Mass Start Hysteria: What should race directors do about COVID-19?


Holy crud, I don’t envy race directors right now.

These are mostly folks with day jobs. And they’re facing super-tough choices about their events in light of a global pandemic.

They put on races out of love for our sport and our community. So what does a community-loving race director do in light of all this COVID-19 scariness?

First, take this stuff seriously.

Folks chiming, “It’s a damn cold!” need a math lesson.

Yes, you 40-something macho racers with chiseled glutes and a perfect diet are at low risk of developing severe symptoms. In becoming the ultradistance gravel race machines that you are, you’ve likely given yourselves the ripped-as-hell immune systems of Greek demigods. Gold stars for you!

Your immune system, basically. (Photo,

But this isn’t about you. The same bug that inconveniences your race season is lethal to somewhere between 0.6% and 2% of the people who catch it. Those numbers seem small in a sentence. They’re plenty big with something this contagious.

Chancellor Angela Merkel recently predicted that 70% of Germans could contract the COVID-19 virus in the months to come. Let’s say America somehow fares far better. Let’s say only 30% of Americans catch this thing.

Thirty percent of 327 million Americans is 98.1 million infections.

Now let’s apply the low-end mortality estimate of 0.6%. That’s still 588,600 deaths, or enough American dying to empty Lincoln twice. Enough American dying to surpass our casualties in World War II with 150,000 to spare. So please encourage the athletes who would minimize this pandemic to shut their faces while the grownups work to protect our system of hospitals.

Your system will be fine. It’s this system that we can’t break. (Photo, CHI Health St. Elizabeth)

Any race director who chooses to cancel an event this year has more than enough reason to do so. We should give them support, not grief.

What else might race directors do, short of canceling, to #FlattenTheCurve and minimize the potential impact on our health care system? I’ve arranged some ideas here in order of potential positive impact.


The risk that a large gathering poses to a hospital system changes over time in relation to an outbreak’s peak. Events held while an outbreak is surging can overwhelm a hospital’s capacity to meet demand. (And when demand is for ventilators, supply shortages mean dead people.)

The further you slide an event away from that surge, the less impact it has on a hospital’s function. I’ve heard state health department estimates of a July peak for COVID-19 in Nebraska. So a spring or summer race that slides to fall or early winter could dramatically reduce its potential to overwhelm the health care system.

If the Boston Marathon can make a move like this, so can any gravel race.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.15.28 AM
For the first time in 124 years, the Boston Marathon postponed its start date to September. (Photo,

Short of canceling, rescheduling will have the greatest impact. But that isn’t the only step race directors might consider for 2020.

Trim the extras.

In a pandemic, the gravel expo might just be more dangerous than the racing. The crowd milling about … the mixing and mingling. Can you work with your sponsors and cut it?

And what about that pre-race rider meeting? Can that become an online video?

Infectious disease experts might vote that we skip pre-race meetings like this one in Emporia’s Granada Theater. (Photo,

Rethink your start.

Mass starts help make gravel cool. You line up right here. And you could throw a spit wad and hit a pro right over there. (Please don’t throw spit wads in a global pandemic.)

But that crowded dynamic makes mass starts a bad idea right now. We probably shouldn’t be rubbing elbows with anybody.

How might you lower the risk of spreading contagion by stringing out your start over a period of time? Could you use chip timing in place of a single gun? Could you assign riders to role out in phases?

Photo, Wichita Eagle

Turn your checkpoints into check-zones.

Like mass starts, race checkpoints become dense pinch-points where contagion can easily spread. What if you reworked your checkpoints and allowed riders’ support crews to station themselves along the roadside anywhere between mile X and mile Y?

By stretching the crowd over a greater space, you could reduce the chance of disease hopping from team tent to team tent.

Checkpoints can be narrow and packed for hours. (Photo,

Thin your herd.

Your field undoubtedly includes some nervous folks. (If you’re not nervous about this thing, you’re not paying attention.) Consider some kindhearted disincentives for racing. What if you offered riders guaranteed—or even free—entry in next year’s event if they bowed out of this one?

This year, the smaller your field, the lower your risk.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.48.15 AM
A whole lot of gravel racing is “socially distant.” 2020 is just about managing the few parts that aren’t. (Photo,

Talk to your hotels.

You’re not responsible for how hotels approach cleanliness in a pandemic. But if you know what those hotels are doing and a couple of them stand out as proactive, that’s something valuable you can share with your out-of-town racers.

Lincoln’s Graduate Hotel, a popular spot for Gravel Worlds racers. (Photo,

This is a weird year for a weird sport. All of these drastic options that make sense for 2020 can probably drop dead as soon as this thing passes.

Then gravel racers like us can all go back to our normal versions of weird. Won’t that be nice?


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