How Do You Hold a Bike Tour During the Pandemic? Very Carefully
Big skies, colorful foliage, scenic vistas and challenging climbs made the Lake Chelan Tour Lite--Cascade’s first large in-person ride since the pandemic began--a huge success. Organizing the tour was a big challenge and a chance to learn how to hold a safe and fun event in the COVID-19 era.
Standing astride her bike in the morning sunlight as she prepared to start the Lake Chelan Tour Lite, Riva Davis was thrilled to be participating in the three-day bike excursion in one of eastern Washington’s most scenic locations.
“Bicycling has been my sanity during the pandemic,” says Davis, who rode Cascade’s Chelan tour with her 15-year-old son. “I was so looking forward to this tour and hoping it wouldn’t get cancelled, so I’m excited to be here.”
The recent Lake Chelan Tour Lite, Oct. 9 to 11, was more than just a chance for cooped up bicyclists to pedal the hills, canyons, and orchard-lands of the Lake Chelan region; it was also a test case for how to safely conduct a large group bike ride during a pandemic.
In a year of cancellations, the tour was Cascade’s first of 2020--and the first big in-person ride that Cascade has held since Chilly Hilly in February.
“We wanted to show that it is possible to hold a multi-day ride, following CDC guidelines and the governor’s requirements for group events,” says Cascade Events Director Rebecca Sorensen, who was pleased to see the smiling faces of the tour’s 90 participants. “Judging from the positive feedback, it was a big success.”
Sorensen and Rides Program Manager Davíd Urbina spent months planning and preparing for the Chelan tour, which was originally scheduled for May. It wasn’t until a few weeks prior to the event that Sorensen was able to give the greenlight. “We did not expect to be able to run the tour, but all of our plans were accepted by the public health and permitting officials, and I am grateful they trusted us.”
Cascade has hosted the Chelan Tour Lite for many years, but Sorensen and Urbina had to completely redesign and re-think every detail this year to ensure safety and compliance with state guidelines, requiring many hours on the phone with state, county, and city health officials. “It took more than triple the staffing of a normal year due to the complicated logistics,” Sorensen says.
In years past, Cascade allowed up to 200 riders to participate, with everyone riding the same route each day. This year, Cascade separated the riders into three groups of 30 and had each group ride a different route each day.
Riders were assigned rolling start times at 15-minute intervals to prevent participants from clustering during the morning check-ins in Don Morse Park. Hand sanitizer was ubiquitous, and everyone was required to wear a face covering when signing in, getting food at the mid-route lunch stops, or filling water bottles at the aid stations.
Urbina gives some advice during morning check-in.
An Amazing Time
Despite the precautions, participants expressed delight with the opportunity to ride, explore, and escape the cabin fever brought on by the pandemic.
“Terrific,” is how participant Jason Phillips described the tour. “Everyone has been considerate of the social distancing and wearing masks, so I’ve never felt uncomfortable. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Heather Gilroy had “an amazing time. The COVID precautions have been great, and the city itself and the restaurants have also been pretty good with following mask requirements.”
Sharon Johnston enjoyed the scenery and challenge of the routes. “With all the safety measures Cascade put in place we would definitely do this again.”
Chelan is a charming town of about 5,000 on the shores of Lake Chelan, a three- to four-hour drive from Seattle. Participants booked their own lodgings and paid for their own meals (aside from a daily lunch and snacks). Costing just $85, the Chelan tour is a member favorite, with many repeat customers.
Chelan is a “hub and spoke” tour, with all three rides beginning and ending in town. The rides ranged from 30 miles to 56 miles, with lots of climbing and descending, plus “challenge” and gravel road options to add more mileage and adventure.
“All of the routes are nice in their own way and give you a mix of scenery around the lake,” says Scott Boggs, a Cascade ride leader who helped map the routes and provide support. “The Manson route is really beautiful. McNeil Canyon is a real challenge and iconic climb, with great views of the river. Navarre Coulee has great views of the Columbia River and Lake Chelan from high up.”
