Cyclocross

Op Ed: Gravel Racing (and Group Cycling) Can Wait, by John Flack – Cyclocross Magazine

This past weekend, the popular Mid South Gravel race, formerly called Land Run, took place, drawing 1400+ starters over two days, and ire from many closely tracking the coronavirus (COVID-19). Coach John Flack of Olympia Endurance Sport Training, who prides himself on optimizing the health and performance of his athletes, checks in with an op-ed on the decision of the promoter and many racers to continue on with the event.

This past weekend, something kind of normal happened. Or reckless, depending on your point-of-view. On Sunday, a bunch of bike racers got together and raced their bikes. Weird, huh?

Not if we’re talking late winter, 2020. Because this isn’t any year. It’s the year of Coronavirus.

Which means that almost daily, institutions from school districts on up to Heads of State are levying mandates to help stop the spread, which makes the cancellation of everything (at least for the time being) a very real possibility.

But last Friday and Saturday, The Mid South Gravel, a gravel race with 2000+ entrants near Stillwater, Oklahoma, went ahead as planned. And as often happens, Mother Nature stepped in, just to ensure that both the men’s and women’s race were epic. Cyclocross Magazine reported on them, but attempted to keep them as reports, but I’m not limited by such constraints.

I live in Washington state, one of the U.S. hotbeds of COVID-19, and the decision to move forward with The Mid South Gravel certainly caught my attention. The Mid South Gravel wasn’t the only race on the weekend. The USA Cycling-sanctioned Iowa Spring Classic in Cumming, IA also took place, albeit with just 33 racers.

The highest levels of bike racing, have had to deal with this pandemic. On March 5th, RCS officials (who also organize the Giro d’Italia) announced the cancellation of Strada Bianche, their World Tour “gravel” race.

And of course, the U.S. amateur scene is feeling the pressure too. Local promoters were already postponing or canceling races by the time USA Cycling solidified its stance. On Thursday, USA Cycling suspended all permits until April 5th. Furthermore, it asked all members to do their part in easing the burden on our healthcare system by refraining from group rides and in-person meetings.

Grave Gravel Growth?

It’s no secret that gravel events have grown tremendously in popularity. While it’s easier to cancel a small, local event, it’s harder when 2000+ registrants from across the country have gravel glory dreams riding on your event.

So, was it irresponsible of Mid South’s organizers to go through with their event? It’s a complex situation to be sure, and I’m neither a race promoter, nor an expert in disease prevention. I certainly sympathize with racers and the promoter.

Not to say that holding the event would cause a local outbreak. As of this writing, Oklahoma isn’t a major coronavirus hotspot. But that could change, and bringing people from all over the country to race only encourages community spread. We have the benefit of learning from recent history, whether that’s in China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Spain and now my state of Washington and California. We know it’s spreading. Seven counties in California area already on lockdown. Why would anyone recklessly accelerate its spread to Oklahoma? It’s the equivalent of partying in bars before restrictions kick in.

And—let’s face it—we sometimes forget while in the heat of competition (remember the rest stop scrum for food at the last event you did? Ewwww…..), which makes the potential for contamination more like an inevitability, than a possibility. Like the mayor of Amity Island in the movie Jaws, effectively saying, “C’mon in, the water’s fine. We don’t have a shark!” doesn’t change reality and ignoring the signs could have dire consequences.

Crowds are often part of the fun at gravel race rest stops. 2019 Lost and Found gravel race. © Cyclocross Magazine

At races, it’s natural to high five and give hugs. The pre-event Mid South Gravel guidance may have promised “no Bobby hugs” but congratulating racers is hard to resist, especially after Sunday’s tough race.

Who can’t sympathize with the promoter’s difficult decision and desire to congratulate survivors? After spending countless hours and dollars on an event, surely anyone would like to see the results of that effort. Yet doing so at the risk of exacerbating the pandemic seems irresponsible at best, and preventing human instinct is exactly why events like this should not take place.

