With many changes in place in the name of safety, the 32nd annual Six Gap Century will be quite different from the usual fall ride.
“We want people in the community to know all of the steps we’re taking to keep the riders safe and keep the volunteers safe,” Dahlonega-Lumpkin Chamber of Commerce President Robb Nichols said.
When it comes to what exactly has changed, Mark Spraker, who serves as the chamber’s chair over the Six Gap ride, said the answer is simply...everything.
“Basically, we’ve rethought everything with COVID safety in mind. So we’re decreasing the amount of person-to-person contact. We’ve made it safer for our volunteers. We’ve made it safer for the riders. We’ve changed the way that we’re conducting the ride. We’ve changed the way we’re conducting the rest stops, even things as small as single-serve food of every type that no one has to actually touch…Our plans have been looked at and discussed with USA Cycling so that we also have people that are much more proficient at these things than I am also looking at everything we’ve done. And so far they’ve blessed everything we’ve done quite well, but we have a constant dialogue with them. The whole idea is to make this event not only incredibly successful, but also incredibly safe.”
To start, a major staple of the event, the criterium and expo, which usually take place on the day before the race in downtown Dahlonega, were nixed. Instead, riders will pick up their pre-race packets in drive-thru fashion at Lumpkin County High School.
“We’ve been talking to USA Cycling, which is the cycling organization for the United States and they’ve put out guidance, don’t do anything that creates extra contact,” Nichols said. “So people will be able to drive through, pick up their packets that way. So that’s a huge change, most people are used to us kind of taking the downtown over and doing that. From a chamber perspective, we hope that people drive through and come downtown and still eat and all that sort of stuff. We feel like people are going to do that because they’re not really going to get out of their cars at the high school or anything like that.”
As for the day of the race, several safety precautions will be in place from the very start.
“We’ve always had a mass start,” Nichols said. “We’re actually increasing the space where the start can be, but if you participate in the mass start, you have to wear a mask. But we’ve also opened a start window, so if you don’t want to participate in that mass start, you’ll be able to start within a half an hour window of the start time, but your time won’t be affected because your time starts when you go across the start/finish line...so we’re letting people have that option to do that.”
Once the race is underway, rest stops become the next focus of safety measures. Where normally, each rest stop would have volunteers hand-making sandwiches and handing out snacks, now everything that riders would touch is individually wrapped and prepackaged to limit the spread of any germs and volunteers will be ready with the cleaning supplies between groups.
“I just got a shipment of like 100 bottles of hand sanitizer in,” Nichols said. “We’ll probably be using hand sanitizer by the gallon that day.”
However, the biggest aid to social distancing is perhaps, the route of the ride.
“We pitched our plan last week to USA Cycling to get them to bless off on it and one of the things they commented is that the Six Gap ride is so difficult and challenging that it creates a lot of separation on the course,” Nichols said. “So if you ever watch the Tour De France or something, you watch those flat stages, all the cyclists are all grouped together, but the nature of this course keeps them pretty separate.”
Spraker said the aspect of the grueling course separating riders kicks off from the first mile, so that combined with the delayed start option should allow for plenty of social distancing.
“The nice thing though about spreading the start out, is that you don’t spend any time surrounded by 50 people breathing the same air that you’re breathing, because you’re going to spread out really fast,” Spraker said. “Basically, as soon as you turn out of the high school, there’s enough of a climb that the fast ones are gone and the slower ones are beginning to spread out enough that people are just not together. They’re in ones or twos tops and you get spread out over 100 miles.”
According to Nichols, that made the difference between being able to hold the event or not.
“It’s good [that] our event’s that way, if it had been another type of event we probably would’ve had to cancel,” he said.
Nichols notes the importance of Six Gap to the chamber’s ability to operate, as well as giving both county and city a big boost through tourism revenue.
“This ride is a fundraiser for the chamber of commerce, so it generates enough revenue to be just about a third of our operating budget, it varies a little bit each year, but it’s a significant fundraiser for us,” he said. “And the great thing about it is that we’re not raising money from people in our community, it’s always people that come here outside our community that help us run the chamber, but most of them stay here, it’s like bringing in a bunch of tourists. Typically, lodging industries around here, a lot of times will have three or four night mandatory stays, and those riders will typically come up here one or two times a year just to ride the course as well. So it’s a fundraiser for us, but it’s a good benefit for the community.”
According to Spraker, the reputation that Six Gap has gained over the years brings thousands of tourists each year.
“It’s something that is one of the if not the biggest ride in the southeast throughout the year, but it also has a good national following and acknowledgement as well,” Spraker said. “...Most of them eat here, a good percentage of them stay here, we fill up every single hotel room in Lumpkin County and bleed off into other counties, so it’s really a very large event.”
And due to many races, both regionally and nationwide, being cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, Spraker says there’s even more emphasis on the event than usual.
“The nice thing is, there haven’t been a lot, and so there’s an enormous amount of interest in Six Gap, because people just want to get out and ride a bike and they haven’t really had that opportunity this past summer,” he said. “...We’ll see what the weather looks like, but if the weather is good, there’s a lot of excitement and interest online about this because again there just haven’t been that many events because of everything being shut out in June or July.”
With the big draw being one of the only constants in this year’s ride, Nichols hopes to finish registration strong, as the majority of riders tend to register in the final weeks and sometimes the final hours before the race.
“The majority of bicycle riders at normal times, and I think it’s going to be doubly so with this, register typically in the last week. A lot of them are waiting to see what the weather calls for. One of the things we did this year was say, if Covid-19 impacts us where we can’t do the race, we’ll refund you. Typically, things like this are rain and shine and if you don’t show up when it’s raining then you don’t get it. We’re actually up this year, we’ve got about a 150 more riders total so far registered at this point this year than we did last year...We’re expecting to have well over 2,000.”
And while a big turnout for the weekend would be a crucial victory for the community on the tourism front, Spraker said none of this would be possible without local support.
“We sincerely appreciate the support of the community, the support of the school system, the city and county, the people that surround us, because this is something that takes 400 volunteers, but commitment on the part of our city leaders and county leaders, and without it, we couldn’t do what we do and we couldn’t bring these people in to spend their money in our county.”
The Six Gap Century is scheduled for Sunday, September 27, with the ride beginning at 7:30 a.m. For more information, visit 6gap.com.