For the past year, local event organisers have lived and died by the 10am press conference. They had to become experts in outdoor viral spread, and learned how to put on Covid Safe events that didn’t feel weird or overly compromised. We caught up with AusCycling, Rapid Ascent, Rocky Trail Entertainment, the folks behind Sea Otter Australia, and the Tassie EWS stops to find out how they have found a way forward in this new Covid affected world of mountain bike events.
Sea Otter comes to Australia, next year
In March, we learned that Sea Otter was coming to Stromlo. Having run in the US for 30-years, Sea Otter is typically seen as the start of the racing season in America, and is a bit like the mountain bike equivalent Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory — the expo, the events, and the vibe are unmatched, and we were stoked to see it coming to Canberra.
After an extremely difficult 12-months for event promoters, rides, races and trade shows were starting to come back. AusCycling ran a successful National Champs at Maydena. The Otway Odyssey had run, so had Easter in the Alice, club races were happening, and riders were travelling all over the country with their mountain bikes. The EWS even announced it was coming to Derby and Maydena in early 2022.
Then we had our first Delta outbreak, and a few short weeks later, a press release from Sea Otter Australia hit our inbox, announcing the event was being postponed until next year.
“We knew that if it was going to go pear-shaped, we needed to make a call early,” says Christian Haag, CEO of Sea Otter Australia.
It was obvious after a couple of phone calls to well placed senior police officers in Victoria and South Australia, they were pretty blunt and said, “there is no way your event is going to go ahead.”
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This was not only for the sake of folks who signed up for events and were taking time off work, booking flights and accommodation, but also exhibitors who would need to get staff, booths and gear to Canberra.
“As soon as the Delta variant popped up, it completely changed the landscape. It was obvious after a couple of phone calls to well placed senior police officers in Victoria and South Australia, they were pretty blunt and said, ‘there is no way your event is going to go ahead. This thing is going to go rampant, and it’s going to be here for months,’” Haag says.
Sea Otter was far from the only event to pull the plug because of this particularly virulent strain of SARS-CoV-2; while the retail side of the bike industry booms, event promoters have had a year of uncertainty, cancellations and postponements, but they are still kicking along.
Why was the Enduro World Series cancelled?
When the Enduro World Series announced its 2022 calendar, we’re pretty sure we heard all of Australia cheering. It meant the best riders in the world were headed to Derby and Maydena for back-to-back rounds and signalled the return of international racing to Australia. Ian Harwood from EMS Events ran Australia’s first enduro event in 2009, and has since brought the EWS to Derby twice.
“It came to a point where one of the major issues with moving ahead with the EWS in 2022 was ensuring we had a strong international field,” he says.
“A lot of the teams didn’t want to commit to sending riders if they may have to be in a quarantine situation. It was certainly coming from a health and wellbeing perspective, saying ‘no, I’m not going to force my riders to sit in a hotel room for two weeks,’ but the budget perspective also came into play,” Harwood continues.
Budgets weren’t only a hurdle for the teams to clear; top-level events bring an army of international staff that work behind the scenes, running timing, media, logistics and the like, who are all earning wages to do so.
If we bring in 150-200 riders from overseas and they have to do quarantine, when you have all these stories of families and people who can’t come home because they can’t get a quarantine room. We didn’t want to be seen as taking those resources
“These staff are on daily rates when they are on-site — so it’s not necessarily a full-time job for them —and they are on that rate to come to Australia. So there would have also been that daily rate incurred for them to sit there for two weeks in quarantine,” he says.
Harwood also said they took into account the optics of bringing an international event when some Aussies are still stranded abroad.
“If we bring in 150-200 riders from overseas and they have to do quarantine, when you have all these stories of families and people who can’t come home because they can’t get a quarantine room. We didn’t want to be seen as taking those resources,” he says.
They also explored putting on a supercharged Oceana event, bringing in the best gravity riders in the region to race the Tassie and New Zealand legs. But without assurances that international EWS stars like Richie Rude, Jesse Melamed, Melanie Pugin, and Isabeau Courdurier will be there to race alongside these local riders, it makes the event a harder sell to sponsors and fans alike. T
The NZ leg which was being run by volunteers at the Nelson MTB Club, and not an events company, faced a similar set of issues which forced the event to be postponed.
On the upside, Harwood told Flow now that racing has wrapped up in Scotland, they will begin the process of planning the Oceana leg of the 2023 EWS.
