How Utah’s Cache Gran Fondo Navigated a Route around Coronavirus
How lead organizer Troy Oldham, who despite the odds, kept one of America’s largest and longest-running Gran Fondo’s on the road
It was the end of March when the reality of the Coronavirus pandemic really hit home across North America. Hundreds of cycling events started to be postponed until autumn, while some decided to cancel altogether and re-schedule to 2021.
Lead organizer Troy Oldham, who lives and works in the Beehive State recalls, “I think the State of Utah and our Governor’s Office managed the situation very well. The reaction to stop the spread was quick and for the most part everyone was compliant with the guidelines, and rules.”
Oldham is an educated man, with an MBA in International Business, “My main career is teaching high school and university business classes and coaching high school sports, and so when the shutdown hit, it was a significant change for everyone.”
“The most impacted has been the larger population of healthy active people, but especially our kids. Once the snow melted, it was great to see people out on the trails, running the streets, and cycling around the area. I think that was the point in time where you started seeing more people more calm, in control and happy.”
“State guidelines really encourage activity outside, with distancing and the use of masks and good hygiene and for the most part, I think people are willing to comply if it means they can get outside.”
Oldham continued, “Back in March and April events started to cancel. One of the first big rides in Utah is the Front-Runner Century and when the race director called to tell me they were cancelling, I started to worry. However we were also set up to have a positive perfect-storm of a season, and so we were optimistic that all would be cleared up by mid-July.”
“In 2020 we were a qualifier for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, a qualifier for the Gran Fondo National Series, and one of three premier cycling events in Utah that were invited to be a part of the Tour of Utah Summer of Cycling.”
“Our hearts dropped when the Tour of Utah cancelled, both because it’s such an incredible local event, and also because it was scheduled for August, about a month and half after our event.”
“The biggest impact however was in mid-June when the UCI World Championships in Vancouver, BC were cancelled. We immediately had hundreds of our international and regional racers dropping out of the event. Without a World Championship, there is obviously no need for a qualifier event.”
“On that news, we decided we either needed to cancel like everyone else “or start getting creative.”
Yea We Can Do This
Oldham recounts, “I decided to explore any possible solution where the event could still be staged but safely and within all state guidelines and restrictions.”
When he initially confided to his family and friends, their initial thoughts were “are you out of your mind?”
His response was “yea, but I think we can do it!”
“So we decided to go forward, and started modifying the event to be 100% compliant.”
Oldham turned to the local health department, Cache County and North Logan City, “Our local city and county were very helpful in giving direction and reviewing the plan. I realize it would have been much easier for everyone to have just said, ‘No’ at the many different points in the process.”
“However we were able to have several ‘what if?’ conversations with our county, our town, and the leadership at our local health department. Once we could show them our plans to align perfectly with the state guidelines, we were able to move to the permitting phase, and began all the logistical changes to make it happen.”
Oldham also reached out to the business community and event sponsors asking for their support, “We were overwhelmed by the level of support from our business community, led by the Cache Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Cache Valley Visitor’s Bureau. On a state level, we were so grateful for the support from the Utah Sports Commission, and our medical provider Intermountain Healthcare.”
Reinventing the Fondo Format
Oldham had to come up with a 100% compliant procedure to get the operating permits, one of the main hurdles was a mass-start race format. Oldham recalled ”So when we found out we were not going to be able host a qualifier for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships or the USA Gran Fondo National Championships, we dropped the race portion of our Gran Fondo.”
The second big hurdle was mass gatherings. Under state health regulations ‘Yellow’ status, mass gatherings of 1000 people or more was not allowed in the same place, at the same time, “As a recreational ride, our 35, 50, 75 and 100-mile routes fan-out throughout our area, which puts a natural spread on the spacing. So we moved from a one-day format to a 2-day with staggered starts every 10-15 minutes, packet pickup changes, ‘distanced’ aid stations, compliant food stuffs like all pre-packaged items, (including liquid – no big Igloo jugs), pods of no more than 45 riders, combined start/finish, and putting technical support, on the road more than in the support station.”
Staggering start times really helped keep the flow of no more than 100 riders and spectators at any one time across the ¼ mile at the start/finish. That also meant the event could not have a finish line festival like they used to have, “When riders finished, they were promptly given their finisher medals,(sealed in a plastic bag), and a lunch voucher good at our take-away booth on site, a food truck, and two other locations in the city providing the meal curb-side.”
