The pandemic caused all sorts of realignments, many messy, life altering, and profound.
The bike racing world was hit as well. In March 2020, racers were either on the verge of starting their racing seasons, or, at most, a few weeks in. Mass-start bike racing almost completely disappeared from the United States. So, too, it seemed, did much group training and riding.
And that has been largely the case ever since.
Humans are typically closest to those who are similar minded; chances are that people largely know how similar-minded people responded to the pandemic circumstances. Those who were cautious likely knew people who were also cautious. Those who thought changes due to the pandemic were uncalled for were already riding with people who saw the world the same way. The former, just individuals on the road, might well have seen the latter on the road and thought, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing that!’ While the latter, who were out riding in groups saw those solitary riders and thought, ‘I can’t believe they’re afraid of getting Covid.’
Separating bias from reality
The phenomenon, known as confirmation bias, is a tendency that is based on seemingly reasonable assumptions. ‘My friends are doing this thing. I’m doing the same. I must be on the right track;’ is a natural thought process in a filter bubble or echo chamber, which might have become even easier as social interactions became rare and much of our interaction happened over the internet. Or, as written in Psychology Today, “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.’
I wanted to know if people were riding less, riding indoors more, doing group rides, and how they viewed these things. Maybe people had moved on from bike riding and racing. Maybe Zwift had replaced Strava and riding outdoors. Maybe there were places where group riding never stopped. I thought such information could be valuable to the racing community.
Wanting to get beyond biases and the narrow window of direct observation by which I am able to see the world, I spoke with a friend and he helped come up with an online survey, a racer covid survey, that might shed light into what bike racers have been doing for the last year and how, if at all, Covid influenced their behavior vis-a-vis bike riding and racing.
Next, I approached the New York State Bicycle Racing Association (NYSBRA), and asked if an advertisement for the survey could be included in the April NYSBRA newsletter. The head of NYSBRA agreed to it. NYSBRA, as the umbrella association for bike racing in New York State, has an email list of not only current USA Cycling members, but also former members. There are about 2,000 licensed racers in New York State, but the list includes 5,169 addresses. Seemed like a sample population big enough to get some answers, but small enough to function as a test run from which we could possibly adjust if we wanted to try it again.
The first survey went out.
Notice of the survey was included in the NYSBRA newsletter on March 30, 2021. We left the survey open until April 9. We got 70 responses in total. Most had responded by April 3. The numbers seemed disappointing. Checking with NYSBRA, they found that 1,907 people opened the newsletter, or 36.9%. A little division reveals that 3.7% of those who opened the newsletter responded. Another issue is that it was the last item in the newsletter. No idea how many scrolled to the bottom; in 2019, it appeared that between 40-60% of email is read on phones and that’s a media where readers might be less-inclined to scroll to the bottom. Another fear of a survey on a subject like this is that it attracts the extremes, people who are upset and want to get things off their chest. And maybe some kind of enticement, like entering respondents in a drawing or giveaway, would have juiced the numbers.
Reading through the survey, it’s impossible not to feel that the alleged polarization in society extends to the bike world. On the one hand, 52% of respondents avoided large group rides completely, with another 20% or so doing group rides less. And only 20% claimed it made no difference in how they rode, but more than half seemed to have little worry about contracting or spreading Covid as the result of participating in a ride or race, with 69% claiming they’d enter a race without all riders having a Covid vaccine.
When given the opportunity to freely comment, extreme positions, particularly against caution, seemed to crop up. One representative comment was “It has always been safe. We need to stop overreacting to the false narrative that the media has been cramming down our throats.” Those who had serious concerns were also present, explaining what it would take to pin on a number again, “overall positivity rates in the region, general CDC and state guidelines (or stricter). And I would feel better if it were in-state residents only, so nobody is travelling from other states (for now).”
All the same, the time away from racing did not cool respondents’ ardor for cycling in general and racing in particular. Almost 80% replied they would pick up racing in 2021 as they did in 2019. Half of the respondents claimed that the lack of racing didn’t change their interest in riding at all, with another 11% saying it increased their interest, with 38% saying it decreased their interest. 41% said they spent more time on the bike, 31% about the same, and 27% less.
Three-quarters of the group think bike racing will return by fall, 2021 at the latest. That included 28% who believe it will return before summer, 34% in summer, and 13% in fall.
Indoor training appeared to have increased in 2020, with 57% claiming they rode indoors more in 2020.
Zwift has been discussed and written about ad nauseum. While anecdotal information suggests it’s huge among racers, it’s hard to separate the hype of media outlets needing stories from the reality of people using it on a regular basis. To that end, 68% of respondents used Zwift, and among those people, they often used a second program as well.
Smart trainers themselves are pretty popular, with 53% using them most often. Old-schoolers will be happy to see that rollers haven’t disappeared as an indoor training device, with 17% claiming it was the stationary trainer they used most often.
There’s only so much to conclude from a sample size of 70. It’s not really a random group and there’s no way to ascertain if it’s a representative sample. All the same, if you were thinking there was less group riding, you’d be right. If you thought there was more indoor riding, right again. And, chances are, you probably are just about as excited about riding and racing now as you were when the world went on hold in 2020.
I’d love to try this survey again, figuring out a way to get a more representative sample of racers.
MORE SURVEY RESULTS