Running national championships with border restrictions in place
When Covid hit, MTBA was still the governing body in Australia and CEO at the time, Shane Coppin, said that until riders could travel freely across state lines, events at a national level wouldn’t happen.
“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 told Flow in September 2020.
In 2020 MTBA was able to just sneak in national championships in Bright, wrapping up a day before Victoria imposed the first restrictions on gatherings. Twelve months later, MTBA had ticked over to AusCycling, and after a date change, the new governing body ran a highly successful, multi-disciplinary national championships in Maydena.
As the peak body for mountain biking, AusCycling not only runs events, but also produces the framework for hosting events during a pandemic and provides guidance on how to do it safely. Unfortunately, no amount of advice or can counteract a snap lockdown.
“AusCycling’s strategy has been in large part to facilitate activities and events wherever it’s possible to do so, and has worked with clubs, promoters and stakeholders to help with the logistics of postponement and rescheduling, so that the event — particularly national championships — can be delivered in that calendar year. And because of that, when folks look back at these events, the vast majority have been compromised in one form or another,” says Andrew Miller, AusCycling’s MTB & CX Events and Technical Manager. “That’s not just about an athlete’s ability to attend; that also comes down to event capacity, the standard of delivery, capacity for officiating, for timing, and all the stakeholders involved.”
Through this whole process, there have been no right answers. They’ve all been wrong answers; it’s just to what degree.
With this strategy of pushing to deliver events, specifically nationals, in a calendar year, it gets more challenging to reschedule events and avoid clashes with every passing week. The Dwellingup 100 was supposed to double as the XCM National Championships in 2020, but in July last year, MTBA announced the race would no longer be recognised as a national champs. Under new leadership, for 2021, it was back on the calendar in WA with a green and gold jersey on the line, and the decision to run it despite border restrictions attracted quite a bit of controversy.
Cameron Ivory and Karen Hill would take the top spot in the elite category, both taking to social media after their respective wins, voicing mixed emotions about being national champions, but of a race where the field was limited by state of residence.
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Miller says the decision to go ahead with the event was not something AusCycling took lightly.
“Whichever way we went, there were going to be people that were disappointed,” Miller tells Flow. “Through this whole process, there have been no right answers. They’ve all been wrong answers; it’s just to what degree.”
AusCycling took into account where riders were coming from and current border restrictions, in addition to the impact on other stakeholders like event promoters, sponsors, clubs, volunteers, and all the athletes, not just those at the pointy end of the race.
“For a long time, it was looking like Queensland would be able to attend, but NSW and Victoria were always going to be problematic. And then, a couple of weeks out, it became clear that Queensland wasn’t going to be afforded to us. That put us in a difficult position.” he says.
Probably our biggest learning we’ve had is if you can run something, run it.
The Dwellinup 100 still had a field of 1300 riders, with 300 signed up for national champs categories. Miller says an event attracting a field of that size, especially given the circumstances, is largely due to its status as a national championship.
“We need to continue to be able to deliver these events, not only at a national level but starting at the grassroots. That’s going to be critical moving forward when we do get to that point, we need that club environment thriving, and the local community thriving,” Miller says.
Navigating Covid Safe
Last year we told the story of the 2020 Redback, where Rapid Ascent was forced to pull the plug at the last second due to being locked out of the Northern Territory. Twelve months later, coming off a successful running of the Otway Odyssey, a change in border restrictions 10-days before the start of the 2021 Redback meant 60-per cent of the field and event staff could no longer attend.
“The events that we have run have been well attended, and the first seven months of 2021 were really quite good for us. We still couldn’t travel overseas, so I think people were just really keen to get out and do something, and then it all went pear-shaped,” says John Jacoby from Rapid Ascent.
“Numbers for Odyssey were remarkably consistent, or even a bit better than the previous years, and that sort of tracked along pretty well. Numbers for Redback up in the Alice were going really well. In fact, it was going to be our biggest Redback race for probably 5, 6, 7 -years,” he says.
I started getting text messages, “is the race still on tomorrow,” mid-race and through the presentations — I was like, “this is not good”
Whether it be significant events like the EWS, national championships, classics like the Redback, or more localised events like a Fox Super Flow or a Sunday club race, the Covid19 pandemic has been an exercise in adaptability.
“Probably our biggest learning we’ve had is if you can run something, run it,” Jacoby says.