Boggs takes in the view.
My tour experience began on Thursday evening, when my wife, Katie, and I arrived in Chelan and met at an outdoor restaurant to discuss last-minute preparations with Cascade staff members Sorensen, Urbina, Maimoona Rahim, and super-volunteers Jean Phillips and R.J. Conn. Sorensen and Urbina arrived earlier in the day to mark the routes with signage and spray chalk arrows on the roads.
The Cascade work crew stayed at the Midtowner Motel, whose rooms all had entrances from the outdoors. Each day began before dawn as we met in Don Morse Park to set up tables spaced 20 feet apart for riders to check in, beginning in 15-minute increments at 8 a.m. Cascade’s precautions followed--and exceeded--the updated guidelines released on Oct. 6 by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.
The excitement of participants was palpable. Some were giddy, including a group of five friends who all wore matching Day of the Dead face coverings. Others were pleased to see longtime friends.
“It’s been really challenging with my work schedule, and with kids at home,” says Suze Rea, who was eager to participate in her first big group ride in many months.
After the riders departed Don Morse Park, Sorensen, Urbina, Phillips and Conn left in support vehicles to set up water and aid stations and bring sandwiches to the mid-way lunch stops on each route. That’s when Katie and I saddled up to ride portions of each route.
The Manson route was our favorite, and it seemed to be the favorite of many participants thanks to its scenery, and the optional stop at the Blueberry Hills Farm and Restaurant for blueberry pie.
In the evenings, the Cascade crew dined outdoors and gathered by the waterfront for pizza. I’m already looking forward to next year and the opportunity to ride the routes and help participants enjoy their times in Chelan.
The Cascade crew enjoying sunset on the lake.
Looking Forward to 2021
For Sorensen, who has spent her career organizing bike tours and events--for many years with an international bike touring company, and now for six years with Cascade--hosting the tour was professionally rewarding after months of disappointment.
Cascade canceled 10 big riding events in 2020, including the in-person STP (though we did hold a virtual STP), RSVP, the Emerald City Ride, the Kitsap Color Classic and more. Cascade also canceled its annual Bike Swap, as well as tours in eastern Washington and Arizona, and the Ride Around Washington (RAW).
“We have to weigh the science and risk-mitigation measures and balance those with the need for people to be outside, staying fit, staying healthy, and the importance of community in a time of isolation," Sorensen says. "We did everything we could to make it safe and low-risk. We can’t control every rider's behavior, and folks have to decide for themselves whether group riding--even with all of the safety measures--is for them.”
While the Chelan tour was a huge morale boost, the requirement to minimize the number of participants, and the extra expense of running this tour, means that Cascade did not generate much revenue. Even so, the lessons learned will help Cascade plan for next year.
“We needed to find out what we don’t know so that we can use that knowledge for planning future tours and events,” says Sorensen, who is now deeply involved in planning for 2021.
Sorensen hopes to offer six traditional big rides, plus 10 tours ranging from three to five days, and two month-long challenges (the Bike Everywhere Challenge in May, and Ride in the Rain in November). The 2020 Ride in the Rain Challenge begins Nov. 1.
Bike and Brews and the Wine Ride could be offered in new formats that ensure COVID-19 safety. Chilly Hilly likely will be cancelled due to the impossibility of socially distancing riders during the ferry rides to Bainbridge Island.
“Ride for Major Taylor will likely be our first offering next year,” Sorensen says. “We are short-staffed due to layoffs, but we are planning a full events and tours season.”
Even so, state guidelines that cap the number of participants means Cascade will not be able to raise as much revenue from its events, which fund Cascade’s advocacy and education initiatives. Another reason Cascade wants to resume its events schedule: many rural communities and nonprofits depend on the revenue from bike events.
“We will do everything we can to continue to deliver amazing bike tours and experiences for folks,” Sorensen says. “We aren’t going away.”
Visit cascade.org/donate to make a contribution and ensure Cascade has the resources it needs to build on the success of the Chelan Tour Lite in 2021.