On the weekend of June 10/11, 2017; I once again volunteered for the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society’s Leduc to Camrose ride. I got involved in the ride primarily through my involvement with the a local bike club, EBTC. I have done a few different things for the ride including pounding signs for a few years. However, what I did this year is what I enjoy volunteering for the most – Marshaling the ride.
First a bit of context for the MS ride. There are a number of volunteer roles one of which is being a bicycle marshal. This involves riding the course, fixing minor repairs (e.g. flats), encouraging safe riding (e.g. no ear buds, ride single file, etc.) and watching for riders who need either encouragement, instruction or even medical attention on the course. The marshals ride both days and the roughly ~150km. They receive free meals, accommodation and access to the entertainment, etc.
Alas my fitness goals did not match with my timetable and so instead of cycling I drove my truck – and I am glad that I did. I was better able to serve the 1,600 or riders who signed up and raised money for the ride. As well, I was able to be the last man in (other than the safety folks) behind the final rider on both days. As a result I was able to:
- Sweep the challenge loop (an extra 20km section for those who want to push themselves).
- Relieve marshals who had stopped for minor repairs so they could keep cycling.
- Leap frog lost riders to join the main group of riders.
- Leap frog marshals into the main group of riders; this allowed them to linger at rest stops to provide assurance and safety to riders.
- Stop and discuss with tired or overwhelmed riders the options of taking a leap-frog or even exiting the ride.
- Cheer on riders whilst sitting on my tail gate.
Relieving marshals, leap frogging riders and volunteers or performing extra sweeps are important but are not what I found the most gratifying nor what I believe added the greatest value as a ‘motorized marshal’. Instead, I added value by sitting on my tail gate and talking to riders.
Particularly on the second day, many riders are exhausted. They may not be experienced riders. They may have danced a bit too much the night before or the traditional miserable MS Ride weather may have worn them down. As a result, they are looking at a hard climb out of the Gwynn Valley or some of the other hills and are considering giving up. To me this is a pivotal moment to help the MS Society achieve its priorities.
The MS Ride Priorities
The Leduc to Camrose ride is the largest in Canada and involves the coordination of 1,600+ riders, hundreds of volunteers and sites and logistics. Ultimately this effort is to raise money for MS. The society’s goal for 2017 was $2.2M for which it fell short by raising a little under $1.7M.
Learning About MS and Cycling from a Tail Gate
But back to the Gwynn Valley and a rider who is inexperienced or exhausted looking at a ~2km and 7% grade climb. These riders are easy to spot. They look a little frightened. They may be with someone who is an experienced rider and who is trying to coax them up one more hill. They are also close to giving up on the ride which would be unfortunate. As a result my tail gate conversation often went something like this (after initial pleasantries and introductions were made):
- So, are you very familiar with MS, do you know how it is an episodic disease?
- RIDER: Ummm, no.
- MS is a bit unusual in that it comes and goes.
- One day a person is fine but the next day they may be unable to get out of bed.
- Conversely they may be ill for a long time and then have a remission for days, months or even years, did you know that?
- RIDER: No
- This ride is about research and finding a cure for MS but it is also about understanding the disease and raising money so that someone who can’t get out of bed one day gets the support he or she needs so when the disease abates they can get back to their life.
- Isn’t MS a strange disease?
- RIDER: It is, I did not know that.
- In a way this ride is a bit like a journey with MS, isn’t it.
- You start out strong and then it wears your down.
- There are people at rest stops and on the highway to help keep you going. However, there are some points on the ride when you may need a bit more help.
- Perhaps it is just an extra cookie at a rest stop, perhaps it is a leap-frog to the top of the hill or may be it is a ride to the finish line.
- Right now for you, how about just a leap-frog to the top of the hill?
- You get a few minutes to rest, you will take a pass on this hill but you will be ready for the next one and the rest of the ride.
- RIDER: But I don’t want to cheat, I want to finish the ride on my own.
- I understand that but this is not cheating, this is about understanding MS.
- When you get home and you think about this ride, imagine if the support vehicle was not there and you did not have an option.
- You would have had to climb this hill on your own.
- We are not going to drive you to the finish line, but for JUST this ONE hill, we are going to help you.
- In the same way, just for that one day, the MS Society helps that person stay in bed and helps the family care for that person until they are better.
- The ride to the top of the hill is not cheating
- Instead a ride helps you to understand the disease and, more importantly, why it is so important that you are riding this weekend and raising money for MS.
- The leap-frog isn’t cheating but it is a metaphor for MS.
- For this one hill, can we give your ride until you are ready to take the route on your own?
- Also, after this ride, if someone asks you if you finished you can tell them that you were glad to take a ride just like people with MS are glad to get help from the society?
- RIDER: Thank you, I will take the ride and I will tell people the story of why I was glad to take a leap-frog to better understand MS.
- [Editors note, my wife also suggested that they took the ride so I would stop talking. No comment, author].
Finishing the Ride and Raising Money
Okay, maybe the conversation did not always go EXACTLY like the above but in the end I managed to coax about a dozen people to take a short ride when they needed a break. More importantly, I believe that these 12 people finished the ride and left with a positive image of the ride and a better understanding of MS.
This is why sitting on my tail gate applauding people who go by or coaching some of them is critical volunteer role. Hopefully by doing so the riders are more likely to come back next year, fund raise harder for the ride or contribute when someone asks for a donation.