COVID brought lasting changes to bike coaching industry

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As the COVID-19 pandemic landed in B.C. in earnest on the eve of bike season in early 2020, Katrina Strand seems to have been uniquely suited to adapt.

The former pro mountain biker, who operates mountain bike coaching and performance training under the Strand Training umbrella, had recently had her first child and was plotting her re-entry into the industry when the pandemic hit.

“Everything was at a standstill and, to be honest, I wasn’t totally sure how I was going to rebuild in the first place,” she said. “We were all in the unknown, not just people in my industry.”

With gyms shut, performance training was off the table in the first several months. Strand was keeping herself in shape in preparation for re-opening, but then broke her femur in July of 2020, which sidelined her for six weeks and allowed her to fully focus on how she was going to come back.

“Having that extra time and having to sit on my couch gave me the space and the time to really dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s,” she said, noting she completed tasks such as finishing her tenure application and fine tuning the online booking system on her website. “I certainly felt a lot more organized. I’m an organized person to begin with, but I really felt like I had all my ducks in a row coming into 2021.”

That preparation allowed Strand to reap the rewards of training those who embraced mountain biking as a safe activity in 2020, as the business rebounded well in 2021 even without a significant boost from tourism.

“It picked up quickly because a lot of people dove into mountain biking during the pandemic as something to do,” she said, noting that business didn’t increase significantly this summer with an increased tourism market. 

GETTING VIRTUAL

Strand wasn’t the only outfit to endure a pandemic-related shift.

TaG Cycling co-founder Lesley Tomlinson, a two-time Olympian in road cycling and mountain biking, noted that the company was approaching its 10-year anniversary when COVID hit.

Closing its doors before the provincial order came down, TaG pivoted to filming complimentary online videos and quickly established how to livestream classes, which became a key element to the business as its indoor studios closed for 20 of 24 months following COVID’s arrival.

Tomlinson said many clients discovered TaG through YouTube, with a significant portion of them having no connection to the area. Many attended virtually from all over North America and as far away as Europe. 

As well, the livestream classes respect that individuals discovered new ways to stay fit at home.

“A lot of habits have changed. A lot of people’s training rituals have changed,” Tomlinson said. “We have a lot of people who ride with us who like their home gym, or they invested a lot in that. 

“Or they found us online and they’re somewhere back east or they’re somewhere down south and they like training with us. We’re still supplying that (livestream service) so we can reach those people.”

Tomlinson expressed some frustration, however, with how shutdowns were conducted in subsequent waves of the pandemic. TaG’s studios were open in a physically distant manner heading into the 2020-21 winter season, but in December 2020, facilities deemed to offer high-intensity training were forced to close while other fitness centres could remain open.

“We’d have people doing our workouts in their gym, whatever gym it was they were allowed to go to, that had different rules than us,” she said. “It was a confusing directive in a lot of ways.”

LOCAL FOCUS

While outdoor programs weren’t significantly restricted by health orders in the sense that they could operate, operations reliant on tourism had to adapt or risk wilting.

Paul Howard, owner of ZEP Mountain Bike Camps, said his first COVID-related thoughts were to do with the health and safety aspect of the global health crisis, but when considering the business, the uncertainty was unsettling.

“You think about the summer ahead, what are we going to do?” he recalled. “The obvious question is (about) what can stay and what’s going to disappear. At the time, a lot of our coaching products were a little bit more focused on destination riders.”

When it became clear that the Whistler Mountain Bike Park would not open and borders would remain locked down, ZEP shifted from weekend and week-long camps for travellers to heavily emphasizing its offerings for locals.

“We’ve always been able, because of our coaches and our backgrounds, to offer a variety of programs. We’ve had stuff for kids, for adults, for expert riders,” he said. “The locals’ programs and kids’ programs, we already had going. We just shined a light onto those programs and built those programs up more.”

Increasing service to the local market had been on ZEP’s radar for some time, and the COVID disruption made that desire a necessity, according to Howard.

“It was great because it was something we had always wanted to do,” he said. “The response was awesome because as programs filled up, and with the bike park closing, the opportunity was there as well for people to look out for our programming.”

Even with the destination market returning to town, the focus on local programming has remained, with visiting riders offered private training or the opportunity to integrate into an existing program.

Though Howard’s company pulled its focus inward, he retained a broad focus personally. As technical director with the Professional Mountain Bike Instructors Association (PMBIA), he helped draft policy used by outfits in Canada, the United States and Australia, seeing those actions as important to contribute and protect the industry.

“The ski industry essentially just shut down, so we couldn’t even look to them to think, ‘Well, how did they do it?’” he recalled. “If we all get through this stronger, then the whole industry is going to be better.”

Howard noted that operators in places such as Australia faced more restrictive policies and could not run courses despite being outdoors, which created issues for creating broad policies.

“COVID was more challenging for PMBIA because not only were the COVID policies different in different locations, ultimately meaning there were a lot of places we couldn’t operate, but the policies kept changing, so it just seemed like endless scheduling, rescheduling and postponing of courses,” Howard wrote in a follow-up email. “The PMBIA office staff did an incredible job trying to keep on top of it all and without that hard work, PMBIA wouldn’t have been able to offer the amount of courses it did during COVID.”

The travel restrictions also set the PMBIA back in holding course conductor classes, though a new online training portal is helping to address the backlog.

THE PATH FORWARD

Though there has been a general sense of a return to normalcy, Tomlinson said that things still haven’t settled entirely. Still, with co-founders and fellow Olympians Chrissy de Vall and Gina Grain on board, there’s a shared mindset of pushing forward.

“It’s still unknown where we’re all going to end up,” she said. “A lot of us come from a high level in cycling and a few of us come from a high level in other sports, and we’re trained to persevere and to deal.”

For its part, TaG has changed its Whistler operations, moving in with Treeline Aerial in Function Junction.

“It’s cool to be with people doing very different things but with the same kind of business motif and ability to make it work,” she said.

Strand, meanwhile, is still feeling repercussions of the effects on the strength and conditioning side, especially staring in the face of a recession. With services like athletic training generally not covered by insurance, they’re often a casualty of tightened budgets.

“People are becoming more and more careful with their income and what they choose to spend money (on),” she said. 

While ZEP has shifted into its COVID-necessitated adaptations, Howard has been in the industry long enough to know that there will be another disruption in the years to come that requires an adaptation that will make the business stronger on the other side. The hope is that it comes in the form of something far less grim, such as the need for a new website or progression within the industry.

“There’ll be another challenge in three or four years and either you adapt and keep going or you let it slow you down,” he said.