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.