WORDS BY WILL KEAY
Being a professional rider is challenging in a normal year, but imagine training for the entire offseason to have the racing year up in the air. Several events have been postponed or cancelled creating more uncertainty as the days go on. Some are wondering whether any of the 2020 season will go ahead at all despite updated calendars being released for later in the year. For us at home, it’s relatively easy to accept that there might be limited world level racing this season. However, some riders earn their living from racing and working from home isn’t an option. On the flipside, spare a thought for the hard working privateers trying to make the big time. They’ve been working full time jobs alongside training but may no longer be able to go overseas to compete. We reached out to a series of kiwi-based riders, including pros and privateers, to get their perspectives on the 2020 race season and what that may look like in the face of Covid-19.
Editor’s note: Just as this article was ready to go live, the UCI released a revised calendar for the 2020 season. This sees cross country riders race their season within a month, while the downhill racers will run from September to November. Some venues will be hosting double-headers to give riders some more opportunities to go against the clock. The EWS have postponed some rounds but plan to run these later in the year.
Even in the early stages of the Covid-19 spread, it was clear the racing season was going to be significantly disrupted. On March 23, the Government enforced a nationwide lockdown. The first international racing events were meant to kick off within weeks of this announcement.
All the riders we interviewed had altered their usual lifestyles. Privateer and mullet man Sam Shaw was taking the lockdown in his stride, trying to train as usual just in case some racing was to take place. Sam had some hefty plans of racing cross country and enduro events over in Europe this year so was keen to maintain his fitness. Enduro pinner and freeskier Charlie Murray was stoked to spend some time focussing on his engineering career and working on some projects around home while keeping up with his base fitness routine. Kiwi speed and style champ Billy Meaclem spent his lockdown in Queenstown keeping it real with plenty of street and skatepark sessions. U21 enduro Trophy of Nations Winner Nils Heiniger had just moved back to Christchurch after a summer in Queenstown before the lockdown and was able to do some riding close to home and do some light workouts with some home gym equipment.
Over on Instagram we saw that Brook MacDonald recently got a new puppy to keep him occupied at home in between getting back onto his bike after surgery to remove the rods from his broken back right before lockdown. He said “I’ve basically been on my road bike everyday just building my strength back up and I’m not too far off of my peak from last year”. Sam Blenkinsop has also been going for longer road rides and getting stuck into at home workouts with his homemade gym. He’s said he’s been pretty stoked to be able to spend lots of time with his baby daughter and wife over the lockdown.
Professional enduro rider Joe Nation has been taking a break from his structured training programme and keeping things fun. Joe said he’s a big fan of smashing hill sprints on his road bike and we’ve seen some videos out hunting KOM’s over on his socials. Joe has been keeping up with some body weight strength sessions to keep strong and support his arm rehab. Trek Factory enduro racer and Scottish native Katy Winton regularly spends her summers out in New Zealand before heading off to the first round of the EWS. With the Covid-19 outbreak and the first few races postponed Katy has stuck in here in New Zealand. After initially working out how to move forward amidst the uncertainty, she’s been training as usual and is stoked to still have some good weather down in Christchurch.
On the professional cross country side of things, Anton Cooper has reduced the volume of his training schedule with only 5 days on the bike and a couple of indoor gym sessions to keep the intensity there. He said “There is no point thrashing the body at this stage but it’s important to keep it reminded of what it’s job is!.”
With uncertainty comes the need for re-calibrating training schedules so riders can compete in the best form possible. This will be a nightmare for coaches and trainers rewriting plans without much certainty of when things will start moving again. For some riders maybe this will be a godsend as it will give them extra time to iron out little niggles in their bodies (e.g. training or pre season race injuries).
Charlie Murray said he stopped his entire structured programme as soon as heard the first two rounds of the EWS were postponed. Instead he has been doing some running, HIIT workouts and exercising for fun. Blenki hasn’t been riding any downhill during the lockdown but has been taking it easy on some of his local mountain bike trails in Christchurch in between road riding and home gymming. Sam Shaw mentioned he has mainly training on the road and has increased his Pilates sessions. Brook Mac and his coach have been focussing on building his strength back up following his injury from last year. He said “I can’t really train specific for what’s going on at the moment as I don’t know when racing is going to happen.” Nils was aiming to maintain a base level of fitness and stay healthy but also said it was hard to train without a clear idea of when the race season will commence.
The lockdown meant that everything other than essential services were closed. Joe Nation said his training usually includes smashing some laps at the Christchurch Adventure Park and heading to the gym in town for workout sessions. Both were a no go during the lockdown so Joe has been mixing up his training a bit with some running to keep things balanced. The dirt jumps at Gorge Road and Skyline gondola in Queenstown were also closed meaning Billy has been riding in different spots. Katy said that apart from not being able to access the gym, her training regime hadn’t changed much. She was just starting to build from the beginning again as there was so much unknown.
2020 was meant to be an Olympic year before they got postponed due to Covid-19. For many cross country riders it becomes a juggling act between racing World Cups and preparing for the Olympic games. Anton had planned to be in hot form for the first round of the cross country World Cup in late May before having another peak just before the Olympics in late July. He said the sport is in a holding pattern until there is more clarity about what the season may look like especially with travel and border restrictions. In terms of training, Anton has altered his regime to a maintenance phase until there is further information. He said “it’s a good chance to take a mental and physical break and embrace a different lifestyle for a while.”
