Bike racing in a pandemic – how the Aussie Nationals dealt with COVID

From the outside it looked like things were back to normal. Not quite.

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On Friday evening, in the centre of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, hundreds of spectators pressed up against roadside barriers and one another, trying to catch a glimpse of the bike race unfolding before them. Old friends shook hands, family members kissed and hugged one another, almost no one was wearing masks.

To those watching via the online livestream it was a striking sight. In so much of the world, COVID continues to run rampart. Seeing people gather at the Australian Road Nationals felt jarringly unfamiliar, if not more than a little uncomfortable.

Image: Con Chronis

Speaking to those watching the livestream, commentator Dave McKenzie acknowledged the scene before him. “We’ve more or less eradicated COVID here in Australia,” he said, as the elite and U23 women’s criterium got underway.

To those watching from the outside, it appeared that life was back to normal in Australia. Bike racing was back, people were back gathering in crowds. In many ways things are back to normal. But it will be some time yet before life is back to pre-COVID normal, if it ever is. And while the past five days’ racing went ahead more or less as planned, this was anything but a normal Australian Road Nationals.

In a sense it was lucky this year’s Nationals went ahead at all, given the Australian summer of racing was decimated by COVID-induced cancellations. The Bay Crits, Cadel’s Race, Race Torquay, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour – all gone. The Tour Down Under survived only by reinventing itself as a domestic event (with great success). The ‘Road Nats’ was the only other major event to go ahead, albeit a month later than planned. And as AusCycling’s general manager of events and racing Kipp Kaufmann told CyclingTips, it took a concerted effort from the new governing body to get the event off the ground.

“The [Victorian Government] Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS] created a specific permit process that was released in early January,” Kaufmann explained. “We had to submit that very quickly, as quickly as we could. As you could imagine, there was less than a month at that time.

“We submitted that response which was somewhere circa 75 pages of what we would be doing to make it a COVID-safe event – we did that within a few days. We’d already had a COVID-safe plan before that, but the government had come out with their specific requirements to get a permit.”

Representatives from AusCycling and DHHS then met to discuss the plan and work through any concerns the government department had. “We were lucky – there was only a couple of clarification questions and nothing major,” Kaufmann said. “So hopefully we put in quite a good plan. And then subsequently the Department of Health and Human Services took it to the chief health officer and – hopefully I get this wording right – an ‘inter-ministerial council’ for final approval.”

The permit was approved and the event went ahead.

With the number of COVID cases around Australia so low (just two new ones in the past 24 hours), riders weren’t required to quarantine or provide a negative test before taking part in the event, as has been the case with some other sporting events. They also weren’t required to stay in strict team bubbles like they were at the ‘Tour de Tweed’ National Road Series event in late 2020. Masks weren’t required either.

“What we worked with them [the riders] specifically on was really strong communication around not coming if you were ill or had any of the symptoms and certainly, as of Wednesday, if you had been to any of the hotspots,” Kaufmann said. “There were no additional requirements. We have had those in the past. But because of the nature of the event, with so many junior riders and so many Masters riders that we now have, a lot of that was about traveling COVID safe and making sure you were healthy so you were able to participate.”

Kaufmann believes that only four or five riders were unable to get to Nationals due to lockdowns in their home state or territory. One of the event’s biggest names, Luke Durbridge (BikeExchange), was very nearly among those caught out.

Durbridge was in Perth when the city went into lockdown on January 31 after a security guard in a quarantine hotel tested positive for COVID. Durbridge applied to the Victorian Government for an exemption to be allowed to enter the state, and on February 2, the night before Wednesday’s time trial, he flew over to Melbourne before taking the mandated COVID test.

“In these times, COVID, it’s what you’ve got to do,” Durbridge said after finishing second in the time trial on Wednesday. “I think we acted quite quickly and applied for an exemption and I was lucky enough that they granted me one with the appropriate processes, with lots of COVID tests, a COVID test last night at about 10 o’clock at night, arriving at Ballarat by about midnight, and getting the all clear at 9 o’clock this morning and then got out on the road. So, yeah, it has been a stressful sort of 48, 24 hours.”

On the ground throughout the week of Nationals, the impact of COVID was clearly visible. Large signs encouraged spectators to wash their hands frequently, to check in to the event using a QR code, and to maintain an appropriate distance of 1.5 metres between others (a request that was all but ignored throughout).

Hand sanitiser was everywhere you looked – at course crossing points, in backstage areas, beside the steps leading up to the podium. Podium activities bore the signs of the pandemic too. There was no on-stage hot seat for the time trials, riders interviewed on stage were given their own microphone, there were fewer on-stage VIPs, and podium finishers were asked to put their own medals on before climbing on stage. The same was true of the new national champions who pulled their green and gold jerseys on by themselves (often while trying to juggle a toy owl from title sponsor Federation University).

These changes to the podium ceremonies were inspired by similar measures implemented at the recent Santos Festival of Cycling.

Sarah Gigante, with her national’s champ’s jersey still only half on, offers Anya Louw an elbow-bump in celebration on the U23 time trial podium.

We reporters were separated from those we were interviewing by a fence, and were required to wear masks during interviews. There was no media centre for us to work in, and there were no media cars available to drive us around the course. Little else was different.

Maeve Plouffe is interviewed by masked reporters after winning the U23 criterium title.

Perhaps the event’s most visible change came on the Sunday. Normally packed with fans watching the marquee road races, the Mt. Buninyong roadside was instead sparsely populated after AusCycling mandated a 500-person limit on the hill. Those attending needed to book their spot ahead of time and officials set up a gate of sorts to prevent too many people crowding the area.

“We chose to do that in advance of putting the submission in [to the DHHS] and [we were instead] moving people to that big corner coming down through the university,” Kaufmann said. “That attracted a bigger crowd than we’ve ever seen, but was [socially] distanced instead of being on the hill. Those were some of the things that certainly weren’t imposed on us, but we knew would put us in a good place to get a permit accepted.”

The hill was noticeably quieter than normal.

Other measures were put in place behind the scenes too. Like moving team and official briefings online, as AusCycling did with the Tour de Tweed late last year.

“The briefings we’re done virtually, [there was] more use of WhatsApp and things like that so people wouldn’t cluster in an area,” Kaufmann said. “People have become really used to now using those mechanisms. All those things helped people come to Ballarat and know what measures they’d have to take and what we wanted to do to keep the community safe.”

Entry to the feed zone was restricted during the road races.

Kaufmann says he was happy with how the event’s COVID plan was implemented, particularly as the first Nationals to be run in such circumstances.

“It was our first time so we can always learn from that and hopefully we can share some of the learnings that we’ve had of how that can improve with other organisers,” he said. “But certainly I think by the crowds and how happy and excited people were I think that those measures gave people some comfort to feel comfortable being there.”

Ultimately, the long tail of COVID imposed few restrictions on those at the 2021 Australian Road National Championships; riders, media, staff and spectators alike. Wearing a mask, applying sanitiser, and checking in using a QR code were small prices to pay to attend another successful and entertaining edition of the event.

Indeed, walking around and chatting to people across the five days of racing, the overwhelming sense I got was one of relief. After a torrid year for so many, the ability to watch – or participate in – some quality bike racing was warmly welcomed. Hopefully the same is possible elsewhere in the world as 2021 unfolds.

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