The show must go on: How the Spring Classics are being run in COVID times
The Spring Classics season is almost upon us and the anticipation of watching cobbles, echelons and those familiar climbs is growing. Behind the scenes, race organizers are performing a balancing act between putting on some of the best bike races on the calendar, keeping sponsors happy, and operating within the ever-stricter framework of local, regional, and national COVID-19 regulations.
So, what does it take to organize a Spring Classic in Belgium in these pandemic times?
Flanders has the Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, Muur van Geraarsbergen, Haaghoek and Molenberg. Those are names every cycling fan knows but Flanders is struggling to get the pandemic under control, like most places around the world. Getting the biggest Classics like the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders organized is no easy feat. There are no fans allowed for the second consecutive year which means partners and sponsors don’t get to invite their business guests to a VIP day.
“We are lucky we have a long relationship with our most important partners,” says Flanders Classics CEO Tomas Van Den Spiegel. “We spend a lot of time managing those relationships and we really stand together in good and in bad times. The VIP packages we offer are an important part of the business plans of the companies investing in cycling and it’s an important source of income for us as well. This year, like last year, we have to do a lot of digital sponsor and fan activation because spectators aren’t allowed.”
Gent-Wevelgem organizer Griet Langedock explains that when the Classics were organized in October 2020, COVID-19 regulations in Belgium weren’t as strict as they are now, even though the numbers were much higher.
“In October bars and restaurants were open and you could offer your sponsors something, albeit small,” she says. “You could seat four people at a table and have 400 spectators at outdoor sports events. That’s not allowed anymore. You even get big fines for gatherings. Our VIPs are a community you need to tend to but we can’t meet nor see them in person this year.
“It’s heartwarming to see that our volunteers are ready, even if we can’t offer them something big like a reception in return this year. That is something to really be grateful for and one of the few positive things of this crisis. But we all miss the personal touch this year. We’re no longer working towards a festive day but we are forced to work on restrictions and protocols.”
One of the creative solutions Langedock and her team came up with was sending boxes with drinks, snacks and meal items to sponsors to enjoy the race at home, while also generating some income for the caterers. It’s a small gesture to keep in contact. Other things are not so easily solved.
“We have trouble finding a press room, for example,” Langedock says. “The community hall in the center of Wevelgem is now used for the vaccination program. In Ypres the vaccination center is even based in the middle of the start and team zone. We need a place where journalists can work socially distant but that’s not easy to find.”
After gaining experience from running spectator-free events in October, most of the sleepless night are over, but the effort of putting on a race is still as large, explains Van Den Spiegel.
“We couldn’t copy-paste the 2020 plans because the rules have become stricter now,” he says. “No bars or restaurants whatsoever limits the options but most people, including our commercial partners, are happy there is cycling in the first place. Many races are cancelled but we have shown in 2020 that it can be done. The local, regional and national authorities have seen this too. They also see the importance of cycling. We really reap what we sowed in 2020 this spring.”
This is not the case in all countries. In Spain stage races like Volta Valenciana for men and women and the Ruta del Sol have already been postponed. The new women’s Tour of the Basque Country and the Vuelta a Madrid have already been cancelled. Portugal had to postpone the Volta ao Algarve and Great Britain cancelled or postponed all pro races due to take place in May and June. In the Netherlands only the Healthy Ageing Tour and the Amstel Gold Race remain on the calendar this spring.
In Flanders, cycling has a prominent place in society and the different layers of governments act accordingly. That said, all youth, amateur and U23 racing has been forbidden until April 1. Langedock still hopes that Gent-Wevelgem can organize its junior and U23 events on March 28.
“It’s easier to downscale and cancel events than to upgrade at the last minute so we planned for all events to happen, designed routes and made roadbooks for all races already”, Langedock says.
Van Den Spiegel confirms this. “Last year we had all our races in less than two weeks. Now it’s a longer period so the [COVID] numbers can change. We organize the races taking into account the rules as they are now. If more things are possible by the time the Tour of Flanders takes place, we can easily adapt. It’s much harder the other way around.”
In 2020 all of Flanders Classics’ spring races took place in autumn without any spectators. It was a surreal experience hearing the birds sing on the Oude Kwaremont, a place where 40,000 fans normally gather to watch the riders pass by. This year Flanders Classics, which owns Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders and supports the organizing committees of Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl, is asking the same of Belgian and international cycling fans: stay home.
“The climbs and cobbles are easy to close for spectators,” Van Den Spiegel explains. “Seeing a peloton pass at over 50 kilometres an hour on an asphalt road isn’t as interesting as the cobbles or the climbs. We know that our fans love cycling but we are confident they will stay home again.
“The Tour of Flanders is a national holiday, maybe even the biggest of the year. They stayed home for the love of the sport in 2020 and that made the 2021 races possible. It’s now up to us to communicate what is going on and why, and to be as open and transparent as we can. After all that’s been cancelled already the fans are happy that these races take place.”
Belgium is synonymous with cycling. Most of the cyclocross season could take place and although three women’s pro races had to be cancelled, most of the road season seems to be happening as planned.
“Our local and regional authorities think along with us,” Langedock says. “We also showed as the first sport with a COVID protocol and low numbers of infections that it can be done safely. Cycling in Belgium ends when the last Flemish man or woman dies. That is how much it’s engrained in our culture. Let’s hope we can celebrate the sport again with a great party at Wevelgem next year.”
Van Den Spiegel is similarly hopeful.
“Everything is still different but this was to be expected for this year,” he says. “It is what it is. Some riders miss the fans too and some even race a different race with fans. Let’s hope for a return to normalcy, or as normal as we can get as soon as we possibly can.”