Utah’s Roger Arnell came across the LoToJa finish line in 2019, both arms exploding skyward as the sea of onlookers cheered on his first championship in the annual 200-plus mile cycling race.
He will be back this year in hopes of repeating the feat, but the scene he might envision playing out at the finish line will have to look much different.
The 38th Annual LoToJa Classic race will go off before dawn Saturday, though it will carry with it a heap of restrictions and precautions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has wiped clean so many annual competitions since the outbreak first took hold in the states back in March.
“Although we’re in the midst of a global pandemic we have worked tirelessly to plan for and implement several comprehensive safety adaptions to mitigate the health risks of riders, support crews and the communities that LoToJa passes through,” race director Brent Chambers said. “We have applied CDC and local and state health department recommendations in our preparations. With them in place we have done what health experts say are effective to mitigate COVID-19 transmission.”
Those precautions begin before the race, continue through it and all the way to the now-abbreviated award ceremony. The start window has increased from 90 minutes to 2 hours, 40 minutes, meaning the first group will set out from Logan, Utah, around 4:50 a.m. Saturday.
During the race the feed zones will require cyclists to sanitize their hands before entering the feed area, and only volunteers will be able to distribute prepackaged food via a pass-through slot on a transparent barrier. There will be no premixed beverages for riders to pick up. On LoToJa.com a rendering shows a water cooler with a spigot extending through a slot underneath a transparent barrier, where riders will be able to refill.
From there the race itself will essentially be two events in one, with the racers finishing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, as is the tradition, and the “ride” cyclists finishing at Jackson Hole High School.
Overall, Chambers said in a press release, there are more than 50 specific health safety actions and requirements implemented for this year’s event.
“LoToJa is committed to do whatever it takes to keep everyone as safe as possible,” he said. “Likewise, we expect all participants to follow all event guidelines.”
Just how the field shapes up with these restrictions in place likely won’t be felt in full until Saturday morning. LoToJa organizers said there are 1,250 full-distance cyclists registered to be at the start line, down from 1,400 in a non-COVID-tainted year. There are 220 relay teams signed up, again slightly down from the 260 seen on the 2019 starting line.
“Lower participation this year is a good thing in regards to implementing our COVID-19 adaption plan,” Chambers said via email. “Plus, we expect at least a 10-15 percent [do not show] rate. This happens every year.”
One of those who will not be showing up to the start line is Trevor Robinson, the top local a year ago with a seventh-place overall finish.
“I just felt like it would have been really selfish to do a bike race during a global pandemic and knowing what I would have been asking of my support crew,” he said.
“It didn’t really make sense to me. I think obviously this large gathering of people will be in a close proximity, so you’re going to be close to people with a lot of fluids for eight to nine hours.”
Robinson isn’t alone. Last year’s women’s champion, Alison Tetrick, of California, likewise won’t be competing, though her decision was made more on the basis of travel risks.
“I was fully planning on racing, but looking at the current risk in travel and the effect it could have on communities, I am going to be more cautious and not race this year,” she said via email. “I need to set a good example on promoting health and well being.
“I know LoToJa is doing everything to make sure the towns, volunteers, riders and support are safe. Being from California, it would be a hike to get there and increase risk for all involved along the way.”
Arnell plans to compete on Saturday with five teammates. Races across the country have largely been wiped out, including the Point 2 Point mountain bike race in Park City, Utah, scheduled for last weekend. That’s one he would have liked to line up for.
From his perspective, having LoToJa press on is a sigh of relief for those who’ve been on bikes all year and itching for a starting line.
“Everyone I’ve talked to, I think people just want to get back to normal and we’re happy it’s happening,” he said. “I totally wouldn’t be surprised if it had gotten canceled, but I think everyone is wanting to go out and race, though maybe I’m only talking to people that are racing, and still want to race.”
For Robinson that itch isn’t enough to warrant the race going on.
“For me no safety protocol was going to be able to resolve it,” he said. “Of course, I see it from the organizers’ side of things, It probably helps small businesses here, hotels and merchants. But there’s a day of law enforcement getting diverted for something nonessential. I think there are no easy answers.”
LoToJa communications director David Bern points to the go-ahead not just from the communities but from USA Cycling itself, which will still be sanctioning the event after USA Cycling races have dropped like flies this year.
“This year is ridiculously stressful because of all the COVID-19 implementations that have been put in place,” Bern said. “They are extensive, they are expensive, and [Chambers] just went over the top to protect people as much as possible.
“He wouldn’t have gone through with this if he didn’t have support from the communities, the race community and the sponsors. Also, USA Cycling would not have granted him a permit if they had felt any of these areas were high transmission areas. They would not grant the permit.”
An email to USA Cycling was not returned last week.
In the months that have led up to LoToJa making the decision to continue on with the race in early August, Bern said, organizers have stressed that if any of the registered riders do not feel comfortable with the race and its precautions, they should not race.
“People were told right from the very beginning, if you do not feel comfortable, do not register,” he said. “They’ll be asked that again when they come in to pick up their packet. If you don’t feel comfortable, that is OK and we understand. It’s an opportunity to have LoToJa, and if you don’t want to buy in we understand.”
Chambers said via email that if cyclists who are registered choose not to compete, their registration fee will not be refunded. Instead they will be guaranteed entry in 2021 and bypass the lottery when they sign up next April.
In the press release Chambers said that from his perspective the “pandemic will be with us for longer than anticipated while vaccines and treatments are developed and accepted by the public. Meanwhile, we shouldn’t stop living life. We can adapt with effective health safety measures, and keep the race moving forward.”