It Takes a Village

And what of the participants themselves? After all, participants had made travel plans and booked hotels. flights purchased and many of the 2000+ entrants were already on-site or en route, fingers crossed, hoping the event would happen.

Also, like many of us, athletes with a plan, entrants set goals and dedicated themselves to training, weeks or months ago. It’s natural for promoters to consider that long-term investment too.

I hope that every athlete who felt sick stayed home. But the problem is, racers could still have been infected, yet asymptomatic and feeling completely fine. NBA All-Star Donovan Mitchell, who is positive for COVID-19, told Good Morning America he doesn’t feel a thing!

Start lines bring racers from many states together, and normally that’s a good thing. Photo: Crusher in the Tushar, Catherine Fegan-Kim

More than a few athletes traveled from the country’s COVID-19 hotspots, including 5 of the top 55 men hailing from Northern California. And start areas, pack racing and finish areas inevitably bring crowds together.

Risking 2020 and Others to Protect 2021

From a race organizer’s perspective, cancellation or postponing events—especially unsanctioned ones, such as The Mid South—could mean they don’t survive if they offer refunds. Crews have spent time and money for permits, materials, etc, and without the support of larger bodies such as USA Cycling, they simply may not have the bandwidth to handle this new and complex scenario.

But time was getting short and Promoter Bobby Wintle had to make a decision.

So in a website update, along with precautions, the Mid South Team announced their decision to push through and go ahead. In it, his team stated that although they wouldn’t issue refunds, registrants who opted out would have the option of deferring entry until 2021. Also, although the decision had the approval of local officials, what of the bigger picture? Wouldn’t most of us rather contribute to a gofundme campaign than see avoidable community spread and deaths?

Again, I’m no germophobe. So, in hope of hearing an expert perspective first-hand, I reached out to a friend who also happens to be an epidemiologist at a state health department. Specifically, did he—as a professional on the first line of the current crisis (and given available information)—believe it was irresponsible to contest race as planned? His answer: “That depends.”

He elaborated by saying that, unfortunately, taking adequate precautions for preventing an epidemic is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation.

On the one hand, proactive measures such as social distancing, when successful, are just that—successful. Virus spread is minimized, everyone forgets about it, and it appears as if everyone was overreacting. But on the other hand, if unsuccessful, and an outbreak does occur, people complain that more should’ve been done, and sooner. Yeah, we’re like that.

It’s a Race

We’re all in this together and we will get through it together. Because endurance isn’t just our sport, it’s life and our lifestyle. This is a race, but one to protect the human race, and one where the cost is greatest if you don’t participate.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions that might help you cope:

  1. The explosion of sports wearables, training apps, and hardware If you’re [still] waiting to check out Zwift, now’s the time. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, trainer riding has gotten ever more tolerable. If I had a dollar for every person I know who couldn’t stand the mind-numbing solitude of trainer riding, I’d probably have like, ten dollars!
  2. Make time for loved ones. Let’s face it: We bike racers are obsessed. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a partner who shares your obsession, racing season can put a strain on family relations. Chris Mayhew has excellent tips about this very subject.
  3. Spring is coming!! The weather’s improving, and Daylight Savings has arrived. Use the extra time to tick a couple more boxes off the to-do list and put a little more currency in the relationship bank account. Mow the lawn, prune the shrubs, clean the gutters, Pressure wash the patio, clean the grill. No one likes doing these things in the dark and cold! Get ‘er done. You’ll be glad you did.

Sleep more. In your own bed. On your favorite pillow. In your favorite jammies. Take self-isolating the max (no automatic weapons though, David Koresh)! Make a game out of it. Have fun! Build a treehouse. Sleep there…I dare you.

Featured photo: 2018 Lost and Found gravel race start.

John Flack has been bike racing since 1989. He raced in Europe, representing USA Cycling and 2019 was his 27th consecutive year of competitive cyclocross. He is also a USA Cycling Level 2 coach (with distinction) and is the founder of Olympia Endurance Sport Training in Olympia, WA.

Contact him at: [email protected] or through his coaching company OEST.