It's that time of year again. The Multiple Sclerosis 150 from Atlanta to Athens, back to Atlanta.
The ride started Saturday in absolute downtown Atlanta, weaved through the various and sundry cities, mixed with narrow streets, road construction, bad drivers, and a full moon, to name a few obstacles. Within 15 miles the riders are farther into rural areas and aren't as harrowed, but that is a long 15 miles. I can barely survive it on the motorbike, I wouldn't want to attempt it on a bicycle. Then these riders headed out through the bucolic country side for another 65 or 85 miles to reach the little college town of Athens, GA.
If yesterday didn't do them in, they hit the start line and ride right back to downtown Atlanta the next day.
Needless to say, there are usually far fewer riders on Sunday than were present on Saturday. (And I don't blame them at all!)
The motorcycle marshals don't start downtown. We pick the riders up about 8 miles out. They get a police escort a portion of the way and don't need us getting in the way. But the police don't make any bones about when they stop the escort. We heard cyclists saying their absence was abrupt. Farther along they may not get an escort, but key intersections are manned by police or sheriff's that stop traffic for the larger groups of cyclists.
Our job as marshals isn't to stop traffic or escort the cyclists anywhere. We ride the route, faster than a cyclist, but generally slower than traffic, or posted speed limits, to keep an eye on the cyclists and help if they have any troubles. The most likely troubles are flat tires, broken spokes, derailed chains. We hope to never have to encounter a cyclist that hits something and is injured, or far worse, is hit by something and is injured. We have plans in place in the event that these are encountered, we just don't want to encounter them.
This years event was completely without events...with the cyclists.
Unfortunately, participation has dwindled each of the three years that Oilburner and I have been involved. (No, I don't believe there is a correlation there!) This event has only been in place for three years. So I can't say why participation is decreasing. I surmise it might be due to the location. I can't say that I would love to ride through downtown Atlanta, nor some of the outlying cities. Would participation increase if the start/end point was somewhere else?
I would have thought so, until I spoke with a rider Sunday morning that remarked on more cage drivers being more tolerant this year, thinking more drivers are becoming more aware of cyclists. