like a reasonable thing to do.”
Finsterwald, who lives in Colorado Springs, recently traveled to Vail to compete in its weekly town mountain bike series. “I didn’t realize I missed it [racing] as much as I did until I did that race,” he said.
Finsterwald said that he was impressed with how seamlessly the organizers pulled off the race even with the COVID-19 protocols.
“You couldn’t register if you weren’t wearing a mask, you were socially distanced from event volunteers when signing paperwork,” Finsterwald said. “On the start line, there were discs spaced six feet apart where you put front wheel. Right up until start, everyone required to wear masks. As soon as you finished, they just said politely, ‘get out of here.’ Just come, do the effort, then go your own way.”
Organizers in Vail said that pro participation is way up — their previous largest pro field was 10 riders, and so far in 2020, that field is routinely 30 or more. According to organizers, mountain bikers are more than willing to comply with the rules if it means they get to race.
Huck is admittedly one of the desperate. When VeloNews spoke to her in early April, she was “naively optimistic” that if anything, the U.S. national mountain bike championships would be held in Colorado in early July. Yet, USA Cycling canceled those events, and the UCI canceled some of the European world cup races. Then, the Epic Rides series fell, and so on and so forth. In fact, Huck’s will to race was so strong that she’d even signed up to join a composite team at the Colorado Classic, a four-day road race in late August. On Friday, it was canceled, too.
On Sunday, when her boyfriend brought up the idea of the Telluride 100, Huck thought she would register for the 50-mile version. Nope, said the universe. That distance was already sold-out.
“I was like, ‘I wanna go, but I know I can’t go and not race,” she said. “So I messaged my coach, saying ‘this is a dumb idea’ and expecting him to shoot me down and give me an easy out, but his response was ‘do it.'”
Like Huck, the Telluride 100 is not Finsterwald’s normal racing distance; his race efforts usually max out at 50 miles like the Epic Rides events, yet even those are on the long side.
“So to double that [distance] with double the vert, double the time? I think a lot will come down to pacing smart especially at altitude,” Finsterwald said. “For me, I think the approach will be to focus on nutrition, pacing and just kinda see how it goes.”
“Seeing how it goes” and “going with the flow” have become the mantra for the year. Racers across the pro mountain bike circuit, in the pro road peloton, and really in every other discipline have been seeking out new challenges and pushing new limits (ahem, Everesting) that, in a normal season, they wouldn’t have the time or the bandwidth for. For Huck, this means working on her downhill skills. Finsterwald says being able to travel around the state, backpacking and mountain biking, has been a silver lining.
Nevertheless, racers gotta race. And, even if that means lining up at an event outside of their comfort zone, where they can’t hang out and high five afterwards, they’re willing to do it — and not just for themselves.
“It’ll be a bummer, being so close to seeing friends but not truly able to hang out,” Finsterwald said. “It will be different, but I think as long as we take safety precautions, I think it’ll be a good way to show that races can happen safely these days.”