Sunday, June 8, 2008

Shenandoah 1200K: In praise of the volunteers

At 6:14 a.m. on Saturday morning we closed down the Fancy Gap control, Mile 446 of the inaugural Shenandoah 1200K. As the sun climbed the sky for another day of record heat, we packed up the tables, the chairs, the tarps and umbrellas, a cook stove, a leftover box of chili and an unopened barrel of Quaker Oats.

Only 6:14 in the morning, but our day was already done.

Our little army of volunteers had done our best to feed the riders, get them a shower and find them a bed for a few hours of fitful sleep. We’d encouraged them, told them the hardest part was over. We adjusted a bike or 2, helped tired riders put batteries in their lights, filled water bottles and fixed coffee. We’d done all we could before sending them up the road for another 500K of blazing blacktop. Now it was up to them.

For about 12 hours, the Fancy Gap volunteers served as an oasis of food and shelter for randonneurs on their 760-mile trek. By the time the riders reached us, they’d been climbing hill after endless hill. They’d been riding most of the day in an oppressive heat, a 600-pound gorilla that managed to break free the moment the circus hit town. Before things had wrapped up, the combination punch of heat, hills and humidity would take down nearly half of the 56 starters.

Down in the Shenandoah Valley, where most of the ride took place, the temperatures were in the mid to high 90s, a full 10 degrees warmer than our 3,100-foot perch at Fancy Gap. The riders had to climb to reach us, but it was a climb out of the brick oven and into the cooler reaches of mountain air. The salt stains may have been on the riders’ jerseys, but relief was on their faces.

The Fancy Gap Crew

Shortly after the Shenandoah 1200K was announced, riders from the N.C. Randonneurs offered to help Matt Settle, the event organizer, with the Fancy Gap control, the point where the ride came closest to the North Carolina border. We were excited to have a 1200K in our backyard, and we wanted to do our part to make it a success. The Tar Heel riders who signed on as volunteers were all PBP veterans: Jerry, Byron, Chris & Annette, Branson, Paul S... We knew what it felt like to push your tired body through one of those grueling events – and we also knew what it was like to have knowledgeable and supportive volunteers at the controls.

We were not the only volunteers at Fancy Gap. Susan, the partner of rider Paul, was on hand. So were PBP veterans Clare and Jim, who were working the nearby Hillsville control. They stopped up several times to see us, and we dropped down the hill to see them and drop off supplies. Our control drew some guests. Capn Ende and his family were heading up to Vermont for a vacation. They took a slight detour as they headed north and stopped by for lunch.

The Fancy Gap volunteers assembled a full 15 hours before the first riders ever reached us. We’d done the advance work, socked in supplies and readied the stove, stocked the coolers, moved picnic tables and set up chairs. For most of the day we played the waiting game. We were the guys in the bunker, idling the day away, ready to go on high alert the instant the call came in.

After nearly 18 hours where we’d seen only 5 riders, Rush Hour hit, first 2 riders, then a pack of 4, then another of 5, then 3, and on and on through the night. From the hill where the motel was located we could see the lights of riders coming down the Blue Ridge Parkway toward the entrance of the Fancy Gap Campground. The entrance was very dark, so we put a blinking red light on a Shenandoah sign at the driveway. We also rattled a funky old cowbell that Jerry bought from a local antiques shop. The riders first stopped at a cabin manned by Susan, who stamped riders’ cards with a special “Tar Heel / Fancy Gap” stamp we’d made for the occasion. Then Byron ferried riders up a steep gravel road to the motel where we were stationed. We tried to get riders settled in with drinks and foods as quickly as we could, serving up cheeseburgers, rice, beans and chili, and potato chips. We had an assortment of drinks to hand out, including lemonade, Coke, Sprite, chocolate milk and the occasional malt beverage.

Most riders had a plate of food under our tarp area before heading off to a room for a shower and a little shut eye. When they got up, we were ready for them with breakfast bars, bananas, cereal, croissants and coffee. Byron ferried them back up to the cabin, where most of their bikes were parked, and we watched their taillights disappear back up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rider by rider, our mission was accomplished.

For me, Fancy Gap was a magic moment of camaraderie. I’ve shared many special hours in the saddle with my fellow N.C. randonneurs. I had just as much fun hanging out under our mulch-stained blue tarp.

• Byron. Besides being a damned fine mechanic, Byron’s also a classic tale spinner. In the dead time while we waited for our first riders, he was our entertainment. He’s the guy who turned each dent in his pick-up truck into a 10-minute tale of hilarious woe. He had us rolling in the aisles as he recounted his “cheese popcorn smelling feet” during PBP. Byron was the guy who ferried riders back and forth along that steep dirt road between the control cabin and the motel rooms.

