How to organize a national championships in COVID-times

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Every country has its own set of rules to make cycling races happen in these unprecedented times. Many countries, like the United Kingdom and the United States, have had to cancel their road championships. The Netherlands, which has strict regulations around social distancing and groups, was on its way of having a championship-free year until one organizer stepped up and made it happen.

In six weeks, race organizer Thijs Rondhuis of Courage Events shortened and altered the planned course, set up kilometres of extra barriers, worked with local governments to gain approval, and put on a national championship. The hope is that the event can serve as a national model and ensure that even bigger events, like Amstel Gold, can occur later this fall.

“We were already in charge of organizing the national championships in June,” Rondhuis explained. “We heard quite soon after the lockdown was announced in the Netherlands mid-March that big events were not going to happen until 1 September. For a long while nothing happened and we only focused on securing the national championships bid for 2021, which we did. But then teams, especially the continental and women’s teams, contacted the cycling union KNWU that a championship with its publicity and media value was very welcome in these times. So, we went back to work.”

Thijs Rondhuis is an experienced organizer in the Netherlands. His company organizes the Healthy Ageing Tour and the Boels Ladies Tour as well. The latter, a UCI Women’s WorldTour race due on 1 September, had to be cancelled because of the government’s COVID-19 regulations.

“The Boels Ladies Tour is an event in the city centers of several medium to large cities and crosses many municipalities. Within the framework of the COVID-19 regulations, we had to approach the national championships differently. The biggest bottleneck is social distancing rules. When people are in one space it’s 1,5 metres but when they are moving it’s almost 5 metres per person. That was impossible for the Boels Ladies Tour but is possible on a closed terrain with guarded entry and exit points.”

Securing social distancing on public roads is the hardest condition to tackle within government regulations. The solution was to shorten the original 14 to 15-kilometre lap around the VAM-berg to a seven-kilometre lap. This meant fewer factors to take into account and more things to be closely managed by the organizers.

The final result was a stark contrast from other national championships, like those in Italy and France, which saw large groups of fans.

“When organizing an event there are many parties involved. First and foremost, the municipalities, the local councils. For the national championships that was only one: Midden-Drenthe,” Rondhuis said.

“But we also had to speak with the province, the police, the fire department, medical service and the overall ‘veiligheidsregio’ (Netherlands has 25 of these safety clusters, usually presided over by the mayor of the biggest city). Normally we don’t need the latter because cycling is a low-risk event but in these times, everyone was involved. I was on Zoom calls with 14 people at one time. The most important thing is to listen to what everyone wants and then figure out what can be done. We only had a very short time period to do this but because we were on good terms with all parties involved because of the previously planned national championships in June, we managed to pull it off in about six weeks.”

The terrain around the VAM-berg, that infamous 4,800 centimetre-high rubbish pile, was completely closed off. Driving up to the VAM-berg and to see some riders was impossible. The entire course was surrounded by gates and no one got in without the appropriate paperwork, not even the world champion Annemiek van Vleuten, sitting next to me in the car.

Organisers separated riders and fans with two sets of barriers. Here, Mathieu van der Poel goes solo in the finale.

The teams had a separate area with their own sanitary block and the other guests, VIPS, journalists, sponsors and inhabitants of Wijster and Drijber, the local villages, had their own section. Teams and their staff underwent COVID-testing and were given the all-clear by team doctors. The other guests, including journalists, were not tested but face masks were mandatory in areas where social distancing could not be guaranteed or in areas where close contact with the riders was inevitable.

“Because of the space available we had to be very strict with invitations and accreditations,” Rondhuis continues. “We have 250 spots available for sponsors, VIPS, guests and media and 250 for visitors. It was a bit of a puzzle how to distribute those visitor tickets. Because we have to close off the town of Drijber for three consecutive days we decided to let the local people in. By limiting the visitor count we can assure the social distancing guidelines are met and that we could have a national championship in the end.”

For the teams, it was very important to have a national championship. The exposure on national television is vital for smaller teams like the women’s teams and men’s continental teams.

“For our riders, it’s so good to be racing again and our sponsors need and deserve the exposure that comes with a championship on national tv,” said Parkhotel Valkenburg team manager Esra Tromp explains. “We are very happy with an organization who is willing to put the effort in and take the risk. Making a race like this happen in a safe way for all involved is no easy feat. It was a bit different than other years because normally we would invite sponsors and the riders would have their friends and family present. Normally they race abroad a lot and don’t get to see family and friends at races a lot but in these circumstances, it was completely understandable. The COVID bubble resulted in extra focus and an even stronger team spirit than we normally already have.”

In the Netherlands, the next test case is the BinckBank Tour (men’s WorldTour) which partly takes place in the Netherlands. But the big test will be the only WorldTour Classic in the country: the Amstel Gold Race on 10 October. Although most COVID-19 infections are currently in the big cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam all organizers have to adhere to the same government regulations. The Amsterdam marathon, a week before the Amstel Gold Race had to be cancelled this week.

The KNWU, the Dutch cycling union, is closely monitoring the organization of the national championships to see how Amstel may unfold.

“The organization was really good today,” says KNWU director Thorwald Veneberg. “The distancing reminds me of Qatar because it feels so clinical. Today is an important test case for the Amstel Gold Race because they are still fighting for permits in Limburg. We have representatives from the safety clusters in Limburg here to assess the situation.”

The organizers of the Amstel Gold Race stated this week that the race is still a go but with five local councils involved and over 200 kilometres of public roads it will be difficult to make it happen under the current Dutch government COVID-19 regulations.

Only time will tell if there will be more races on Dutch soil this season.

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