And we volunteer for it.
A day in the life:
Many of us do not live locally, or if we do the race moves away from where we live. Bike races typically last a number of days and move around a state or area. If we are very lucky we can stay at home and course marshal, but some of us fly in (our expense) and stay at hotels along the way. We pile out of planes packing a few pairs of khaki shorts and some comfortable shoes and little else (I pack more but that's because I'm a girl and like to wear things besides my uniform at nights or any time I am not course marshaling). Picking up a number of (typically not flattering) shirts and other logo-festooned gear, we join the crowds of other race staff members. Our shirts and big credentials mean we are there to answer questions for the public (yelled from cars being driven a few lanes of traffic away), represent the race, and generally be informative about bike races in general (What's a peloton? Why are there so many cars following? Why do riders need teams?). On a race day, we get up early to gather, drive to the start of the race to collect food and drinks for the day. Then we go drop.
|The vans occasionally get decorated in excessive ways|
Then you drop at all the turns and the biggest or busiest cross-streets. A drop is your place (corner, median, intersection, turn, bridge, hazardous area, local bar, sprint point with tons of spectators, or cross street) to patrol. Sometimes you ask spectators to help if you need it. Cops are usually very helpful, but as with us there are not enough. Then you wait. And sometimes wait some more. We don't have radios. We do have cell phones which means you have generally as much information as we do if you have the Tour Tracker app or a live Twitter feed. The van does a radio, but unless you are the driver, you won't see the van for a long while. So you wait until you see the first race vehicle with flashing lights. You flag that one vehicle if you have a turn, but really that guy is about half an hour or twenty minutes ahead of the race. You usually start stopping traffic when the cops do, and if there are no cops, then after you see a certain vehicle (they come in a certain order). If it is a mountain, the cops close down roads earlier because of how hard it is to get cars off a two lane road with no side streets. Traffic stopping is when the yelling and cursing begins. We clear the road for a long time ahead of the race so there are no concerns about safety or this happening when the riders actually get there. Like in the above video. Safety first for the riders and for the seemingly hundreds of cars that precede and follow them. This may annoy motorists, but it is important, especially where you see how fast those cars speed down the road. The cyclists too are moving at a fair clip and using the entirety of the road, and if you've ever seen how easily a wheel touch can cause a crash, just imagine of there were more obstructions on the road (like the crazy car).
After the day is over we try to satisfy our fan urges and get signatures and swag (free stuff) but then we usually go back to the hotel or go to a new hotel where they have taken our luggage in a truck to check in and get cleaned off from sweat on the hot days, dried off from rain on the wet days, or warmed up on the cold days. Or a combination of the above. We then will try to do some laundry, get some food, and get ready for another early day tomorrow. And this is all if we are experienced enough not to be sunburned, sick, or wearing uncomfortable shoes for the day.
Why am I writing about this? While marathons and other races have course marshals, the experience of being a traveling course marshal cannot really be conveyed in a job description. It is exhilarating. You get really close to riders you are a fan of (and if you have to be on a median in the center of the road, you get very close). You get to help make sure a race with cyclists who ride the Tour de France, the Classics, and all the other world class races, have an incredible time at an American race. You make friends with all the other crazy course marshals. You get tired, cold, dirty, angry, and sick with them and it is awesome: a bit like camping trips that bond people together because of all the hardship and awkwardness you've experienced together.
So when you next get stopped, get out and take a look at what we've all been working on. You may get just a glimpse of riders on their stage (or day), but the line of flashing lights and cars and the helicopters circling ahead will hopefully make you realize that what you have witnessed is a sporting event that is one of the most strategic and physically difficult in the world. Bike riders burn more calories than runners do in a marathon each day, and the races are many days. They use so much energy they have to eat while competing, use the bathroom while competing (they go to the side of the road, though for number two I've seen a rider use a fan's camper van in Europe), get medical attention while still riding a bike, and get mechanical fixes while still on a bike. There are usually five prizes alone awarded at the end of each stage that each team uses their riders to get. But you can't get them all and while one rider may get a prize, a team is needed to help them. The complexities of strategy and decisions if there crashes, unintended breakaways, and things that happen during the course of each stage each have to be accounted for and decisions have to be made by riders and by the management as they communicate with riders over a radio from the cars. All this may not make up for the fact that you will be late for work as we stop you for the race. Experiencing the new and seeing the unexpectedly moving event is not as important to us now as being on time, doing the expected consistently, and going about the motions of living a life. But is it really living if we cannot take a moment out of our days and watch a world-class sporting event take place right in front of our eyes? It may be, but it is not the living I want to do. If you ever get stopped by a course marshal for a race, get out and stand near that marshal and cheer on those riders and watch the race roll by as quickly as they can. You may not see an event like that again.