I’m in a field, in the rain, with a very liquid mud sloshing up to my ankles. It’s been raining all day and the mud has been getting liquider and sloshier. I’m mostly damp all over, and cold, I’ve been cold long enough not to notice much any more. If I walk around a bit I warm up just enough. It could be worse, I could be racing through this shit.
Being wet and cold and muddy in a field isn’t so unusual for me but today I’ve swapped lycra and a bike for a tabard and wellies to help out at a cyclo-cross race instead of race it. I jog up the hill to replace a bit of course tape that a rider has slipped sideways through, but mainly for the opportunity get the blood pumping to my boreal extremities. This occupies most of my day. I learn to hate cheap course tape.
I got here when it was just getting light, and raining, I’ll leave after it finally stopped raining just as the sky was bruising dark, the organiser was here before me, he’ll still be in this field when I get home. We both and several others were here the previous day setting out the course, discussing the best way to make use of the terrain to make the race interesting via lots of pointing and running around pretending to ride bikes, making that turn tighter for the challenge it would present, actually routing it around the impossibly muddy bit, pondering where the pits should best go and finally stamping in long parallel lines of stakes. The organiser has been here several times before in the preceding months talking to the farmer about using these fields for a race, trying to explain to him about this weird sport he’s never heard of and convincing him to allow his land to be used for a Sunday in the winter, how apart from leaving a meandering 10 foot wide ribbon of churned mud the impact on his fallow land would be minimal. And that cyclo-cross riders were nice people in general really and wouldn’t make a mess or set anything on fire.
You won’t see any of this when you turn up for a race though, you’ll see a maze of thapping red-and-white tape, a sign on tent, or cricket pavilion with a toilet if you’re lucky, an E-Z UP with all the timing gubbins huddled from the wind and draped in hopeful plastic inside, maybe a tea and cakes stall and people already slugging around the course. All of this, the smell of sweat and embrocation and none of the invisible countless varieties of effort from the many that has gone into making all this happen. For you. It’s not just magic.
Any bike race relies on a lot of people putting in untold amounts of time, unpaid. They don’t just turn up on the day to take your race money and spend it all on fast cars and electronic groupsets. Work starts months before with finding a venue, or securing a previously used site for another year and then negotiating a place for it in the race calendar. A diplomatic minefield in itself. Once that’s finally sorted there’s planning the course and making sure it fits within the ruling bodies guidelines, then there’s promotion, finding sponsors and wrangling some prizes - some of those sponsors might be persuaded to chivvy up some extra schwag, that would be a nice thing to do and make everybody smile. There’s the dealing with tedious but necessary red tape; insurance, health and safety, first aid, paperwork, telephone calls, e-mails, paperwork, telephone calls, e-mails, telephone calls, more e-mails. This is the easy stuff before the hard on-the-ground hands-on work of the actual race begins. The stuff that just takes up all of an organiser’s spare time in between a proper job and placating a partner and a family. No-one’s a full time race organiser. There’s no hourly salary here. If there was even the bare minimum wage handed out to the people behind an event for the hours they put in you couldn’t afford to race, none of you.
All of this is done for you for the love of the sport. The British Cycling Commissaire who will have got up hours before you did to travel to the venue, wandered around the course, most likely in the rain, checked it’s all okay for your own safety and changed things if necessary, started each and every race and then got home somewhat later than you did will get just his expenses paid. If someone offered to pay you to stand in freezing mud from dawn to dusk how much would you ask? Or would you probably turn it down out of hand because it’s not something you’d want to do for however much?
I spoke to one race organiser who said he would be more than happy if someone could just sponsor him a meal out somewhere nice for him and his long suffering wife as a way of thanks. A small, significant and telling sentiment.
