Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Act Like You Been Somewhere (A Guest Editorial on life in the Feed Zone)

Usually this blog is just a representation of me and whatever is on my mind. For a special treat, however, in the first of what I hope will be a series of guest posts, today I offer you a soigneur-to-the-amateurs view of life in the feed zone, by the lovely Charmaine. Here it is, unabbreviated, and unabridged. Personally I think it's worth printing out and giving to the next poor soul you manage to hornswoggle into humping bottles for you in your next road race, but y'all can decide that for yourselves.

Rob Serling has narrated a lot of my Saturdays and Sundays in the last couple of years. He whispers a little something that goes like this: "There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Feed Zone."

It's scary. Seriously. I think a lot of racers don't know that when they ask their family, husbands, and girlfriends to help out. I've taken some elbows, for instance. And I've come back from a weekend covered withblack fly bites and sunburn. Injured teammates sometimes show up to help out–and maybe experience some of the horror. But mostly y'all go flying by. So, the first part of this post is hopefully a 'race perspective' that's a little unusual.

I hate generalizations. Masters 40+ fields tend to be the most aggressive–and you wouldn't believe how some of the men talk to their wives if they miss a bottle, or can't spot them. Blue streak. It's too bad, because usually some kids are around spectating. Women don't eat (or drink) enough during races. And dropped riders hate, hate, hate to be cheered on by folks in thefeed zone. To be honest, it's usually well-intentioned. But like I said, I hate generalizations.

Most of what I've learned about bike racing comes from the magazines on Nathaniel's coffee table (ok, bathroom floor), and from volunteering a bunch. I've brought team snacks, motorpaced, hosted racers when they're in town, marshaled, and stood in feed zones. I've never raced, but I love bikes, always have. I love riding, too. And Nathaniel. And riding with Nathaniel.

One of the things I've heard most often at races is 'if you want to stay happy as a couple, stay away from bike races.' Where I'm from, we don't do that. We show up for each other when we can, how we can. But I understand the sentiment. When I tag along on race days, I'm not writing my dissertation. I'm not visiting family, doing laundry, catching up with a friend, or riding my own bike. I'm there, really, just to help out.

But, as the non-racers in your life know, bikes take up a lot of space–whether it's literal space in your sheds or basements or trophy rooms, or general life space like the time it takes for maintenance or training or travel, team training camps or stage races, dieting or buying new components or physio appointments–ring any bells? So…maybe the 'stay away' advice means 'enough is enough.' From my point of view, though, it's always been something that's pretty easy to share in. And it's a fun way to see a race–even though it's an endurance test.

There are downsides: There's nowhere to pee on the side of the road. A lot of gossip flies, and you can't get away from it, which reminds me of why I didn't like my high school cafeteria. The upsides are better, though: I've gotten really good at off-road driving (and parking). It's also fun to ride the course when the race is over and get a sense of the place you're in; one of the best parts about bike racing are the more off the beaten path kinds of places you find yourself. And, I've met some great people.

I suspect a lot of these great people (even the non-racers) have picked up a lot about the sport. From those bathroom floor magazines, from hearing managers and coaches talk about riders, from hearing the play by play about every race. I also suspect that we'd surprise you with what we know. Really.

That's pretty well what it's like. Not as fun as driving a wheel van, or taking pictures from the most scenic places. These are not the sidelines, but the front lines.

The second part of this is for people who have been pressed into service, who are scratching their heads, saying "WhadoIdo?"

The basics about feed zones:

Clothing. Most importantly, you must wear a team jersey or team vest. If you're on, bring a raincoat, sunglasses, pith helmet. Wear comfortable shoes. Expect that you might be standing in poison ivy, nettles, or a happy mosquito breeding ground. Repeat: bike racing is fun.

Fill your tank. You'll likely be driving on back roads, and trying to beat the field at some point…to get to the finish, to get to another feed zone. Also, fill your tank: bring water for yourself, too–and some kind of snack.

But what about emptying your tank? Those of us that have done this more than once know you're likely going to be standing on the side of a road for a l-o-n-g time. And rushing around. There aren't bathrooms. Um. Yeah.

Bring a map. And, if you can, print out the race bible. The start times and number of laps each field does can help you keep track of when it's time to go.

Hug a tree. Think about carpooling with feeders helping with the same field as you. Doesn't have to be the same team, just the same field. I've met a lot of great people this way. Parking can sometimes be tight. Less traffic=happy sky. Also think about bringing a garbage bag or two to help clean up the wasteland of uncollected bottles after the race–if you still want to pitch in at that point.

Extras. Lots of people bring folding chairs. Coolers on wheels are popular now too, mostly because sometimes feed zone parking is, say, at the bottom of a steep hill. Find your inner sherpa. Bring extra jugs of water. I usually bring a book, and always my own bike or running gear. The races are often in really pastoral areas, so enjoy.

What not to bring. This is probably the most controversial thing I'm going to write, so I feel like I need to preface it with a defense. I am a dog person. I had a dog for 18 years. I like them. I understand that you think your pet is part of your family, and so well-behaved--unlike those other hell-beasts that people call pets. But even very special dogs should probably be left at home. There's a lot of chaos in feed zones. A lot of bodies. A lot of bike traffic and vehicle traffic. A lot of property owners who are not as taken with Fido as you are. I repeat: chaos. The fewer obstacles/moving pieces/sets of needs, the better. Right?

My last part here is really basic. A step-by-step what to do if this is your first time volunteering to pass out water bottles.
-Arrive early enough to grab bottles and food from the team you're helping. Ask if there's any preference about where they want you in thefeed zone (some riders swear by getting their bottles early, others like to get them at the end). And ask if anyone has any particular food needs, like bottles filled with Coke on the last lap. Someone might want you to keep track of splits, too.
-Drive out to the feed zone. Make yourself comfortable. Get some bottles ready, etc.
-If there's a pace vehicle, usually the name of the field is displayed on the windshield in bold letters. Watch for your field. When you see your field coming, make sure you have your bottles ready.
-The field inevitably breaks up. Watch for your riders, and try to keep track of how many go by. It's impossible, so don't worry too much. But don't go running off when there are still a bunch of riders to come through.
-Give yourself space from other feeders, but don't be afraid to use your elbows. Sometimes, it's a contact sport. I took a musette bag to the face the other week.
-Be fearless, and don't move. Hold your bottle loosely by the top, arm outstretched. If you're passing a musette bag, hold it by the top of the strap.
-When your riders come through, pick up their ditched bottles.
-If there's another feed zone, hit the road. Repeat.

I hope this helps demystify what it's like--and what you can expect.


  1. Char (I guess via Nate) -

    Why couldn't you have written this back before GMSR? No one gave me a manual for the "You're an injured racer showing up to help out" and one would have been helpful! It is way more scary being the feeder than the racer... I think standing there trying to hand up bottles as a hundred or so guys came flying by at 50 kph was one of the scariest experiences of my life. If I learned one thing, it was to appreciate the people giving you feeds and always say thanks, since they go through a lot to make it so you can race your bike (and not saying thanks was certainly something I was guilty of in the past). Well said, and see you soon I hope.

    - Josh

  2. This is great! I can't help but think of the crazy fast feedzone at Battenkill where we flew through on a downhill going 60kph. Alex Cox from CCB crashed hard. It was mayhem. I can only imagine what the first timers were thinking.

    Great post. Hope to see more!

  3. And they make it look so glamorous in "American Flyers."