“We also disbanded the podium, but left a small stage and backdrop for taking selfies at the finish. We gave out over $10,000 in prizes and rider gifts, but awarded them all with a random drawing based on bib #s and handed them out to the winners at packet-pick up on Friday and Saturday. People finished, picked up their medal and meal ticket and kindly left the venue.
A Question of Confidence
Oldham knew that he had to instil confidence into riders to come out, enjoy the fantastic routes, stay safe and maintain social distancing rules, “We knew we were going to have to make a lot of changes quickly, and we wanted all of our riders to know that they had options. Options in distance and format, options when they could start the event, so if they want to ride alone or with only a few other riders, that was a possibility. Also we are very open and generous in our refund and defer policy. We dropped our deferral fee, and gave riders the option to defer to a ride in 2021 or beyond, donate all or a portion of their registration to one of our charity organizations, or receive a refund.”
“While it was difficult to see the loss of riders and the revenue we needed to run the event, we started to see an almost 1:1 of riders deferring/refunding to those signing up for the event once they heard it was still on! If a rider was at all uncomfortable, we addressed their concern and asked very few questions before processing their wish to defer, donate or refund.”
Ingenious Online Booking System
Oldham thought of an idea that allowed registered riders to book into their preferred starting time easily by entering their name and contact details into a start schedule, “Fortunately our website platform already had a system we could just plug into! We limited it to 45 riders in a single pod because another guideline was to have no more than 50 people gathering in one spot at the same time. The extra 5 were made up of the volunteers and us controlling the start/finish area.”
Oldham’s infographic for participants was a game changer! It encouraged riders to participate, educating them on the new format, allowing them to focus on maximum fun whilst staying safe.
Smart Staging Areas
At the start line Oldham set up 3 staging areas, one was +10 minutes start time area that was fenced off up to the Start Line. Two others, (+15 mins and +30 mins) were set up adjacent to the Stage one, “It really ran smoothly, and not a single rider complained or misunderstood what we were trying to accomplish with the staging gates.”
Going Bold on the Finisher Medals
The Cache Gran Fondo is renowned for having bold finishing medals that participants love, Oldham enthused “This year we backed the size back a bit, (admittedly they were too big last year over 5 Inches round!), but still provided a 4x4inch polished chrome medal with red epoxy inlay, our logo, and a statement, ‘I Outrode Covid’. The medal is in the shape of the coronavirus.”
“So many riders told us this is a keeper, to remember how hard this year was, and how much fun they had on the ride. We didn’t want to be crude with the medal, the virus is very real and impacting millions of people worldwide, but we also felt our community would see the medals for what they were, an award for their ride that day, and a celebration of accomplishment in tough times.”
Oldham was overwhelmed by the tremendous support from the local community, riders, clubs and teams, and past volunteers who love the event and agreed to come back despite the risk, “This was a really tough year for volunteers as well. We lost quite a few for a whole host of reasons, but we also had many of our past volunteers come out to be at the event. They all were trained to use the masks and distance from the visitors. We ran multiple short shifts, and because the times were spread out, the work was never intense, but it was constant.”
Another interesting angle, the Boy Scouts of America are in essence non-existent… they have been sued out of existence, a disappointed Oldham commented “Every year we have been able to have Eagle Scout project volunteers at 2-3 of our support stations. There is no other similar organization that encourages and promotes a volunteer spirit with young people like the Boy Scouts or Girl’s Scouts…leaving a big void.”
“I’m sure there are other race directors feeling the volunteer drain as well with this group being gone in most areas. “
Enjoying the Ride
Oldham wanted participants to enjoy the experience and the unique elements that make up the Cache Gran Fondo, ”The days were long and started early with the first riders leaving at 5:30am on both Friday and Saturday. The most popular times were in the mornings of both days. But then the finish line was very manageable and when the riders returned there was a very manageable flow. We saw a very diverse group of riders and rider ability. Some competitive teams made their start time about a club race, whereas others teamed up with 2-3 other riders to help each other get out and back at a safe and leisurely pace.”
“One of the things l loved about this format was the opportunity I had with each pod was to interact and talk to the riders in each starting group, and for at least 10-15 minutes. It also made directions and warnings easier, because the audience was very captive and intently listening. When they returned, most were able to seek me out and share their enthusiasm and comments about the event. It just felt more personal, and ironically more intimate (despite talking thru a face mask, 6 feet apart, and without a handshake or hug..>).”