A brief scan of any race’s accounts might make you feel a little guilty about ever muttering over the cost of entering, thinking that everyone’s entry fees goes into a massive pool of coin that a race organiser dives into on Monday morning, does a lazy back-stroke and laughs at you. The biggest expense by far is the prize money pot; there's about 10 different race categories in cyclocross with some categories handing out cash prizes down to 10th place. That’s a tidy sum all in. You like some cash remuneration as a meagre recognition for your hard training efforts don’t you? Next down the list are the race levies to be paid to the national organising body and the local race league, those can raise an eyebrow, then any rent for the venue, refreshment supplies, the Commissaire’s fees, First Aid, volunteer expenses, course tape and signs, any advertising. Then a thousand little tiny unseen things that need to suddenly be bought and paid for that nibble away at the budget.
If the race is lucky it’ll be on private land which means it can be set up in days previous and packed down at slight leisure later making the To-Do panic on the actual day a little less fraught. If the race venue is on public land such as a park, which it frequently is, then everything has to be up, raced and tidied away on the day. This is stressful. Oh, and on private land you don’t have to deal with people who Always Walk Their Dog There On A Sunday complaining that there are people on bicycles getting in the way and resent the chance to go for a walk somewhere different a few hundred metres away. They can get a little draining. Is there any kind of building that can be used as a warmish and dry shelter for the race HQ? Are there toilets? Is there a tap? Will there be enough parking, preferably on hard standing so people don’t get stuck? Will riders end up changing out of muddy kit in suburban driveways and ridding themselves of pre-race nerves in neat Buddleias causing no small amount of local curtain twitching and irate letters to the local paper that might put an end to the race for next year?
All this choreography has been going on while you’ve been checking the race calendar with a cup of tea and writing down the dates, and then while you’ve been refreshing the weather page every five minutes someone has been scuttling around and picking up the course marking stakes and the podium and the signs. You need a lot of stakes for a cyclo-cross race, especially if it’s one of those ones that zig-zags and spirals around the fields. Hundreds. A lot of stakes to collect, put up and then pull down, probably in the rain. Tedious thankless work. And then take back damp to the damp shed where they belong. While you’ve been wondering if your brake blocks need replacing someone’s sourced all the course tape to string between those stakes. You really want the good sturdy stuff that won’t snap in a stiff winter’s breeze, let alone break if a racer slides into it a little too hard, but that isn’t cheap and can cripple a race budget. You pretty much can’t use tape again either because when you’re tidying it up at the end of the day you’re in no real mood to roll wet, muddy tangled strings of the stuff up neatly, or conscientiously untie each knot that holds it to a stake or a tree. It gets ripped down and binned, literally throwing money away. A sponsor for decent tape is a major concern. Good luck with that.
While you’ve been agonizing over last minute tyre choice the someone’s been making sure they’ve got the keys for that gate and made the last minute calls to double check that everyone who said they’d be there and should be there is going to be there. There will be an eleventh hour cancellation obviously, because there always is, just to ramp up the perpetual underlying stress. As you’re having your pre-race breakfast of porridge and banana there are people already in a field, laying out the course, checking the course with the Commissaire, putting tents up, rigging up timing systems, all sorts of jobs. They’ve been up for hours beavering away so that you can turn up and play in the mud. The same goes for any bike race; cyclo-cross, road or mountainbike.
At the end of the day everything happens in reverse; when you’re at home washed and warm there are still people in a field packing things away. Piling up rolls of tape like dung-beetles, pulling out and stacking all those stakes, taking down signs, tidying up your rubbish, returning your lost leg-warmer from where you absent-mindedly left it on that fence, putting dank things into boxes to be sorted out at some point later, doing the EZ-Up concertina shuffle. When you’re tucking into a roast dinner and a well-earned post-race beer those people will be driving home, heating on full, dropping off stuff on the way, picking up a bottle of wine for their partner, deciding to leave that crap in the back of the car to sort out tomorrow while you’re clicking on the internet to see if the results are up yet.
All of this should be easy, if you’re organizing a race on behalf of a club, as most of them are, you’ll have a lengthy list of members on which to draw on for volunteers for the day. You’d think. They’ll obviously be glad to have the opportunity to give something back to the sport and surrender a day of racing for a day of helping out. Encourage others, be an asset to the club, make the day run smoother for everyone, that sort of thing. That’s the theory. In reality that doesn’t seem to happen so much. Send out a club cc request for helpers and you’ll more than likely be deafened by the sound of virtual tumbleweed skittering by. Everyone’s more than happy to turn up and race, not so many are prepared to spend time making that race actually happen. All give, no take. Every race I have ever stood on the other side of the tape for there have been desperate calls for helpers, every single time, every single race. This shouldn’t happen. I have heard various muttered curses about the uselessness and selfishness of a variety of cycling clubs and their less-than-helpful members.
Add to this the fact that more and more cyclists are finding their social pedaling needs are happily dealt with by just riding with random friends, doing sportives and dueling with strangers on Strava rather than making use of the traditional club system means that approaching them as a potential source of Sunday assistance is getting harder and harder. Helper numbers are bolstered more and more by friends and family, some of them might just be cyclists, not a single one of them in a cycling club, all of them happy to help to make fun things happen. With that being the only reward for getting cold and needing to throw all their clothes in the washing machine in the evening.
Remember all of this if you should ever feel the need to complain at the organiser for his race because the pits were in the wrong place, the course design was the reason you didn’t win, you ripped your rear mech off, there was no hot water in the toilets, whatever reason you might have for not doing as well as you thought you might. Bear in mind that this could be the straw that breaks his particular camel’s back and he’ll decide to never put on a race ever again because it’s just not worth the grief. If there’s a fubar that ruins your race it’s not personal, everyone that gets involved in putting on any race wants it to run without a hitch. Try helping out at a race and you’ll feel a pang of guilt about any time you may have whinged about a race’s organisation, a little bit of empathy towards what anyone who puts on a race has to contend with might just creep in. See just how many times a race organiser doesn’t snap and punch someone in the face. On the other hand if your race goes well don’t forget to thank those that have stood in the mud and rain for you. Heck, thank them for their efforts anyway even if you have a terrible day.
Here’s the thing. At some point the essential core of people that keep putting on races are going to either get bored of doing it or just move on to something else, something with less stress and effort and maybe some pay, something that means they get their Sundays back, and their spare time and their family, and there’s going to be no-one to step into their mud-caked shoes. And the races will stop. And there will be pouty bottom lips and flouncing, which never looks good in lycra.
If you race your bike in any capacity, be that cyclo-cross or road or track or even mountainbiking you absolutely need to help out at a race at least once in whatever meagre capacity you can manage to ensure that they keep going. I’d even set a ratio to it; race five times, help once? Repeat. If that sounds like too much of a grumbling trade off on your precious time then adjust that number to suit your conscience. Would revoking your race licence if you couldn’t prove you’d helped out with at least one race in a year be too much? I don’t think so.
Are you a rider that relishes in mid-pack obscurity? Results landfill? How about actually doing something more useful than exercising everyone’s scrollbar finger for the day? Consistently in the Top Ten and you know, just a little bit awesome? A paragon of the dedication and selfishness needed to get to the top? How about standing on a cold wet corner for a day cheering on the person that’s dead last by a long way and about to be lapped for the second time but keeping going anyway, dedicated to just finishing? Remember when you were that person and you wanted to give up but were encouraged and carried on? You can be an inspiration by more than just winning.
If you can’t make the whole day then offer to do half, turn up and lend a hand at setting up, or registration. You can even do that and then go race afterwards, I’ve seen people do this, it’s not hard. Or rock up for the pack down when everyone’s a bit tired and an injection of fresh blood is welcome. You could do this after you’ve raced instead of speeding off home dreaming of a hot bath and a curry. All help, any help, no matter how small, will be welcomed. You can do that can’t you? Can’t you?
Help out. Simply help out. Help you have to. Anybody that races a bike should feel compelled to volunteer their time at a race, they shouldn’t have to be asked or cajoled or forced, not least as a way of thanks to all those who have stood in a yellow tabard in the mud before them.
What’s your excuse?
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.