Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Feed Angel

If the course is the star and the racers the drama, then the chain lube that keeps the whole shebang moving is provided by the volunteer. In the annals of thankless jobs, the race volunteer ranks just behind Congressional Paige and just ahead of Poet Laureate. The tasks are rarely fun (unless you get your jollies from telling the locals that they can’t drive home right now) and the contribution is quickly forgotten (unless something goes wrong).

It’s little wonder they are so hard to recruit.

Tougher still to find are those who volunteer on behalf of the teams. They are to soigneurs what amateurs are to PROs. It’s all the passion, a fraction of the know-how and none of the compensation. How anyone can be recruited week after week to help a team’s racers survive under the acetylene torch rays of the sun, pinning numbers, handing up feeds, tending to the wounded and very often driving vanquisher or vanquished home to bed.

They don’t make a sunscreen strong enough to make those days comfortable.

In the Old Country, when numbers were made of silk and saved after each race, the mamas would come out to sew them onto the jerseys for the riders before the start. Such local town support is more than we can hope to experience in community races, but it’s an accurate reflection of how bike racing is received by most towns, even those in New Belgium.

While course marshals and registration volunteers are as necessary as the course, it’s the feed angel who gets tapped week after week and without whom the complexion of a long road race or hot crit can change utterly. Unlike the registration table where an extra five minutes won’t kill anyone, feeds have no margin of error; miss one and the race is effectively over unless it’s a crit. Combine that stress—imagine being on the receiving end of all the yelling that happens when a bottle is dropped—with the week after week need of a team in the middle of its season and it's a miracle that any team can keep its racers from bonking.

From time to time you’ll find the nonpartisan feed angel who will hold bottles for anyone wearing a number. It’s a special person who understands the race should be decided on legs, not on the level of support the riders can recruit.

Over the years I’ve seen feed angels who handle their duties with the brutal efficiency of a gas station attendant. Others seem overwhelmed by the rush of bikes and grabbing hands. But the best are those who can turn four or five hours into a barbecue at the beach. They can make you crack a grin when joy or humor seem as remote as $1 gas.

Racers have but one task when in the heat of competition. However, it’s the small kindnesses that can show our real gratitude. It’s a topsy turvy world where the racers cheer for the volunteers, but showing gratitude when it should be hardest to conjure could be the best thanks of all.

Of course, there’s nothing like a gift card to a day spa. We may not get treated like PROs, but that’s no reason to neglect them.


mogley said...

i don't see any PBR's in that cooler...too serious,bah!

C said...

I've worked as a neutral and team mechanic for several events and teams. The whole lack of gratitude thing is why I no longer work races and instead provide mechanical support for centuries and charity rides. In several years of doing volunteer race support I received a six pack from a member of the Sierra Nevada team, postcards/caps from other pros and a few bottles of wine from the parents of some juniors I helped out. Pros are always nice to neutral mechanics but that's because they're pros not posers. Parents of juniors also tend to be pretty good as do the Cat 4/5 racers who always seem thrilled when someone changes their wheel for them and gets them back in the race.

Masters racers on the other hand were by far and away the worse with too many of them showing not a shred of appreciation for the neutral support wrench who gets them back in the race. Don't know if it's because they mistakenly think we're being paid to work that Tuesday night crit or if they're just jerks in real life. It cracks me up that they take the racing thing more seriously than many of the pros I've worked with. Here's a news flash for all you legend-in-your-own-mind Masters who think your so fantastic: You're not a pro, you'll never be a pro, and if you were as great a racer as you think you are you would have been a pro when you had the chance!

By comparison, the Freds at centuries ALWAYS say thanks and many even give generous tips. I've walked away from working a century with more than $100 in tips and hundreds of "thank yous". In many ways the Freds riding centuries with triples are way more PRO than the racers.

Always remember that the people who put the races together and keep them running are performing a difficult time consuming job. Most do it unpaid on their free time. The few organizers who do get paid make next to nothing. Without the people at the registration table, course marshals, race refs, and mechanics you wouldn't have a race. Also keep in mind that while most of us do it because we passionately love racing it doesn't hurt to say thanks after the race.

-p said...

I worked three years of feed for the Boulder Triathlon series and saw my share of dropped and exploded Gatorade bottles. It's tricky, kind of dangerous, and not for kids (which is unfortunate because it's a great way for kids to get excited about outdoor sports). Anyway, you get some yellers and some thank yous and it's the thank yous that bring you back, particularly when it's a pro who recognizes that you're volunteering so that he/she can make a living or a 70 year old + age grouper who is inspiring to watch.

mathias_d said...

just an aside...this applies to any volunteer race worker in any discipline of sport. I used to ski race, and the whole thing wouldn't even happen if it weren't for the volunteers.

also, the same complaint is heard about the masters ski racers (of whom many are master bike racers)...many of these people are doctors/lawyers/legends in their own minds, and in the heat of battle the small stature of their spirit comes out in full force.

funny, these people weren't really welcome in these sports back in the day when people were proud to be blue-collar and imho their parents should have taught them better than to be self-centered pricks.

Jason said...

The feed angels rock. I know I have my own personal Feed Angel for my Solo races in the form of my wife. She can handle filling bladders, bottles, making sure I eat and take care of a 4 year old all at the same time.

But the end of the race I'm SURE that our 4 year old is easier to take care of and less likely to be puking on himself so he can try to finish mid pack in some race that 99.5% of the world could care less about.

Additionally course marshals, neutral support and volunteers make it happen. I try to always say thank you. Make them know that their time is appreciated. I've seen my share of racers give a volunteer attitude and that is just the worst. You might not be PRO but you can act PRO in the form of being thankful that folks are helping you do what you love to do.

Cheers to the Feed Angels.

byron said...

posted to Bike Hugger's link blog -- good stuff.

bikesgonewild said...

...i make a point of saying thanks to the ubiquitous orange vested corner worker or course marshal when i attend an event, whether it's TofC level or just a local crit...

...they have the unenviable & generally inevitable task of saving someone from both themselves & creating havoc out on the course...

Anonymous said...

I volunteered to marshall at a local club (CBRC) race and was surprised at how much the organizers worked to make sure we we felt appreciated. i got a free t-shirt, coffee, bagels, a long thank-you email, not to mention getting thanked several times that day, and most importantly, free entry in the next race! It was a good experience because of all this...I'll definitely volunteer for them again!