Varying levels of government lockdowns over the past 18 months have dealt a devastating blow to the mountain bike events industry. Lockdown Levels 5 (obviously), 4 and 3 all place significant restrictions on mountain bike events. The shift in levels is usually sudden, which sees mountain bike events cancelled or postponed at short notice. It’s led to a very uncertain future for mountain bike events in South Africa. What is the way forward?

By Sean Badenhorst

South Africa is probably the world’s leading nation when it comes to mountain bike events. Few – if any – other countries attract such large numbers of entrants to such a wide range of high-quality events, which include marathon (and half-marathon), ultra-marathon, ultra-endurance, short stage races and long stage races. And then there are XCO and Gravity (DH and Enduro) events, which are growing too.

The postponed 2021 Absa Cape Epic is touch and go still… | Photo: Greg Beadle/Cape Epic

A once packed year-round calendar with more than 400 mountain bike events is now in a constant state of uncertainty as South Africa contends with cyclical ‘waves’ of Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths. No matter what your views on their effectiveness, lockdowns are mandated by the government and appear to be something we’ll have to accept for the foreseeable future.

Many will point out that mountain bike events are recreational and not essential and that public health should be prioritised over everything. And they’re correct. But with a high number of South Africans having recovered from Covid-19 (almost 2.3 million according to official recovery stats as at 6 August 2021) and many healthy and young enough to be at low risk of either catching or suffering from serious Covid-19 symptoms, there should be some leeway. There’s constant official messaging on restrictions but no promotion of the benefits of outdoor exercise, which not only has proven immune system strengthening benefits, but is also a mental health boost.

We’re approaching 18 months of being in various levels of lockdown. A year and a half of disruption for mountain bike events. What a challenge for event organisers, who are doing everything they can to keep their events alive in some form or another. How much longer can they hang on?

The majority of South African mountain bikers like to participate in events with 69.31% participating in at least three events a year. Events give us a goal and provide motivation. Events give some of us our identity and the ability to feel connected to what we’re most passionate about. At a time when so much feels out of our control, events help us focus on things we can control, which helps keep us at least positive, at most, sane.

Since mid-June 2021 there have been no mountain bike events. Despite the shift from 25 July to Lockdown Level 3, in the past week, the 2021 Momentum Medical Scheme Cape Pioneer Trek, scheduled for early September was cancelled and the Insect Science Magoeba Trek three-day stage race has been postponed from late August to late September. Events take time to organise, with most needing at least four weeks of unrestricted preparation.

The already postponed 2021 Absa Cape Epic, scheduled to be held in late October, is touch and go currently. The organisers are working on holding the event with a reduced field of 250 teams (there are normally just over 600 teams), but international travel limitations in addition to local restrictions aren’t making it easy. Organisers say a ‘yay-or-nay’ announcement will be made soon.

Once started, a typical mountain bike race puts riders in a healthy, socially distanced sweet spot | Photo: King Price Trailseeker Series.

The first and only South African government Events Act was hurriedly created for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. In 11 years it’s never been updated and, not surprisingly, it’s primarily focused on stadium-style sports events (where alcohol is sold and consumed), which obviously differ somewhat from mountain bike events. Combine that with lockdown restrictions on events/gatherings, which also focus primarily on stadium/closed venue type of sports and you have many very frustrated mountain bike event organisers.

Last year, Cycling South Africa was impressive with its proactivity in addressing mountain bike events with the government. It did what all national sporting governing bodies should do and fight to allow events to resume based on the generally favourable socially distanced structure of mountain bike events. I haven’t seen anything similar from CSA during this current Covid wave easing, but expect (hope) CSA will be taking it up with the relevant government department again soon.

While recreational riding has pleasingly grown over the past 18 months, it’s hard to deny that the South African mountain biking industry was built around successful events/races and continues to depend on them. The sooner we get events up and running again, the better for the industry as a whole and the sport in general. Many newcomers to mountain bike riding during the lockdown are sure to respond well to the goal of completing a race.

In the past 12 months, when Lockdown Levels were adjusted to 2 and 1, mountain bike events were able to resume, albeit with restrictions. But as the next Covid-19 cycle reached a certain stage, a new Lockdown Level was implemented and event organisers were left with some big decisions.

After three Covid-19 waves, we now know that the waves appear to peak about six months apart. With this in mind and the peak of the third wave being mid-July 2021, if there is a fourth wave, it’s likely to peak in early/mid-January 2022. I’m not an event organiser, but if I was, I’d be looking at the historic dates of our lockdown levels and ensure my event falls in the historic period of Level 1 or 2.

South African Lockdowns in response to Covid-19

18 August 2020           >>>      20 September 2020 – Level 2

20 September 2020    >>>      27 December 2020 – Level 1

28 December 2020     >>>      1 February 2021 – Level 3

2 February 2021          >>>      28 February – Level 2

1 March 2021              >>>      30 May 2021 – Level 1

31 May 2021               >>>      15 June 2021 – Level 2

16 June 2021               >>>      25 July 2021 – Level 4

26 July 2021                >>>      Current – Level 3

One-day races are able to take place in Lockdown Level 3 but need to adhere to maximum event/gathering numbers, which during this current Level 3 period, is 100 people outdoors. So one-day events essentially need to take place over more than one day with small groups starting in a very staggered manner in terms of timing. Ultra-distance events can also continue with some restrictions, but multi-day events, by nature of the race villages, can’t.

Let’s hope the current wave continues to subside and the less restrictive Levels 2 and 1 are declared as we move into spring and summer. Historically, Level 2  permits up to 250 to gather outdoors, while Level 1 is 500. Some events scheduled for the next few months really need this in order to survive or avoid having to postpone or cancel their 2021 edition.

Once a mountain bike race has started, riders are pretty much in a very healthy, socially distanced sweet spot. In the wilderness, breathing in lungfuls of fresh air, generally under warm to hot sunshine, far from any kind of enclosed environment and exercising for hours. All proven to strengthen immune systems naturally. It seems crazy that this is not taken into account as we understand more about this virus and continue to develop the required herd immunity through a combination of Covid-19 illness recoveries and Covid-19-specific vaccinations.

What is the end goal with Covid-19? Nobody can really answer this with any kind of certainty. Is it the eradication of Covid-19? Hardly possible since it’s a coronavirus, one of seven in the world today. We learned to live fairly normally with the other six, which are seasonal in how they affect us. We’ll have to learn to live with the new one too. But when? Hopefully sooner rather than later. We need to catch up on lost time. We need to rediscover what it’s like to train for a scary goal event. We need to replace our masks with our race faces.