The unfortunate reality of these times we live in is that every event right up until the start, and sometimes after, could be shut down at a moment’s notice. Martin Wisata and Rocky Trail Entertainment have had two events shut down mid-way through due to snap lockdowns.
“During the Jolly Nose/Kempsey Shimano GP doubleheader was when the Sydney Lockdown started. On Friday, before we started, there were a bunch of LGA’s in Sydney that couldn’t travel anymore. Then on Saturday afternoon, it was all of Sydney. We got through the (race on) Saturday, and that was relatively normal. It was bad phone reception out there, but I started getting text messages, ‘is the race still on tomorrow,’ mid-race and through the presentations — I was like, “this is not good,'” Wisata says.
“At six o’clock on Saturday night, I’m trying to figure out whether I’m running an event on Sunday. I’m trying to figure out what staff I still have, who is from greater Sydney, and who needs to go home. Luckily we still managed to pull it off by turning ourselves inside out and two people doing the work of four.”
Wisata had the pleasure of playing this game a second time when a snap lockdown was called midway through the Noosa Enduro, where Rocky Trail was running the timing.
Risk Management 101
Each promoter we spoke to broadly said that the unpredictability and contagiousness of Covid have made their lives challenging over the past year, but ultimately, it all boils down to risk management. In the same vein as making decisions based on weather, you take all of the information available in the lead-up and make a call based on the forecast.
“It’s the same with COVID; it’s just another layer of complexity, where you look at what the rules are, what applies to you and what doesn’t. That’s hard for everybody. We’re not special here,” Wisata says.
“Everybody had to figure out for themselves what is or isn’t safe and at what point do I pull the pin because an event could be seen as unsafe — the last thing you want is to be some sort of super spreader event.
Everything that I can’t do anymore myself, like go on a holiday, or see my family, or race my bike; at least we can give that to others. To me, that is more important than any money that we might make.
You want to protect your riders, your staff and everybody. So you’re looking at it from that risk management point of view, and it’s challenging. I never thought I would have to become an expert on viral spread for outdoor areas,” he says.
In the face of all this uncertainty, event organisers have found a way to make it work, keeping their heads above water. It’s been a year of writing massive Covid Safe documents, only to pivot after Friday’s press conference and start again.
“Watching a press conference on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and trying to figure out whether or not your event is going to go ahead on Saturday based on that information — it’s okay if you do it once or twice, but once you do that 10-times, you’re well and truly over it. In some instances, it really stopped being fun,” Wisata says.
Because of this, a lot of event organisers have said enough is enough, and moved on to something else. Wisata tells Flow this path has crossed his mind too, but it’s the people that keep coming back to ride that have inspired him to keep pushing through.
“It’s just something you have to do to put on events now, and people are super excited and super helpful. We get emails of thanks and support saying without you, there wouldn’t be much left in terms of racing in New South Wales,” he says. “Everything that I can’t do anymore myself, like go on a holiday, or see my family, or race my bike; at least we can give that to others. To me, that is more important than any money that we might make.”
Making a negative into a positive
Event promoters have had gut punch after gut punch in the last 18-months, but each was upbeat about the year ahead, and have even taken a few positives out of this experience.
“The competitors have got to expect to be a bit more flexible and ready to adapt, and I think they’ve shown they are capable and willing to do that. But I think some of the restrictions have been positive in that it’s accelerated things like decreasing the amount of disposable single-use waste, whether it’s plastic cups or plastic bags at races,” says Jacoby.
Miller says he hopes the extra awareness surrounding personal hygiene is something that sticks around.
“One of the top commissaries, Jeremy Christmas from New Zealand, who is one of the top officials on the planet, I remember we were at an event there in the early days last year, and he said to me, ‘well I’m just happy that everybody is washing their hands more,’” says Miller. “I think that general attention to hygiene is going to be a positive legacy out of this thing if you can take something.”
For bigger events like Sea Otter Australia, Haag says it has given them almost a soft launch to see what can be improved in the run-up so that when the event does finally descend on Stromlo, it lives up to the precedent set by the event in Monterey.
Covid Safe posters and bottles of hand sanitiser are probably here to stay at mountain bike events for the foreseeable future, and we are cautiously optimistic the race calendar for 2022 and beyond will be chockers. But Jacoby had one final message for riders across Australia: “Get out there and do a mountain bike race.”