• Chris & Annette. I met these two Asheville riders last year, but I don’t think I really knew them until Friday. These two have a long racing pedigree and have now turned their attention to track racing at the Asheville’s “Mellow Drome” where Chris swears 500 meters can be every bit as tough as 1200K. I discovered Chris is a woodworker and a former collegiate swimmer. I learned how Chris & Annette met in the fast and slow lanes of a masters practice. Annette is a former nationally recognized racer who earned a place on the podium at several events. Annette gets full credit for Saturday morning’s breakfast bar. When everyone else began to wilt, Annette stepped up. She made sure riders and volunteers alike had coffee, and she set up a breakfast spread that made it easy for departing cyclists to get a quick meal before venturing down the road.

• Jerry is the guy who got the t-shirts printed up (based on a design by Branson), which gave our way station a nice club feel. He is also the guy who plunked down big bucks for that great cowbell, giving our stop the flavor of a Tour De France stage. He was an indispensable leader of our volunteer effort. By the way, Jerry was pulling double duty. He left around 10 p.m. Friday evening to head home so he could get up early and drive down to Wilmington, where he was scheduled to man the turnaround for the NCBC 600K.

• Branson was also doing double duty and on Sunday was out driving our 600K course. Branson has the kind of positive energy that attracts people on and off the bike. Branson’s the guy who rounded up coolers and other supplies (thank you NCBC!). And he’s the guy who showed up with not one but two North Carolina flags, effectively pushing back the Virginia border by 6 miles for the duration of the event.

• Charlotte rider Paul Smith showed up unannounced and proved to be a welcome addition to our team, pitching in by handling sleeping logistics for the tired riders.

• Capn Ende showed up with his family just to have lunch. That kind of moral support is worth a cooler full of cold drinks.

• Susan made everyone feel welcome as our official greeter at the cabin control. We couldn’t ask for a better front office presence. She is the one who brought that tarp that saved us all in the heat of the day.

• Clare is an unbelievable ball of energy. I’ve heard about Clare for years from my brother Tim. Now I see why he is so fond of her. She brought popsicles and glow sticks and is the one who made us hunt down the chalk in our misguided effort to sign the road. She mostly worked at the Hillsville control, but she visited us several times.

• Jim Levitt, who ran the nearby Hillsville control, came up for a visit, and was in constant contact by phone to let us know when a rider was heading up the hill in our direction.

• The Fancy Gap control workers send out a special thanks to Gilbert Anderson and North Road Bicycles in North Carolina for setting us up with a box of spare parts, and to Mark Higgins at Lantiseptic for giving us samples of that product.

And more volunteers...

The crew at Fancy Gap was only one pit stop along the way. There were many other volunteers. At the risk of leaving someone out (apologies in advance) volunteers who played a part in the event’s success included DC Rand RBA Bill Beck, Carl and Missy, Jim L, Josie, Jeff, Nick, Pat, Bob, Scott, Fred, Leslie, Ruby Lee and Doc.

Talk about going the distance...New Orleans RBA Pat Horchoff was on hand to pitch in and help out Matt during the ride.

The wizard behind the curtain was Bones, who may be the world’s No. 2 expert on Excel, just behind Bill Gates. Bones’ magic touch was everywhere, from signs and rider lists to control times and web updates. He was the master planner, looking after each and every detail.

John Lee Ellis served as a RUSA mentor, helping to guide the event from drawing board to launch, offering insights and endless optimism.

A big tip of the chapeau to Matt Settle for having the determination and vision to put the whole thing together. Matt was out there on the route looking after riders and volunteers alike. The entire randonneuring community from coast to coast owes him thanks for putting the mid-Atlantic region on the 1200K map. Matt, we can't wait to ride it next year.

Finally, the N.C. Randonneurs thank all of the riders. The appreciation you showed for our efforts made it all worthwhile. Whether or not you finished, you guys are the heroes of the day, and we can't wait to read your ride reports.


bullcitybiker said...

I've got a fever.. and the only prescription is MORE COWBELL!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I missed it. Glad to see that Lin finished.


the_free_radical said...

One of the things that impresses me about randonneuring is the quality of volunteerism: a mix of dedicated non-riders and riders of all levels of accomplishment and experience willing to pitch in all for the sake of helping riders succeed. Your article nicely captures this "secret," Mike, that makes randonneuring special.


The Octopus said...

Guys, thanks so much for setting up such an awesome control! Finally getting up to the cabins Friday night after battling those big hills in the roasting heat all day was literally the high point of the ride. The sleep in the cabin was the best I've had on any randonneuring event -- so comfortable! Thanks also for the pictures and the report of what it took to set up and staff the control. I really appreciate the generosity and dedication of so many excellent volunteers who were key in making my ride safe and successful.

-Paul Rozelle

Mike Dayton said...


Congratulations to you on your 87:15 finish.