I was a ride volunteer

Since I started biking, I’ve ridden in about six organized rides. I’ve been impressed with the organization of each one, even though some are inevitably going to be better done than others. A lot of work goes into putting on a ride, and it wouldn’t get done without the help of volunteers.

I was really  wowed by the number of volunteers that helped put on the MS ride last month. To get 11,600 riders across miles and miles of Texas took some tremendous planning to begin with, and then when the ride’s first day was rained out, all the ride workers had to be coordinated and new plans made within hours. Not only did the job get done, it was done without a hitch.

So when the Real Ale Ride appeared on the calendar, I decided I wouldn’t ride it this year, I would work it. I filled out an online form during this past week, and signed up for two different roles.

Thursday afternoon, I joined four other folks for ride packet pickup. It was at the north store of Bicycle Sport Shop, which is a main ride sponsor. A worker for Red Licorice Events, who is doing all the logistical work on the ride, pulled up with a car loaded with boxes of t-shirts, ride packets, and other paraphernalia. We sorted it all out, and were handing out materials even before the 3 p.m. start time.

pickupTwo volunteers help a rider check in.

The crowd came in waves, sometimes with people lined up five deep, but at other times leaving us standing around talking. The work wasn’t difficult, but we had to pay attention. It’s pretty easy to miss a step like leaving a wrist band out of a packet, or forgetting to include the helmet number along with the jersey number. I was surprised at how many people registered for the ride at the store, rather than doing it earlier online. At 7 p.m. when the store closed, we got all the t-shirts boxed up and stacked at the back of the store for delivery to their other location the next day.

My alarm went off at 5 a.m. Saturday, so I could get breakfasted and dressed and on the road for Blanco, Texas, about 40 miles west of Austin. I would be working the starting line area, and since the start was moved up to 7:30 a.m. this year, an early start for me was mandatory.

VoltentI checked in at the volunteer tent, and asked about my duties. “I don’t really know,” said one of the workers. “Find Erin. She’ll tell you. She’s on a bike with a basket. You can’t miss her.”

I couldn’t find her, though, and with 7:30 getting closer, I was concerned about the start. I enlisted the help of another volunteer to move the staging signs into place. The 80-milers would start first, then 15 minutes later, the 65-milers, and the 50s, 30s and 15s would each start at 15-minute intervals.


Then Erin found me. I knew right away that I was not going to mind working for her today. Here was a Texas-style ride starter who would be the envy of any ride in the country, whether there’s a cowboy connection or not. Erin is the co-owner of Red Licorice Events, the company that runs the Real Ale Ride for Bicycle Sports Shop. Red Licorice runs a dozen triathlon and running events each year on their own, as well as the Real Ale Ride under contract. Although Erin was constantly bombarded with cell phone calls and walkie-talkie squawks, she kept her cool, dealt with each question quickly and efficiently, and always kept it fun. She chatted and flirted with riders in the front row, and greeted many by name. She put a bullhorn in my hand, and showed me how to use it. I had to tell the riders to ride slow from the start down the hill to the main highway, because the hill they were on had speed bumps. Then they had to be reminded to keep to the right once they hit the highway, and not ride in the center lane. If necessary, we would stop the riders in the starting area to let bike traffic spread out a bit on the main road.  Erin would blow the airhorn to start each wave.

The 80-mile riders were the first to go. Their 7:30 start was moved up from last year, when the ride had to contend with very hot temperatures. This morning, while it was in the high 70s and would get hotter, the clouds hung around, keeping things cool. A few raindrops even spattered us while we waited for the clock to tick down.

TinaIn appreciation for the city of Blanco’s support of the ride, Mayor Tina Gourley was designated to lead off the riders. She looked apprehensive on her cruiser in front of the 80-mile hammerheads, but later told me she got started without any trouble and made it to her house, where she parked her bike, grabbed her dog, and returned to the staging area.

The five different groups got off the starting line, with only one minor collision between bikes. No injuries. Then, we volunteers looked at each other, wondering what there would be to do. Erin asked me to find some hoses to run from the Real Ale brewery (did I mention that the ride starts and finishes at a microbrewery?) to some kiddie pools that had been set up under a huge live oak tree, and fill them up. Then, I took apart some leftover signs and packed them away in the Red Licorice trailer.

signsMost of my work after the ride started was mindless and menial, but necessary.

Volunteering has its perks, of course. This ride featured all sorts of free stuff for riders: beer from the brewery, a barbeque lunch, bottled iced tea, massages… the list goes on. Once our work was done and we waited for the bulk of the riders to come in, we got to get our food and drink, too.

But most of the rest of the morning was spent in the Volunteer tent, chatting with the other folks. I was surprised to learn that many of the volunteers were not bikers. Working these events is just a fun thing for them to do. Others had a motivation similar to mine. “I have volunteer guilt,” said John, who I worked with on Thursday. “I’ve ridden in a lot of these, and it’s time to give back.”

For the rest of the day, we had to answer a continual stream of questions as riders returned from the course. It didn’t bother me if I didn’t have the answer, because it gave me an excuse to find Erin and ask her.

My favorite question came just before I was to leave for the day:

“Say, can you help me? I want to get a white ride t-shirt. I just can’t wear this burnt orange one.”

I looked at his cap with its maroon Texas A & M logo. “Aggie, huh? I think they’re all gone, but try the merchandise tent over there.”

My shift was done at 1 p.m. The area in front of the brewery was crowded with riders, and the lines for beer and barbeque were quite long. I hunted down Erin to tell her I was leaving, and got a hug and an invitation to come back next year.

I’ll be back. Maybe not on this ride, because I want to ride it next year, but probably on others. As I think we all realize, these rides wouldn’t happen without the work of the volunteers. If you ride, you might consider “paying it forward” and helping out sometime.

The Selle San Marco Ponza

After my MS ride last month, I was sore. I wondered whether my bottom problems we the result of my saddle. I ride the Specialized Alias saddle — 143 mm size — and I’ve read and heard a lot of nice things about it. Last year, I even wrote about the comfort of the saddle. But since then, I’ve become less enamored of it.

My friend David invited me to try one of his spare saddles, just to see if it would make any difference, so I went by his house to pick it up. It’s a Selle San Marco Ponza, and comes as factory equipment on several mid-range bikes. Reviews I’ve seen online are all over the map; some reviewers love it, some hate it. I’ll bet that’s true of the majority of saddles, which tend to be the most personal pieces of equipment on a bike.

I was anxious to try anything new, so I put it on the bike and have ridden it a number of times.


The Ponza.

It’s not apparent in the picture, but the first thing you notice about the Ponza is its width. It’s a racing-style saddle, and quite a bit narrower than the Alias. I’d been leery of trying a narrow saddle, so I began this test with some trepidation.


The Alias.

The other obvious difference is the lack of a cutout on the Ponza. That bothered me, too. I couldn’t imagine being comfortable, especially after more than about 20 miles, on a saddle that offered no relief to the softy bits.

But the experience was a revelation. The narrow saddle felt much better under me. It’s much easier to slide into and out of when you’re up out of the saddle during a hill climb. My important stuff didn’t get squashed the way I feared. On our 34-mile jaunt last Sunday, I completely forgot about the saddle — which I guess is a pretty good endorsement.

The saddle isn’t perfect. For one thing, it has an almost complete lack of padding compared to the Alias. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the saddle is supposed to handle only part of the job of supporting a rider. The pedals and handlebars have to absorb their share of the load, too. And once I got used to coasting with the pedals in a horizontal position, and standing to pedal on even slight hills, any discomfort went away.

Still, I think my search for the perfect saddle is by no means at an end. I’d like to try something like the Ponza with a cutout, or at least a depression down the middle. I’ve got one in mind, and I’ll be mounting that on the bike in the next week. Look for another saddle progress report in the near future.

