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In praise of volunteers

Trevor Ward
10 Mar 2017

It’s time we warmed up our vocal chords in support of the unsung heroes of domestic cycling

At the very heart of cycling is a force of goodness that’s best summed up by two quotes from opposite ends of the literary spectrum.

The famous one attributed to science fiction writer HG Wells is: ‘When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.’ 

The second is more recent, from maverick bike designer Mike Burrows: ‘Unlike a tennis racquet or football,
the bicycle is the one piece of sports equipment that can save the planet.’

It’s fitting that such a force of goodness should be fuelled by the selfless motives and generous intentions of thousands of volunteers who devote their time and energy for no other reason than a deep love of the sport.

If this all sounds a rather florid and elaborate way of singing the praises of the bloke who hands you a banana at a feed station or your number at the start of a time-trial, I make no apologies.

It’s precisely because of their anonymity, the fact that we take them for granted, that they deserve some purple prose in their favour.

Grass roots, bread and butter, bottom of the pyramid – no description or colloquialism quite does justice to the vital role played by cycling’s army of volunteers.

They are as fundamental to the sport as wheels and pedals.

Little reward

There’s no recognition for the timekeepers monitoring a TT up and down a windy dual carriageway or the commissaires following a fiercely contested amateur road race.

There’s no medal for the marshals waiting in the rain for the slowest sportive riders to complete the course.

And there’s just an unflattering – but risk assessment-approved – fluorescent waistcoat for the volunteers keeping families safe on a city centre Sky Ride. 

How many of us bother to say a ‘thank you’ to the marshal who directs us safely across a busy junction during a sportive?

Who here displays gratitude to the timekeeper or chief commissaire at the end of their event?

These are the volunteers who allow us to practise our sport, test our limits, dream our dreams, in a safe and regulated environment. 

They are the essence of our sport.

They deserve our thanks, yet sometimes us cyclists can become so self-obsessed – the quest for a new KOM or PB can do that to a person – that we commit the cardinal crime of taking them for granted.


Unseen heroes

And it’s not just formal events, competitive or otherwise. It’s the coaching, the leading, the guiding, the encouraging that takes place at clubs up and down the land. 

British Cycling has trained 1,500 commissaires, 400 accredited marshals – the ones who get to brandish a ‘Stop! Cycle Race’ sign with legal impunity – and 5,000 ‘ride leaders’.

Another 10,000 volunteers are involved in organising rides for youngsters and families.

Outgoing chief executive Ian Drake says, ‘Volunteers really are the lifeblood of our sport. We know that, every week, thousands of people up and down the country are giving up their time in various different ways to help our sport thrive.’

It’s just a shame that despite the national federation’s obvious wealth – after all, it could afford to spare women’s coach Simon Cope for a couple of days to act as a Team Sky courier – it has to charge volunteers for their training.

Surely with the huge amount of income the body receives in membership fees and sponsorship deals, it could train up these volunteers for free, especially as the estimated value of sports-based volunteering to the British economy is £53 billion (according to a 2014 report by the Join In Trust, the national organisation for local sports volunteering).

Meanwhile an estimated 5,000 people are listed as volunteers with the UK’s 2,000 cycling clubs.

You may not even know the names of the people who make your local club tick, whether it’s the person who updates the Facebook page or the ride leader who plans your Sunday club run.

After all, all you have to do is turn up and remember to switch your Garmin on.

Harder than it looks

‘It’s about more than just finding a nice 50-mile route,’ says Bobby McGhee, club captain with Ayr Roads CC in Scotland.

‘You have to factor in shortcut options in case of incidents. You have to manage the pace and make sure the group waits for the slower riders if there’s a no-drop rule.

‘And you have to call out the formation – single file, keep it tight – as the roads and traffic dictates.’ 

But it’s not all rosy at grass roots level, as some clubs and races still struggle to find volunteers. Events are regularly cancelled because of the lack of marshals.

One club secretary tells me, ‘The problem is we are getting a new breed of member who’s previously been used to joining a gym and having everything laid on for him.

‘They think that just because they’ve paid an annual membership fee they don’t need to give anything else back.’

We need more members like Neil McDonald, who joined his local club, Porto Velo CC in Edinburgh, to learn how to ride in a bunch on the eve of his first sportive.

‘They were great and talked me through everything,’ he says. ‘In return I volunteered to lead some of their leisure rides and now do it on a regular basis. I think it’s important to give something back.’

The moral of this tale is a simple one. A ‘thank you’ may not take you to the top of the Strava leaderboard, but it might make the marshal in the hi-vis jacket or the person who sliced up all those bananas feel on top of the world.

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