Mike Lessard

Down But Not Out

This story originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. Click here to join and receive nine issues per year.

At first, the cancellations seemed like they might be a blip — an abundance of caution on the part of guide and guest. One trip, then two. Then ...

Shelter-in-place orders, social distancing guidelines, the eventual feeling of inevitability as cancellations were swallowed up by an avalanche of hiatuses, a rolling postponement of, well, life.

At Adventure Cycling Association headquarters in western Montana, the news of COVID-19’s swell and scope filtered in as a near-abstract, a math problem being calculated somewhere else. But sure as arithmetic, we too began to cancel trips in the way Hemingway wrote about going bust: gradually, then suddenly.

In 2020, Adventure Cycling canceled 96 tours, including a self-supported ride along the Southern Tier that was partway across America when the world shut down in March — the group pulled the ripcord on their eastward journey in El Paso, Texas. Around the world, tour operators and event directors moved, deferred, and canceled trips as long-planned-for events were scrapped and decades-long traditions broken.

“It’s hard to believe we didn’t host a group ride on the TransAm for maybe the first summer since 1976,” said Adventure Cycling’s Tours Director Mike Lessard. “But if there was ever a reason to break with tradition, COVID was it.”

We’ll all share a collective asterisk: Celebrate XX Years!* (*except for that one).

Every February issue for the past decade or so, this publication has taken a look at the world of supported tours and events. Sure, a group tour might not have the same romance as the tiny-person-in-a-huge-landscape, Instagram-ready allure of some grand solo tour. But guided tours and multiday events are the way many (most?) of us experience bike travel year in and year out. It’s how we started, or how we stay connected, or heck, it’s just how we prefer to take our vacation days. Carry my stuff and feed me? Yes, please.

But what’s there to highlight after a year of cancellations? Sure, trips ran in the second half of the year and (thank goodness) we were spared news stories about some cycling mainstay as a superspreader event, but the overwhelming experience for riders in 2020 was one of a year skipped, a deposit deferred to next year, a circled week on the calendar crossed out.

To be clear, this organization believes the decisions that we and others took in the face of deep uncertainty were the right ones — bike trips were not worth the risk to human life. But as we turn the page to 2021, and the bicycle travel industry specifically and adventure travel at large look to bounce back from a generational interruption, the big question — the only question — left to ask is, “What next?”

Safety first. And second. And third.

Elli Sias of North Carolina’s Cycle of Life Adventures is crystal clear about whether they’ll be back in 2021.

“Absolutely.”

By late 2020, there was a sense of not just optimism but perhaps defiance among the operators still standing 10 months after lockdowns began in North America in March. A sense that not only can tours run, they can run plenty safely too.

“Our epic adventures of more than two weeks will require COVID testing,” Sias said. “We are planning on COVID still being here through the mid-summer months. We’ll keep many of our protocols in place as we’re not only concerned about guest safety but also our guides and staff personally.”

For Manny Agulnik at OK Cycle Tours in Ontario, Canada, the challenge is global. With hundreds of partner companies around the planet, the potential number of unique restrictions, borders, and situations is practically infinite. Of course, that reach also means options — Agulnik said OK’s 2021 tours exceed 500 options, and active outreach to new partners means there are new choices.

“We are hopeful that as they roll out the vaccines, client confidence will return to wanting to book and travel again,” he said. “It will take some time for clients to feel comfortable and for borders to reopen.”

That timeline sounds about right to Bruno Toutain. The CEO of French bicycle travel agency Cyclomundo is making accommodations for both the relatively concrete reopening of amenities as well as the decidedly less concrete return of traveler confidence.

“We do not expect all hotels and restaurants to reopen ‘as usual’ until April or May,” he said. “And until August/September, we believe that people will still be reluctant to fly.”

What else will riders be reluctant (or unable) to do? Well, as part of safety protocols enacted in 2020, one operator moved all meals outdoors.