An unclear picture
As the days progress, the international racing season is beginning to look pretty grim. Early on, we thought a condensed or reduced season might be able to go ahead. At the time, we were stoked as riders like Brook MacDonald and Tahnee Seagrave, both returning from injury, may have been able to race. However, it seems that events are being cancelled each week.
All the riders we caught up with expressed how they want to be able to compete at some point this season. However, most riders are thinking there will be no international racing with a few citing all the variables involved with Covid-19 and the impacts this has on getting in and out of New Zealand. To add to this, different countries are at different places with the virus and have different travel restrictions. If anything is to go ahead overseas, it looks like it may be around September/October at the earliest. Charlie Murray and Nils Heiniger are hoping that we may have some events in the Southern Hemisphere later in the year as the winter in the north will mean not much can take place.
Anton Cooper suggested that the “the priority for the UCI is to hold a World Championship in 2020, wherever that may take place.” He went on to say that the second priority for the organisation would be ensure a World Cup season takes place as this is important for the UCI to make some revenue. Anton finished up saying the teams and riders are also hoping we can be back racing later in the year, though said this will depend on things like global border travel restrictions and individual countries policies on hosting major events and spectator numbers. Meanwhile, Sam Shaw is expecting a year off international racing but is keen to see “an aggressive international equivalent season” here in NZ when things get going again. Fingers crossed the 2020/2021 summer season here in New Zealand can go ahead relatively unrestricted.
Socially distant racing?
We’ve seen local businesses and workplaces implementing rigorous measures in order to operate again post lockdown and beyond. This raises the question of whether some events could go ahead with no spectators and only one racer on a course at a time adhering to physical distancing protocols. Obviously this relies on travel being able to take place between venues. For DH and enduro, this may be practically possible. For XC, it would be challenging to execute and the racing wouldn’t be the same. Spectators play a major role in creating the vibrant atmosphere of World Cup racing but also contribute largely to the financial operation of the event, so running races without spectators will be risky for event organisers.
Many of the DH and enduro riders said if it was the only option that allowed them to race this season then it could work. However, having no spectators on the sidelines would destroy the atmosphere associated with these races. Brook Macdonald said “we are there to put on a show for the fans and spectators, so I think having none around would be very different, but I mean we would deal with it, it would just be a weird vibe”. Sam Blenkinsop likened it to a job; “yeah I think it is a good idea, at the end of the day it is our job and like any job there has been measures in place to be able to do their work.”
Katy Winton raised some good points for enduro racing stating it “could be possible for enduro, but we do hang around each other a lot at the top of stages…so we’d have to make bigger gaps between riders to spread us out which then eats into the day which is already quite maxed due to the number of competitors across EWS/EWS100/EWS80”. She also said it would be pretty gutting to have no spectators and have to stay away from other racers/friends.
Anton outlined that Mountain Biking was just one sport impacted by Covid-19 and until an appropriate vaccine arrives there will have to be some creative ways found to allow professional sport to continue. In terms of racing, both Anton and Sam Shaw said it was near impossible to limit contact between riders in cross country racing. Anton reinforced that it would be very strange without spectators but if it allows them to race then he would be a taker; “the racing will still be just as fast, aggressive and thrilling to watch on TV as it normally is”. Sam Shaw said “having randoms hollering or revving their chainsaw at you while you hit the fastest and most technical bits of track is a pretty fun side of the sport.”
Thinking more broadly, Charlie Murray added that while it would be possible to reduce contact, there would be no way to limit it completely. He also pointed out that race officials, organisers and medics would have to work together but also with the riders meaning there could be some potential for transmission.
Racing overseas at any level requires support of varying degrees. Some professionals race for teams where they get paid a salary, while the privateers might get an allowance to help with travel costs. Simply put, the outcome for brands supporting riders is exposure which ultimately leads to sales of their products. With the uncertainty around events both locally and internationally it becomes hard for riders to represent their sponsors as intended. It’s also a tough time for brands as they may be facing difficulties with production or orders.
Everyone we asked was still receiving support from their respective sponsors, and most of those on paid contracts were still receiving money despite not racing – especially on the larger teams. Katy Winton mentioned that her sponsors had reached out to make sure she was keeping well which she was grateful for. Fingers crossed these riders still receive this level of support as we ride out Covid-19.
Anton Cooper pointed out that many of the racers on the cross country circuit will have their contracts expire at the end of the 2020 season. The reason for this is that cross country contracts tend to “run for two years and work in time with the Olympic cycles. For example, in 2016 the Olympics were held in Rio. I signed a contract with Trek for the 2017-2018 season and then performed well enough to sign another deal for 2019-2020 to get me through to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.”
The riders we interviewed are eager to get racing again whenever or wherever that may be. In the meantime, they wanted to remind everyone to stay safe and to do their best to adhere to the rules in place so we can get back out there racing ASAP. In the meantime, they said to support your local businesses like bike shops, green grocers, and cafés as opposed to the larger online retailers.
Massive kudos to the riders who took the time to answer our questions. Hopefully there is some clarity in the coming months for all of you. Keep updated on their happenings over on their respective social media profiles.