The Time Trialist

Well, I went and did it. I entered the bi-weekly time trial run on the Mopac loop I so often ride. This is part of my effort to inject a little more fun into my cycling. Several members of my club, and other friends, have been urging me to do it, and although I’m not that much for riding fast for long distances, I figured it was time.  If nothing else, I would get a realistic picture of where I stand vis-a-vis other riders.

Check in is at the Veloway, just two-and-a-half miles from my house, so I rode over. At the first stoplight on the way, one of the club members pulled up next to me. Steve T. loves these things, and tries not to miss any of them. As we rode together, I asked him the secret of this event.

“The secret is not to blow up,” he said. “Go out at 80 percent for the first half. When you make the turn, then you can really push.”

It sounded like good advice, and I planned to follow it. We got to the Veloway, and I waited in a short line to check in.

checkinSome riders rented timing chips for $5, others had purchased theirs for $35 earlier in the season. I was one of the renters.

chipAffix the chip to the strap, strap it on your ankle, and you’re good to go.

I took one three-mile lap around the Veloway to warm up. Don’t know why I bothered; it was 91 degrees and very sunny. Riders could head for the course any time after 6 p.m. As I waited in the shade for the magic hour to roll around, my friend David rode up. He wasn’t 100 percent sure he would do it tonight, but when he saw me, he figured what the heck. He signed in, and as it was now just after 6, we headed out to the course together.

startThe start. Just ride across the mat by the cones. It beeps. You’re off.

I’ve always enjoyed going to the Veloway on time trial nights, just to look at the bikes. Some of these guys take this thing very seriously.

rider1In deep thought while waiting to make the turn onto the course.

rider2Criminey! It’s 91 degrees!

DavidAh, normalcy! Recreational riders were out in force, too. My friend David.

David and I started together, because he’s done this before, and wanted to show me the way. But trouble hit right at the start. When he zeroed his computer, the wire disconnected. He was riding blind, and was most bummed that he couldn’t track his cadence.

I pulled ahead of David, and led him into the sweeping right turn that heads us west. Soon, we hit the first big uphill, to Escarpment Blvd. I shifted to the small chainring and kept up my pedaling cadence. When I glanced over my shoulder at the top of the hill, David had fallen off my pace.

Farther on, the road ends in a T intersection at Ranch Road 1826. Before the turn, riders must cross to the left shoulder of the road. There’s a stop sign at the intersection, and at this hour, homebound commuters are lined up waiting to make a left turn as well. When I got to the turn, a pickup truck at the stop sign started to pull away. He saw me in his side mirror, and hugged the curb as he turned, almost cutting me off. I was able to slow enough not to run into his back fender, but I had only enough wits to shout an unprintable word at him. If he’d pulled this stunt while I was on a normal ride, I would have filed an assault with a deadly weapon complaint with the sheriff’s department. But tonight, I was more interested in the ride. I made my turn and kept going.

Heading back east, it’s downhill much of the way, and even the two uphills aren’t bad. But it was into a moderate wind from the southeast. I got up to 33 mph into the wind on the longest downhill, then turned north for the last couple of miles.

By this time, I was really feeling it, and I had a couple more hills to negotiate. But now, the wind was at my back. Trouble was, I had drunk too much water before the start, and a side stitch had been bothering me for most of the ride. I put it out of my mind, and pushed up the last hill to the finish.

noobAt the finish, a tired but happy Noob.

David always set a target of 25 minutes for the 8.12 mile course. Since we’re pretty evenly matched, I figured that would be my benchmark, too. So I was pleased when the results were posted — I did it in 24 minutes, 34.8 seconds. Average speed: 19.5 mph — about 2 mph faster than I typically ride this course. That placed me 67th out of 75 riders. David came in a minute 19 later. We sat around and talked while we recovered from the effort, but we’ve got a long way to go to compete with the big boys.

Okay, so now I know where I stand. I did a lot better than I expected going in, and that’s a confidence builder. I won’t be doing these things again though, until they wind down in September — then I’ll run another one to see if I show any improvement over the summer. The guys who’d been after me to ride this were right: it’s fun.