“We held only 25 percent of our tour offerings [in 2020],” said Jackie Marchand, president of WomanTours. “We had to revise some itineraries, as many hotel and restaurant establishments and planned activities were unavailable or closed. And we changed all of our meals to be eaten outside.”

Across the board — even with expectations of a vaccine at some point in the first half of the year — operators said that out of an abundance of caution and a priority on guest safety, many of the changes enacted in 2020 are likely to stick around.

“Safety has always played a key role in the way we run our tours, and the coronavirus has just added another layer,” Marchand said. “Even with vaccines, I expect masks, physical distancing, and heightened cleaning protocols to be with us into the future.”

The rolling hills of Iowa were empty in 2020, but the 48th annual RAGBRAI will try again in July 2021.
Dennis Coello

Events pivot, then plan

When it came time for the Arthritis Foundation’s annual California Coast Classic in October 2020, a ride down the Left Coast wasn’t an option. So like many other event rides that simply couldn’t gather during COVID-19, the CCC went virtual.

The Remote Ride X CCC presented an “opportunity to ride together as a CCC community,” according to the Arthritis Foundation’s Shannon Marang Cox. Running 30 days instead of the typical week, the virtual option let riders log miles, fundraise, and enjoy virtual happy hours and other social events. How’d it go? Well:

“We’re planning an in-person event and offering a remote rider option in parallel for September 2021,” Marang Cox said. “[The virtual option] was surprisingly successful this year and we think chances are we’ll still have restrictions in California.”

After the monthlong socially distanced ride, the CCC had brought in $940,000 of its $1.1 million goal.

Similarly, the Empire State Ride, a weeklong ride to benefit the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, offered a monthlong virtual option and is already planning for both in-person and virtual rides in 2021.

“We are planning for all scenarios but are anticipating some COVID-related restrictions to still be in place in New York State in mid-2021,” said the ride’s director Bryan Sidorowicz. “A large portion of our riders travel to New York State not only from other states but also other countries. If current travel restrictions are still in place in 2021, anyone travelling from outside of New York will have to go through a quarantine and testing protocol before embarking on their journey.”

The virtual ride raised $750,000 of its million dollar goal.

Other styles of events were somewhat socially distanced by definition. The second annual Arkansaw [sic] High Country Race along Adventure Cycling’s route in the state moved from June to late October, but for the 20 riders who met in Fayetteville for a scaled-back grand depart, they quickly rode away from one another … right onto screens around the country.

“Our race is an exercise in social distancing regardless of a pandemic,” said Chuck Campbell, the architect of the race and the route. “Our solo and self-supported format was gaining popularity even before COVID, and I expect to see more events follow this model. Spectators get to dot-watch (following the racers via their GPS locations on trackleaders.com) on their own screen. I expect to see races use dot-watching coupled with social media to help folk connect to the race and the racers.”

Another 10 riders opted for an individual time trial (ITT) option completed entirely on their own, something Campbell said he plans to continue in the future.

The appeal of an event like the grueling Arkansaw race might be the solitude and suffering, but what about events whose entire culture is built around social cycling?

Not even the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa could escape the grip of a global pandemic, pivoting to a virtual event like so many others for 2020: the exceedingly clever “virtually the best bicycle ride in the world” with the hashtag #RAGBRAImyself.

“I can’t imagine any scenario where it would’ve been okay to have RAGBRAI this year,” new-for-2020 event director Dieter Drake told the Des Moines Register, the newspaper that owns the ride. “It’d be impossible to social distance on RAGBRAI, so I think it was a good call.”

Looking to 2021, RAGBRAI registration is open for the 48th annual event (which would’ve occurred in 2020) now and organizers are tentatively planning for more sanitation stations, extended hours on the route, and a number of other possibilities depending on the status of COVID cases by the time July rolls around.

In the Pacific Northwest, the original COVID hotspot in the U.S., the Cascade Bicycle Club likewise had to make big changes to its annual event schedule, including the “STP” ride from Seattle to Portland.

