By Kris Westwood, High Performance Director at Cycling Canada
The past few months have presented a unique set of challenges, and have been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced so far. Throughout all this uncertainty, there is reason to be optimistic, with facilities starting to open, athletes returning to training and competitions scheduled on the calendar as early as August 1st. When bike racing does resume, it’s going to look very different to what we’re used to.
Despite some countries, such as Slovenia, declaring the coronavirus pandemic over within their borders and letting events run as normal, the rest of the world is taking things a lot more cautiously.
This was underlined Friday when the UCI announced its guidelines for the resumption of road racing, prepared by a steering group of cycling and medical experts (they will be releasing similar guidelines soon for mountain bike and BMX).
Much of this document will look very familiar if you’ve dealt with return to sport during the pandemic: it outlines the risk-vs.-mitigation assessment to determine if competition should go ahead. What are new are the measures teams and organizers are required to implement in order to resume racing.
The key concept is “bubbles”– not the ones from the Don Ho song, but a familiar concept if you’ve ever been to an Olympic Games where “security bubbles” are a major topic of conversation. Official Games transport is referred to as “bubble to bubble”– it gets you from the Village security bubble to the venue security bubble without needing to pass through screening at either end.
The UCI approach is based on health bubbles: each team must create a bubble of athletes and staff who are all carefully screened and isolated from the rest of the population. At events, these team bubbles merge to become a “peloton bubble,” isolated from organizers, media, VIPs and fans at registration, during the race, in feed zones, at the awards ceremony, at anti-doping and at the hotel.
All of this relies on continual medical supervision; the sharing of confidential health information between teams, organizers and the UCI; frequent and reliable access to testing; and contingency plans to manage positive cases. That implies a big investment in time and money that can only be met at the highest echelons of the sport, where TV time helps make it viable for sponsors.
The overall concept is similar to what other pro sports are doing, including Formula One and the NHL, though the latter have been plagued with COVID-19 outbreaks, including one that forced the Tampa Bay Lightning to close their facilities.
Things at the domestic level will look very different. There is no way for a national championship organizer to ensure every participant has been tested and has been isolated from the rest of society for the appropriate amount of time, and COVID-19 tests are not available outside the public health system so they can’t be expedited.
Without a viable health bubble, event formats will have to be modified to provide for more social distancing. The Canadian Road Championships, for example, could be just an Individual Time Trial. Mountain bike events could do starts in waves of 10 or fewer athletes. BMX races could have gates of four riders instead of eight. And so on.
Some of these concepts are already being tested to see if they are viable so we’re ready to use them once we get the green light from health authorities.
In the meantime, Cycling Canada released this update on national events on June 19.