The New Normal: Taking On an Event in a Pandemic

The New Normal: Taking On an Event in a Pandemic

Matt Waak, Eliel’s new Marketing and Events Manager, recently attended the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City. The occasion marked his first major event both in supporting Eliel and facing the reality of working an event safely in a pandemic. Matt shares the story of this epic weekend through his own experience and words from volunteers and participants.

My whole life I knew I wanted to work in sporting events. From my early days growing up in Manitowoc, Wisconsin watching Speed Week rip past my front door to working in the industry and getting to attend events like Tour of California and Sea Otter, cycling events have always been able to bring people together and create a sense of community, even if only briefly, wherever they might pop up.

Until they couldn’t…

2020 has been a year very few of us (if any) could have imagined. A pandemic, civil unrest, the tragic death of Kobe Bryant; it has seemingly been a year with no light at the end of the tunnel.

But it has been the resilience of the cycling community that has really given me hope. When all the gyms and workout studios shut down, it was the bicycle that was the saving grace for many. When races were canceled or put on hold, people found virtual events on platforms like Zwift, Strava, VidFitness, and others to keep the competitive juices flowing. And when people were simply craving human interaction, they found it in each other, through online forums created by individual cycling clubs all the way to (once the safety guidelines allowed) socially-distanced, properly-masked small group rides. Cycling has been an unparalleled example of how we can take this tragedy in stride and find a way forward in this new normal we all face.

In October, I joined several colleagues from Eliel and members of the Eliel Factory Team in attending our first event in what feels like years. Here is what an event in 2020 looked and felt like first-hand:

Landing in Cedar City was interesting. The airport was smaller than most Starbucks I’ve been in during my life, and Uber was basically non-existent. I felt like I had been transported back to the small, Midwest town I grew up in, and in many ways I had. The quiet buzz around town from people arriving for the event and checking out this new town carried the same palpable excitement that Speed Week used to bring.

“Simply the joy of being at an event was wonderful. I've never been to Utah and I will never forget my first experience in an incredibly beautiful state. Landscape and scenery unlike anything I've ever seen before. Tons of very friendly, excited people. Quaint town surrounded by seemingly infinite roads (both paved, gravel, and dirt) to explore. You could tell this was going to be something special.”

-Jenna, Eliel Employee

Friday morning, the morning of the expo, arrived and I think most of the companies attending the expo were as anxious as I was to get going seeing as several of us beat the event staff to the site. Standing around chatting across booths, we all started to get a bit anxious wondering if fire number one was going to be upon us to kickstart the event.

“The actual execution of the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City was far more difficult than putting on the massive BWR in San Diego. The fact that this was a new venue in a new state with new challenges made for a very stressful yet ultimately rewarding experience.”

-Michael, BWR Event Director

As tents tentatively began going up, still unsure about where each tent went, event staff turned the corner and a collective exhale could be heard from the vendors on-site. That is when things began to feel like they were event business as usual. Monster showed up and started blasting music, people were zipping through for their pre-expo rides, and heck, if it wasn’t for everyone wearing a mask and the copious amounts of hand sanitizer applied, I would have sworn this was a pre-2020 event.

“I was unsure to what degree the vendors, event staff, and participants would comply with the COVID-19 safety protocols the event team put in place. I was pleasantly surprised with the level of conscientiousness everyone displayed. It was a testament that we are all in this together and an astute awareness that the BWR CC could be a template for future events.“

-Jason, BWR Volunteer

As the expo opened, the vibe remained the same, nobody cared that they needed to wear a mask or stand 6 feet apart, they just wanted the opportunity to race!

“I love gravel events and with 2020 being a bust for racing, I had to give it a go.”

-BWR Participant

“God, it feels good to be back out an event. Just the excitement of having everyone together again, it’s one of the best parts of coming to these things.”

-BWR Volunteer

“[I just] wanted an opportunity to race.”

-BWR Participant

People came and went, names were learned and forgotten, but most importantly, people were able to socialize and laugh and forget about the weight this year has put on all of us. There was even an impromptu one-man dance competition during the slower hours of the expo which helped us all pass the time.

As the expo was beginning to wrap up (and food was consumed for the first time since breakfast for many of us), we traded in our caffeine-laden drinks for beverages of the adult variety. King’s Policy Brewery was gracious enough to let us use their parking lot for the event, so we thought it only right to repay them in kind by attempting to drink them dry before a grueling gravel race the next day. Event participants could be heard sharing stories about their pre-rides, exchanging tips and tricks on how to handle certain parts of the course.

