Terms such as ‘new normal’ are being bandied around our digital world on every click, just about. Regardless of where you get your news or the latest conspiracy theory you’ve read about, or Youtube clip you’ve watched – regardless of what you buy into or not – the basic truth is that bike races as we know them are a thing of the past. Indeed, all mass participation sporting events will change. For cycling events, this might not be a bad thing at all.
The more complicated reality is just what that ‘new’ will look like. Perhaps the best place to start is at the ‘why.’
Why do we race?
The motivation behind riding events is multidimensional we. The ‘why’s’ many and varied. Some ride solely for fitness, wholly unconcerned with times and placings, others train very specifically for goal events and personal best times. Some put themselves through big challenge to raise money for charity. Still others rely on it for their meal tickets. Somewhere in each reasoning you’re more than-likely-to hear the words, ‘community,’ ‘social aspect,’ ‘camaraderie.’ Humans race because they like being around one another.
So when we can’t it is saddening.
“I can liken it to going through the stages of grief,” says Candice Lill of dealing with the cancellation of the 2020 Absa Cape Epic back in March. “When you lose something that has become such a big part of your life, it is like the weeks afterwards are spent mourning.” Lill – teamed up with fellow South African Mariske Strauss as Faces CST – was set for her biggest Cape Epic campaign yet. The pair were in the hunt to become the first all-African team to stand on the top step of the women’s podium at the world’s most prestigious mountain-bike stage race, in the process gaining enough UCI points for two Olympic slots.
Covid-19, however, put paid to all of that and the Absa Cape Epic never saw a start gun. Shot down by the viral global pandemic in a whirlwind of global cancellations that started with the Tour of Hainan in January, and then swept through February and March with the Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Sicily, GP Larciano, Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Settimana Coppi e Bartal, following suite among many others.
As consummate, world-travelling professional with a fine hand on the bigger (global) picture, Lill was under no illusions ahead of hearing the news on the Friday evening ahead of the scheduled Sunday Cape Epic prologue at UCT.
“I raced the Cape Town Cycle Tour the week before,” she says. “There were so many questions around Cycle Tour - they were on the brink of having to cancel as well,” she says, adding that from then on she knew there was a very big chance of the Epic not happening.
“It didn’t all come all in one big blow,” Lill explains the waves of mourning she went through in the weeks after. “That first night and the next few days I was a little bit in denial, then I eventually got to, like, ‘okay fine’ we’ll just carry on and deal with it.”
For an amateur and Epic first-timer like Rene Winter, it was a different kind of knock. “It was one of the biggest disappointments of my sporting career and goals. CV19 wasn’t yet what we knew it to be that week so it was heartbreaking for sure,” he says.
Having been a part of the event for some years on the corporate side, as South African agent for Spot X, he grasped the bigger picture however.
“It must have been a really hard call for the event organisers to have made, while under siege from emotional audiences worldwide” he says. “There was so much at stake: Riders, international teams, brand integrity, sponsors, spectators, viewership, the time input on organization and planning, towns that rely on the tourism, the list goes on.”
“It was definitely the right decision based on what we now know about the reactions around the world – as hard as it is to take a knock financially and personally on what was put in, I feel it was ultimately the right call for sure.”
As with Lill and Winter, Team Bulls (featuring five-time winner Karl Platt, in his retirement year) were heavily disappointed, but had anticipated the possible postponement or cancellation.
“Europe was two to three weeks ahead of us,” explains Bulls soigneur, Vincent Durand. “Being a European team our mindset was already there… So, while we were monitoring what was happening on the ground here in South Africa with the Cycle Tour (which took place) we were also very aware of what was happening around the world.”
“In that week leading up to the Epic we were on standby for racing – everybody was ready to race. And, everybody was ready to race right from the gun, with a possible postponement or cancellation somewhere in the middle of the race a real possibility, traditional strategy and stage race tactics went out the window.”
According to Durand, as soon as the news of the cancellation reached the team, their focus shifted to getting everyone home safely. “Those few days before lockdown ensued for international travel were very hectic. My team manager was busy for three days just sorting travel arrangements and baggage logistics,” he says. “It was a mini post Epic, epic.”
Ever the pragmatic (with the team’s season now on ice as UCI events continue to haemorrhage down the calendar) Durand takes a measured view of the future of events. “The way that event organisers will have to restructure events will no doubt be based on new international sets of standards of hygiene,” he says, by way of a starting point.
“For the near future it will be about how quickly can race organisers adapt good standard practice - races like the Epic already have the best standard practice, so for them it will be easier.”
The shape of things to come
This is also something David Bellairs, Marketing, Media and Sponsorship Director of the Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust and the rest of the Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust team are currently grappling with. The team organises not only the iconic Cape Town Cycle Tour – the largest timed cycle race in the world with some of the finest global best-practice standards when it comes to mass-participation events – as well as the Double Century.
“We were extremely fortunate to have been able to run the event,” Bellairs says of the 2020 Cycle Tour, which took place on 8 March. “We just squeezed in.” For many cyclists that might be the last event they rode. The one they look forward to most for next year.
“Going forward, there is no doubt that the entire eventing space will look different,” he adds. “How we’re interacting with people who participate is going to be very different,” he says.
“Given the current situation, how do we roll out future events that are acceptable to both the public and the authorities? Unpicking that is everything we are focused on at the moment.”
“Do I have answers yet? No I don’t. What I do know is that it is going to be different, very different,” he says.
In broad terms, what Bellairs and his team envision for the Cape Town Cycle Tour is something of a festival of cycling, a ‘happening’ that appeals to all types of riders and celebrates the reasons why cyclists ride events.
