Mountain Bike Events in The Age of COVID

In mid-June, the Northern Territory Government announced that it would be reopening its borders to interstate visitors on July 17. With the health guidelines permitting gatherings of up to 500 people, it looked like The Red Back stage race would be back for its 12th edition. 

“We’d been following the Northern Territory (guidelines) very closely, and that’s why we were so positive about being able to run our Alice Springs-based events,” says John Jacoby, the Race Director at Rapid Ascent Events. “Most of the rules were for events over 500 people, and none of our events there (in Alice Springs) were going to be over 500, so we thought ‘oh, we’re in the clear there, and everything is looking good.'”

The Red in Alice Springs was so close to running their event, but state border changes put an end to it for now.

So Rapid Ascent put the call out for riders. In order to run the event, they needed 100 entries for all six stages to run the race, and things were ploughing on, full steam ahead. And then cases started to spike in Victoria.

“When the Melbourne outbreak got bad there, and they started closing the borders to Melbournians. And then (all) Victorians — we also knew it would probably be an issue for Western Australians because they wouldn’t be able to get back in (to their state) — so it (the race) was no longer feasible.”

The world has changed, mountain bike events have changed along with everything else.

Seven months ago, we had an events calendar brimming with races locally and abroad, and racers primed to duke it out on singletrack around the country. Plane tickets were booked, bike bags packed, and training plans were being followed to the TSS. And then the world changed. 

Tumbling From the Calendar

The Red Back is far from the only event to have fallen victim to the COVID 19 pandemic. One of the first events to pull the plug was The Dragon Trail, a brand new race set to run at the end of March, which over three days would guide riders through some of the most iconic singletrack Northeastern Tasmania has to offer — including the new Bay of Fires Trail. 

“It was all looking great for an event in the first year. We had managed to attract about 300 riders; over 80-per cent were from interstate, and about 15-per cent were coming from overseas,” explains Dragon Trail Race Director Louise Foulkes.

In the weeks before the race was set to kick off, Foulkes and her team watched what was transpiring in South Africa as the Absa Cape Epic was cancelled two days before the first stage, with riders already on the ground having travelled in from around the world. Cases were beginning to spike locally, and Foulkes and her team made the difficult decision to cancel the race on March 16. Two days later, Tasmania closed its borders to mainland Australia. 

“We were looking at the situation (in South Africa) and going, ‘oh my God; we are going to be in Tasmania doing the exact same thing, we have to call it,'” she said. 

“If you run events, you have to cancel them early. You never cancel them a week out, as we did. Normally you would think it would be reputation and financial suicide, but then they closed the borders two days later anyway — it’s not like we would have had a choice.”

Local artist Ruth Lindsell (centre) made a magnificent trophy for the inaugural Dragon Tail event, hopefully someone can be presented with it in March 2021.

While all of this was happening, Australia’s best DH and XC racers were in Bright racing the 2020 MTBA National Championships from March 11-15. Little did those riders know it would be the last time they would don a number plate for some time. 

“As an event, it was the highest participation numbers we recorded for the last seven years,” says Shane Coppin, the CEO of MTBA. 

“We spent the whole weekend and the lead up in constant contact with Sport and Rec(reation) in Victoria. We had taken as many provisions as possible; we’d pre-ordered sanitisers, and implemented warnings and measures as best we could and were on alert that we might need to cancel at any point.

The 2020 MTBA National Champs was one of the last events to run, in mid-March.

And then on Monday (March 16), they shut down Victoria and put the cap on gatherings — we were one of the last events to get through,” he continues.

On March 23, seven days after the last green and gold jumper was awarded in Bright, MTBA sent out the announcement that all racing should be postponed until further notice. 

“A lot of the decisions we’ve made weren’t really decisions; they were just necessitated outcomes to resolve what (regulation) was imposed.”

And that was it, everyone battened down the hatches and did their part to flatten the curve. One by one we saw races big and small, postpone until spring, and then cancel their 2020 editions altogether. 

“At the beginning, we were all just struggling to come to grips with how long this was going to last for, and the regulatory environment around this virus that we were going to have to be working within,” explains David Beeche Senior Vice President and Managing Director of the IRONMAN Group Oceania, who looks after Port to Port, Reef to Reef, Cape to Cape and The Pioneer, among others.

The biggest events in Australia, run by Ironman – Cape to Cape, Port to Port and Reef to Reef.

With the restrictions on the number of people that are allowed to be in a group, event promoters are essentially unable to do their work, forcing them to pivot and refocus where possible. But, the moratorium on gatherings has meant hard times for organisers. 

“Every moment, you sort of think, ‘oh, well we should be able to run this event’ and get your hopes up, and then all of the sudden things change again,” says Jacoby. “It’s definitely had a big impact on the business, and certainly the Job Keeper has helped keep the business afloat, and some of the employees engaged and working, but it’s tough.”

With this, a few of the big players like IRONMAN, Spartan Racing AU/NZ and Pont3 which runs the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival and Marathon, banded together. Along with 400 other event companies, they would form the Australian Mass Participation Sporting Event Alliance (AMPSEA) with the aim of more support and clear guidance to help them weather the pandemic. 

The creation of AMPSEA is hopefully able to help the event industry sustain itself.

“We were one of the first to go, and we will probably be the last back,” explains Beeche. “It’s an industry typified by thousands and thousands of smaller operators, and it’s challenging for small operators to knock on the door of Government and ask for help,” says Beeche. “We are hopeful that we can champion the cause for all operators in the industry to get some relief and help the industry sustain itself.”