“Pace yourself because the hard part is the last 1/3 and have some mountain bike skills because the 4.5 miles of single-track through the rock gardens starting at mile 113 will test your endurance and skills.”

-BWR Participant

After a quick meal and last call, it was back to the hotel; race day was almost upon us.

“I will never forget the dusty early morning roll out as the sun was coming up over the mountains”.

-BWR Participant

That was what awaited those brave souls who mustered up the courage to toe that line. The race started and they were off! The pros and the daring few who tried to keep pace took that first stretch with the anticipation of people who had been itching to race for nearly 7 months.

The next 126 miles (or a bit less for the Wafer riders) was, well, how ‘bout I let you hear and see it straight from the people who experienced it:

“I can still feel how cold my fingers were at 25 mph!”

-BWR Participant

“The absolute beauty of the surrounding terrain was breathtaking.”

-BWR Participant

“The gravel roads and single track were amazing. The best dirt I've ridden.”

-BWR Participant

“It was definitely a challenge, but so enjoyable for anyone who loves gravel racing. Oh, and the views were beautiful!”

-BWR Participant

“Thankfully, we have beer.”

-Joe, Volunteer

Even the members of the lead car were in awe of what unfolded:

“This year was uniquely special for me getting to drive the lead vehicle following the men’s race and getting to do the live commentary. It was as if I had my own private bike race to watch as these amazingly talented athletes did battle over the treacherous and incredibly challenging course. Getting to see and hear them close-up, watching them handle their machines and navigate all manner of obstacles thrown at them was thrilling as an avid cycling fan. Of particular interest was the wonderful sportsmanship shown throughout the race by this lead group. They swapped nutrition and hydration, slowed the pace if needed so someone might make a small repair to their bike and even paused several times so the group could observe a natural break. Not that any of this was unexpected; it’s just that you don’t get that kind of purview from watching a race on TV. Then, getting to jet back to the finish line to call the sprint finish was about as thrilling as it gets.”

-Jim, Eliel Employee

By the time the first riders arrived at the final aid station where my crew and I were stationed, we had just put our finishing touches on our frightful but fun display.

Not that the racers were there long enough to do anything but chuck and empty water bottle or SiS pack, before diving into the 4+ miles of technical single track. The lead pros were cooking like it was mile 10 and they were fresh and ready to handle what came next, but as the day went on, the riders were increasingly less energetic but no less enthusiastic.

“Single track is a piece of cake when you are fresh. When you are uber tired, it is hell.”

-BWR Participant

“The final 15 miles sucked. Crazy hard climb followed by a super sketchy descent. You get a nice smooth section after that, only to be punched in the face with a 4-mile section of single track. That section was the worst part of the race, and it just happened to be from mile 116-120!”

-BWR Participant

We worked hard all day to refuel and refresh riders and put smiles on some pretty agonized faces.

We even had Eliel CEO’s daughters, Mahalia and Paloma, on DJ duties while handing out candy to make sure everyone got into the Halloween spirit (and got the sugar rush their bodies desperately needed).

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and race day is no different. So, tired, dusty, and sunburnt, we packed up our tents and tables and headed back to the expo to see if we could catch the final few awards.

It never ceases to amaze me the injection of life that a good event expo provides. No matter how tired and dirty we were, as soon as we heard music and names being announce over the speakers, we found our second wind. This was a party, and everyone had something to celebrate. Riders were congratulating other riders, some vendors were still selling while others were packing up, beer was flowing, giant checks were waved around for pictures: it all was perfectly-controlled chaos to wrap up an event that can be described as nothing less than just that.

“It was a delight to see all the happy people cooperating and all wearing masks, and genuinely enjoying the only event of its kind for the 2020 season.”

-Michael, BWR Event Director

In a world with so much uncertainty, this event was a vital respite for so many in the cycling community. To see people all come together, abiding by all safety measures necessary, just to share a laugh and a bike ride gives hope to at least myself, and I am hoping it does the same for those of you who have stuck with me long enough to get this far in my story. Together we will get through this, together we will make the “new normal” simply “normal”, and, as one rider so succinctly and eloquently put it, no matter what life throws at us,

“Sometimes you just gotta send it.”

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