Helping Out and Having Fun at the Races
by Glenn Swan
Some of you may wonder what’s involved in volunteering to help at bike races. Here’s a summary of some of the jobs that need to be filled during the Hollenbeck Spring Classic, Cornell Cycling Club races, and other events, such as the State Championships that take place near Ithaca.
Corner Marshalls. The most common position for volunteers is that of “corner marshal.” Since we race on roads that remain open to cars and trucks, it is extremely important to have people located at every intersection to monitor traffic. Racers often act as though they are immortal (or brain dead; take your pick) and assume that, since they are in a race, they can fly around corners as though there’s no traffic. On the other hand, some drivers figure that any cyclist who isn’t on the sidewalk needs to be weeded out as a part of the natural selection process. You can imagine the potential results of a meeting between two humans with such attitudes. That’s where the corner marshal comes in.
The specific, most important role of a corner marshal is to warn racing cyclists of the presence of traffic, and to warn drivers of the imminent arrival of cyclists. A secondary role of corner marshals is to direct cyclists to the proper race-course route at intersections.
Since only an officer of the law can legally stop traffic, the corner marshal can only warn drivers of the bicyclists. This is done with flags, hand gestures, and any other creative communication technique a marshal may invent. If a particularly dangerous situation appears imminent, the corner marshal can use any means to signal the racers to stop. However, successfully conveying such a message to the oxygen-starved, pea-size brains of racers is doubtful. Rest assured, the final responsibility for safely negotiating any situation rests with the riders (and drivers) themselves.
Having Fun. The best way to enjoy being a corner marshal is to come prepared. You may be asked to sit at a corner for three hours in the middle of nowhere, under a hot sun or in freezing rain. This can be a drag. But if you have a chair, an umbrella (rain or shine), some food, and something to read (and perhaps a camera, binoculars, or radio), it can be a lovely way to spend part of a day outdoors. Bringing along a friend or two makes it a lot nicer, too.
At most FLCC events you will be provided with an orange vest, flags, and food and drink. Moreover, you will be reimbursed for any gas expenses involved in getting yourself to and from your station. It shouldn’t cost you money to volunteer your time.
While most riders will be grateful and polite to you for making their race possible, occasionally some riders will be less-than-courteous to corner marshals. If you ever encounter one of those riders, I suggest that you direct them off course, preferably onto a dead-end road with lots of vicious, hungry dogs running loose. At the very least, make a note of their number and let the promoter know of the situation so that the rider can be publicly humiliated after the race.
Support Vehicle Drivers. Another vital job at the races is that of “SVD.” During most road races, and for each category of the race, we provide a lead vehicle to warn oncoming traffic of the approaching bike riders. Lead vehicles also reduce the likelihood that riders will make wrong turns and go off course. The driver of a lead vehicle tries to stay 50 to 200 yards ahead of the first riders at all times. Flashers should always be on, and it’s good to wave at oncoming traffic to indicate that something special is coming at them. On downhills and other fast sections it is best to increase the distance between the car and the riders so that the racers don’t draft the car and won’t crash should the vehicle suddenly have to slow down for a corner, a dog, or some other hazard. Lead vehicles don’t stop, except for real emergencies such as injured riders or armed hijackers.
Followers. If there are enough volunteers we also try to provide “follow vehicles” behind each category of riders. The basic role of a follow vehicle is to provide replacement wheels to riders who get flats, and to help with other repairable problems. The follow vehicle will also stop to help any injured or stranded cyclist.
It takes a bit of judgment to know how far behind the pack to follow, and when to pass groups of slow riders that are dropped from the main bunch, so the role of follow vehicle is usually assigned to people with racing experience. It really helps to have two people in follow vehicles to be aware of all that goes on and to decide where to be at any time.
When stopping to help a rider, you should pull off the road on the right, behind the rider so that you protect her or him from any traffic that might be coming. Also, by being behind the rider, after you fix the problem, the rider won’t have to pull out around your vehicle and possibly get hit by a passing vehicle, and won’t risk hopping back on the bike and sprinting into the back end of your vehicle.
Followers will have a small notepad on which to write the numbers of any people that are aided, particularly if you give them a replacement wheel. That way we can make sure they get back their dead wheel after the race and we can return the spare to whomever it belongs.
In the best of all possible worlds, a rider with a flat tire will receive a replacement wheel so quickly that they can catch up to the pack and resume the race with little handicap due to their misfortune. In reality it usually takes a little while for the follow vehicle to reach the rider in difficulty, and then the communication about what the rider may need is less than perfect. It takes a minute to get out an appropriate wheel, to get it on the bike, and for the rider to get under way. This is one of those stressful times for the cyclist (not to mention the volunteer) and occasionally bad words are spoken. Once again, most cyclists are grateful for your help and will thank you and show their appreciation. However, if cyclists are upset, rude, or ungrateful, I recommend that you let them know that they are being impolite, and suggest to them that they can walk their bike to the finish line. I don’t recommend driving over their bike, even though you may feel like doing so. This is a chance for you to feel the adrenaline that is involved during a bike race. You’ll be amazed at how intense things are even though from a distance it may seem pretty calm.
Prep Work. A basic yet very important pre-race volunteer job is that of course-marking and corner-sweeping. Those duties can be a real drag if you are the promoter and have little or no help, and you have to drive around and sweep and shovel dirt and gravel (and worse) from intersections of roads so far out in the country that, when you look at the locals who pass you by, you wonder if they’re thinking about the movie Deliverance. On the other hand, if you have a few friends who want to do it together, it can be a fun traveling party when you summon an Indy-pit-crew attitude. Four or five people pile out of the car, armed with shovels and brooms, and with the radio playing, and the fur flies! The job gets done in no time, and you share all the latest jokes and stories. If it’s the Hollenbeck course (Virgil), there’s usually some food in the car during the job, and certainly afterward. It can be much more than a job — an adventure if you have enough people.
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There is satisfaction in a job well done, and a bike race put on by volunteers who know their jobs and do them well can be as satisfying for the volunteers as for the racers themselves. Feeling competent about the jobs you perform and seeing the results of that competence in the form of a seamless race and the enjoyment of the participants is cool. If there are enough volunteers, it is fun and nobody gets burned out. And when that happens, it’s easier to make the same race or some other similar event happen in the future, too.