AMPSEA is using its collective bargaining power to lobby not only to be included in the next stimulus and relief package but also to develop a road map. This can help organisers wade through the guidelines and to determine which regulations apply to them so events can run safely. 

Ever-changing conditions

In a few places around the country, we have seen select local events run successfully within the guidelines, but as we saw in Victoria, things can change in an instant. And when your business relies on bringing groups of people together to ride and be merry, you are at the mercy of ordinance that seems to change daily. 

“For the last few events we were going to have in New South Wales, I had to watch the Premier’s press conference on Thursday, to find out if our event on Saturday was going to happen,” says Martin Wisata, the Managing Director of Rocky Trail Entertainment.

Martin watching the Premier’s press conference before communicating with the riders.

Even since we conducted these interviews, the rules and regulations have changed half a dozen times, and will probably change half a dozen more from the time this is published to when you’re reading it. But, event promoters like Wisata aren’t totally alone in trying to navigate the rules and regulations, MTBA has put together a tool kit to help event promoters and clubs try to navigate the ever-changing restrictions.

“It has been an enormous job to keep up with all the restrictions. Because there is no real coordination from state to state, it’s different in every jurisdiction,” says Coppin.

Mountain bike events are too small and too big at the same time, which presents challenges for official guidelines.

Complicating things further, mountain bike racing falls into somewhat of a no man’s land, and the regulations surrounding sports are not catered towards trail networks and event villages. 

“We are relatively far down the food chain when it comes to rules and regulations, which totally makes sense. First and foremost, they need to worry about hospitals, and there are millions of pubs and restaurants which are trying to reopen, and they have all got pretty precise rules. Then at some point, we needed to analyse which rules applied to us,” says Martin Wisata.

“That was our biggest challenge because, for lack of a better word, we were too big for community sport (guidelines) because we are a private operator, but too small for the big cricket, and NRL guidelines that the government was working on,” explains Juliane Wisata, the Marketing Director for Rocky Trail Entertainment.

Event promoters are gaining clarity in what they do, but it’s not without a lot of research from their part.

Jacoby, Foulkes, and Wisata have said they are utilising every tool available to them, whether it be documents released by trail running organisers or tourism bodies to figure out which rules apply to them, and what they need to do to run the event safely. This is also something that AMPSEA is pushing for, so there is clarity for the smaller promoters.

Craving connection

With the events that have run since the beginning of the pandemic, things look a little bit different and are likely going to stay that way for some time. Every promoter we spoke with believed that the events that will be able to run would be run by local promoters. They will be at your home trail network because interstate travel is not feasible for most people. This is evidenced by MTBA’s announcement of the cancellation of the 2020 National Cup and launch of the new State Cup and will work a bit like a National Cup, but within each state.

MTBA cancelled the 2020 National Cup and launched the new State Cup. Like the National Cup, but within each state.

“A national competition where racers from one state or another weren’t able to participate because of a closed border, isn’t really a national competition,” Coppin says.

Coppin also points out that this focus on local racing also allows community and club racing to regain its footing before nationals are thrown into the mix.

Events are set to experience a boom on their return.

Where events can happen; however, there is a definite hunger for it.

“The energy that is created at an event, when you come together with like-minded people, is an escape from everyday life. For our customer base, that just wasn’t happening during the lockdown, and so we worked hard to give that back to our racers as best we could, within the rules.”

Rocky Trail has run a handful of events now in Queensland, and New South Wales, both its Superflow Enduro and MTB GP events. Martian and Juliane Wisata say running these events required trust, both from them as the organiser, but also the racers. 

“Running an event, we have to put part of the responsibility onto the riders. It’s your responsibility to keep social distancing at the event, but more so it’s your responsibility to decide whether you want to come to such an event. 

We can put on a race that is within the law, and we will put on a race where all the protocols are in place, but at the end of the day, only the rider can make the decision about if they should come,” says Juliane Wisata.

Beyond just the COVID safe plan, one such protocol that Rocky Trail has changed is its refund policy — now you can pull out of the race at any time in the lead-up and get your money back-no questions asked. Juliane says they made this decision to remove as much stress as possible when entering an event, knowing that you’re not going to be out $90 if you start to feel unwell, or feel uncomfortable with the situation the night before the race.

Even as we return to racing, things are going to look a little bit different. Organisers are taking advantage of the digital tools at their disposal, running video rider orientations and award ceremonies, riders and spectators will need to be signed in for contact tracing purposes, and specific aspects of the race itself are going to change as well. 

“The idea of throwing your grimy hand into a big bag full of snakes is probably a thing of the past these days,” Jacoby said, speaking about how aid stations will be managed in the age of COVID. “We were looking at having a food’ hander outer, and probably doing more self packaged foods like a whole mandarin or banana is pretty safe to handle because it has a wrapper built-in.”

Mountain bike festivals, like Derby Fest in Tassie and Ignition MTB Festival in Falls Creek, face the same challenges as the racing fraternity.

“People come to an event for the physical challenge and the adventure of doing the race, but what they actually walk away with is the people that they meet and the interactions they have with the staff and volunteers and so we always try and create environments that support those interactions, and this virus is going to fly right in the face of it,” Beeche. “It will be interesting to see if people still get that same sense of satisfaction as they usually would from these events. 

As much as we’d all like our lives to go back to pre-COVID 19, including mountain bike racing, for the time being, this is the new normal. Event organisers are working day and night to put on the races and rides we know and love, and while it seems large destination events are off the table until next year, local racing can still flourish. But Martin Wisata said it best when he mused, “nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Words – Colin Levith

Photography – Supplied, Flow MTB

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