Cascade’s Ride Program Manager David Urbina said STP and other rides throughout the summer were made virtual before the club was able to run a smaller tour in October with many COVID precautions in place.

“These precautions included smaller groups of six riders, staggered start times, a smaller overall registration, no large gatherings, and masks required any time a bicyclist was stationary,” said Urbina about the three-day Lake Chelan Tour. “We were also able to slowly start opening back up our Free Group Rides program during a phased reopening with limitations on registrants and with strict COVID precautions in place.”

Masks, hand sanitizer, seats left empty, and grateful clients — all common sights in 2020 for operators who were able to squeeze in a few trips.
Annette Lein

‘Optimistic, but realistic’

When we think of bike travel, we tend to think of faraway places and exotic destinations, but for operators who were able to book and successfully run trips in 2020, it was often options close to clients’ homes that remained viable as riders considered their personal bubbles.

Lukas Herbert runs tours from the Big Apple, the world’s COVID epicenter for weeks and a jurisdiction that demanded tighter controls than many.

“The first half of my season was canceled completely,” said Herbert, owner of Gotham Bicycle Tours. “But then something really wonderful started to happen — the lockdown measures imposed by our state started to pay off, and by July I was back in business.”

Still, some factors remain out of operators’ control. For Herbert, one of those is trains, whose service he relies on to close loops for clients riding from New York. But limited train service is a small price to pay for an environment that lets Gotham operate at all.

“I credit New York State’s very clear (or as clear as possible) information and outreach with respect to COVID with helping me get back up and running,” Herbert said. “We have tough rules here, but the rules have worked and they have allowed us to operate safely. And we also have a much clearer idea of how we can operate in 2021.”

Gotham has always focused close to its home, but what about operators focused on cross-continental epics?

“We’ll continue to offer our multicountry cycling expeditions in the regions where this is possible,” said Shanny Hill, marketing manager for TDA Global Cycling. “When and where that is not possible, we have a Plan B.”

For a company born out of a ride down the length of Africa (Tour d’Afrique), the Canadian outfitter is sanguine about the unknowns of the coming year. To avoid the usual border crossings, Hill said TDA is planning a number of three- to four-week single-country tours based in the company’s home country of Canada (plus an eBike tour of the U.S.), and new lightly supported bikepacking trips — food drops and resupplies, but no SAG wagon.

“We are fairly certain that travel restrictions will affect our 2021 operations to some degree, so we are planning based on that assumption,” Hill said. “We are remaining optimistic but realistic. We have learned again and again that expeditions never go exactly as planned and so you have to always remain flexible and nimble — ready to act and change things up to keep things moving forward. This now applies not only to running our tours, but the running of our company.”

At Adventure Cycling, that slower return to longer-distance travel factored into Lessard’s decision to launch new “Long Weekend Tours,” which are specifically designed to start closer to major metros.

“Options for shorter itineraries is something we know our members and customers want, so these have been in the works for a while, but COVID definitely accelerated the number and range of departures we have for 2021,” Lessard said of the nine departures scheduled for the upcoming season. “And positioning trips near bigger population centers makes it easier for people to join us within driving distance of their homes for one more layer of control over the whole experience.”

The closer-to-home bet is backed with data — a pair of reports commissioned by global tourism organizations point to big shifts in travel habits in the aftermath of the pandemic. The World Travel and Tourism Council found that “traveler preferences and behaviors have shifted toward the familiar, predictable, and trusted. Domestic vacations, extensive planning, and the outdoors will reign in the short-term,” a sentiment echoed by the Adventure Travel Trade Association in a midsummer “Traveler Sentiment” snapshot.

“As of June/July 2020, 63 percent of U.S. adventure travelers were planning on traveling domestically on their next planned trip,” the organization reported. “The same travelers are seeking safe and relaxing destinations with nature, outdoor, and adventure activities. In fact, this survey found that 72 percent of adventure travelers are planning on doing nature and outdoor activities on their next trip, specifically hiking/trekking/walking, cycling, and camping.”