“This we’ve already had in the back of our minds for the past eighteen months (pre-Covid) in terms of the Cycle Tour for sure. The DC is a very different beast because that is a 200km ride and team event,” he says.
“There will always be the racing element, the challenge is how we cover for the racing element and the ‘go-faster’ mob, while giving the best experience for all the other riders.”
“I’d like to see the back of the event more as not groups of people charging around the Cape Peninsula but rather people taking the opportunity to ride on a route that is a 109kms of absolutely beautiful scenery. And, doing it for the pure pleasure of riding and being out there in the company of others, but not in a close-knit bunch, while raising money for charity at the same time.” he says.
Food for thought
“We are trying to assess the food industry at the moment has changed forever and it’s based on the same principles,” says chef and restauranteur David Higgs, echoing Bellairs’ sentiments. “It’s about people coming together and enjoying themselves, whether that is watching sport, eating and drinking, or whatever,” Higgs, a passionate cyclist, was ready to tackle his third Absa Cape Epic and is very particular about the ‘why’ when he picks his races.
“I look for a challenge and then a good lifestyle offering on the side. A good vibe you know, I’m a social rider not a racer,” Higgs says. “I love what the Tankwa Trek is all about (a really tough and challenging three days). As well as events such as Berg and Bush, where last year I rode with Erik Kleinhans… So I had to work really hard to keep up, but then afterward we sat on the banks of the Tugela and drank beer. That event’s got a bit of both for me, I like that.”
For Higgs, unlike the pros and the event administrators, it is the balance of the various positive benefits – physical, mental, emotional and social – that makes events, and cycling in general, so appealing. Higgs also represents a big percentage of cyclists who have embraced the digital element during the early lockdown times and taken to his indoor trainer (and particularly Watopia) with gusto. So much so that he believes he’ll do much of his future training stationary.
“I’m really going to appreciate eventing again, without a doubt. However I can really see the benefits of training on an indoors - I’m a completely different cyclist now… It’s a little bit more precise and you can control more what you do (in training terms).”
Higgs went so far as to do a 360km ultra-endurance virtual ride in late April, in an effort to raise funds for his team at Marble and Saint restaurants. The cycle was to create awareness for his staff fund which sees all proceeds from the sale of his book, Mile 8: A book about cooking, go towards supporting those staff teams.
“It really still doesn’t compare to riding on the road or trail, but if you are training for something specific it is a great tool to have and it’s a lekker way to hook up with guys and chat. I think this is what zoom and zwift has done.” Higgs is not alone in believing that, due to the current financial implications many will have less goal races to train for than in the past.
“It is safe to say that the cycling landscape will be very different to the one we were used to. It will be fascinating to witness the creativity and ingenuity of the cycling community when they tackle the post COVID-19 world,” says Michele Starke of the boutique mountain-bike stage race, The U.
“Perhaps there will also be a greater opportunity for small events - as numbers may be limited by Covid-19 regulations in the short- to medium-term.” The U takes place on a 100km network of privately owned, hand-crafted trails in Piket-Bo-Berg, usually in October. The event has a very limited number of entries and due to the combination of its premium, all-inclusive weekend offering as well as spectacular riding, is always a sell-out.
“Actual event operations will also be very interesting. It is difficult to control something as mundane as a stomach bug during an event, but after Covid-19 the demand for better sanitation and hygiene will be much greater. Event tents can be crammed and bathroom facilities at some events can look very dodgy after day two or day three of a stage race - events will have to seriously up their game to stand a chance of survival,” she says.
Zandile Meneses, organiser of the Dr Evil Classic in the Garden Route which has also just recently been cancelled for 2020, agrees. “Smaller ‘boutique’ events such as the Dr Evil Classic may benefit as it only takes limited numbers - so targets are not too high and it is a very well priced experience,” she says.
Meneses also believes iconic one-day events such as the Lions Karoo to Coast (also off for 2020) will continue to be well supported in the future. “South Africans love an adventure – and will be itching for one when lockdown restrictions have finally been fully lifted – this event is relatively cheap in terms of entry and yet offers a huge day out in terms of experience,” she says.
It is that ‘experience’ – social, mental and physical – that will keep riders going back. “Riders will possibly appreciate the events more that are fairly priced, have a sense of community (charity) and are less ‘commercial’ and have a more down-to-earth feel. I think the whole ‘isolation journey’ may adjust perception for many in terms of what really matters in the long run,’ Meneses says.
“I think the mindset and psyche of people interacting in large groups has changed forever,” Rene Winter echoes her sentiments. “Realistically this isn’t going away for a while and from work meetings, to social gatherings and sports events, the world and face-to-face time has changed for a long time to come, if not forever.”
“Personally I will continue to do sports events, such as the Cape Epic, it’s my sanity and release from everything else stress related in the world. The social aspects of race villages will have social distancing and hygiene influences, and open opportunity for some form of sports-specific masks and the like.”
Sure, but others want to tick those goal-boxes. “Even if it’s the only way I’d be happy if they cut out much of the luxuries and just let riders sleep at home, then ride the routes and then go back home,” says Craig Kolesky, a seven-time Absa Cape Epic veteran. “For me the goal is still 10 epics, and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Events bring people together, ‘to conquer 10’ like Kolesky, to share experiences, to win. Only time will tell how we navigate the new cycling normal. Regardless of how things change, the common thread of humans racing because they enjoy the trails and the open air the like being around one another, will remain. Perhaps even more cherished.