Advice for Other Race Directors
We asked Oldham, based his experience, what advice would you have to other race directors across North America and beyond, “If you can, start with a ‘what if’ meeting with the City, County and Health Department in your area. Get their input and follow the state guidelines in your state, (actually have a set of the guidelines out and in front of you so you can show our plan maps to the guidelines). Understand it is a lot easier to say ‘No’ especially if they don’t understand your plan or do not trust that you can implement your plan. Help them see you are serious and relieve their fear and concern.”
“Also – don’t advertise your event broadly, take fewer numbers and speak directly to your rider community. Too many outsiders just don’t understand, and social media trolls will want to shame you for going forward with your event. I’m sure we could have advertised and brought in a lot more riders, but we wanted to make sure we could manage what we had AND not create too much of a media stir.”
“The other thing is be open to refund and defer without making it too difficult. I truly believe this was a year for us to build loyalty with our riders and I really think we did. Be patient and ask them to be patient. Be transparent and ask them to be so as well.”
A Huge Thank you!
Oldham sincerely wants to thank its sponsors and suppliers, “One of the biggest challenges was getting the food right with all the restrictions. Our riders love the event because we are really generous with food items, and fun things like donut holes, fresh fruit bars, mini shave ice cups, and bagels/brownie bites, etc. This year we were limited to packaged items and at the last minute, Utah-owned BuiltBar came thru with a very generous donation of their assorted BuiltBars and saved the day. Our two foundation sponsors Intermountain Healthcare and Utah Sports Commission really made a difference, along with our bikeshop partners Al’s Sporting Goods, Joyride Bikes, Velofixx, and The Sportsman.”
Oldham commented, “We learned some things incorporate next year post covid, overall riders loved the format, smaller start groups, earlier start groups. Everyone who came to the event got what they wanted out of the ride. A bunch of 40-50 year olds did the 100 miles ride altogether and they had a wonderful time. Although it wasn’t a true race, there were a few pods who put the hammer down and challenged themselves”.
Since the event took place over 14 days ago, to their knowledge no participant, volunteer or member of the public who attended the event, has been linked or tested positive for Coronavirus. No complaints by local residents and local communities the ride passes through have been received.
Oldham’s final statement really surmises the success, “So far we haven’t received a single complaint from anyone.”
Oldham has since been inundated with well wishes from riders who can’t wait to ride again next year! Below are just a handful of dozens of recommendations he has so far received:
"First I want to thank you and the team for putting on a great ride under difficult circumstances! We had a great 100-miler, with superb support along the way, thanks!"
Marc (Utah, race club member)
"A BIG thanks to you, sponsors, volunteers, and everyone involved in making the Cache Gran Fondo happen this year! The Cache Fondo is one of my favorite rides to participate in. In this crazy COVID climate we are experiencing it was wonderful to have something to look forward to and train for. Thanks again for your hard work and dedication toward the event. I can't wait to ride again next year!!" - Cheryl (Utah, cycling team member)
"I wanted to send a quick email to the Cache Gran Fondo team to tell you what a great job I think you did with the event this year. After all the challenges and things that had to be changed due to the current situation, the ride still turned out fantastic! The volunteers were great, the course was great, and overall you guys did a fantastic job. I can’t wait for next year!!"
- Sydnee (Utah, 104-mile rider)
"Today for the first time I made it up the hill on the 50 mile to get to the second stop in Newton. I literally was crying. I still am while I'm sitting here. I never could have done this without the opportunity for me to tackle the impossible. Thank you!" - Emily (Cache Valley, Utah)
"My first time participating in this 100 miler and it rocked! I love riding Weston Canyon!" - Jeff (Utah, 104 mile rider)
"Congrats on another spectacular year. I rode the 76 and the new course through Preston was fabulous. All stations were very well-stocked. A near perfect day although you could have provided a bit more cloud cover like last year, ha. We were done by 11:30 so not bad at all. Well done." - Nick (Utah, 75-mile rider)
"What a success! I have heard nothing but positive feedback. Great attention to details and doing everything possible to make it safe and fun. Well done!" - Cameron (Utah, Zone5 competitive race team)
"As always this was another great ride. This was my 4th year and every time it’s been a great experience. With everything going on this year I thought about canceling but I’m glad I didn’t. Thanks again for putting all this together and making this such a great event." - Byron (Utah, 104 mile rider)