Will the boom go bust?

With changing traveler habits layered atop the well-documented bike boom of 2020 (see “The Surprise Boom,” Aug./Sept. 2020), the big question for suppliers — seriously, when will we be able to buy inner tubes again? — operators, event directors, bike shops, and everyone in between is whether all these newly bought bikes get stashed in the back corner of the garage next to a Schwinn Varsity from the last boom. Or is this pandemic an awakening of religious proportions, converting a new generation of cyclists into lifelong riders with a penchant for adventure on two wheels?

The short answer: no one knows.

“A lot more people have taken up cycling as a means of transportation. We expect these new cyclists to include some ‘cycling-related activities’ when they travel,” said Cyclomundo’s Toutain.

“I think there will be an increase in interest if restrictions begin to loosen in spring, since a lot of people just bought bikes and bike travel is an outdoor experience that is relatively safe to do. Plus, people will be desperate to get out after having been locked down all winter,” said Gotham’s Herbert. “However, when COVID subsides, I think a lot of the folks who bought bikes will be selling them on Craigslist, and things will eventually go back to the way they were in 2019.”

“The pandemic has definitely expanded the potential pool of people who might consider taking their first overseas bike tour,” said TDA’s Hill. “That is exciting, and so we will need to do a good job of finding these people and getting them prepared and excited for this type of adventure.”

“The women who came on the tours that we were able to hold thanked us profusely, many women told us that the tour was just what they needed to help them get through these challenging times,” said WomanTours’ Marchand. “I am hoping the boom will continue into next year and we’ll see more women looking for opportunities to enjoy being outside in a healthy way.”

What we know for sure is that, as of November 2020, the bike industry was shattering sales records and no one knows how much higher the bar might’ve gone had there been more inventory available. According to the latest stats from NPD Group, which tracks sales of sporting goods, even oft-maligned bicycle trainers and rollers were up nearly 300 percent year over year (see “A Zwift Kick” on page 38). Gravel bikes and eBikes were showing gains between 150 and 200 percent increases in sales for 2020.

Have bikes, will travel? Hill thinks so.

“The pandemic was a wake-up call — you can’t put off big life events and goals. People are already signing up for the Silk Route or the South American Epic and other long-distance expeditions years in advance.”

Adventure Cycling’s Lessard agreed.

“We’re able to provide amazing experiences for bike travelers and we’re excited to tour again with the riders ready to get back out there. After a year we’d all like to put behind us, we’re ready to make some new memories.” 

You can’t get much more socially distanced than the Bolivian salt flats, but for tour operators guiding multi-country trips, there remain many unknowns for 2021.
Radek Czajkowski

Safety, Safety, Safety

What’s the right combo of safety protocols to make group tours COVID-compliant? There are so many variables it’s impossible to give a comprehensive, one-size-fits-all list, but Adventure Cycling Tours Director Mike Lessard runs down what we’re doing to keep riders healthy.

“The big thing to remember is that best practices and protocols can change as we get new and better information about COVID-19,” he said. “And that operators and events have always been committed to keeping groups of people healthy when together, so the people implementing these changes are pros.”

For Adventure Cycling tours, which regardless of type trend toward a go-at-your-own-speed style, that means an extra focus on mealtime and shuttles/SAG vehicles.

“Whether meals are catered, eaten in restaurants, or prepared on a shared-cooking rotation, we’ve updated guidelines with face coverings, gloves, even more comprehensive sanitation, and options for takeout,” Lessard said.

In vans, whether used as shuttles or SAG vehicles, face coverings and reduced capacity are the orders of the day.

And as is now true in every aspect of life, physical distancing of six feet and face coverings are de rigueur.

“So much of this has become second nature during the course of the pandemic that people are employing most of it every day anyway, so it’s not a surprise or a change,” Lessard said. “And even after COVID-19 is a thing of the past, you can never wash your hands too often.”

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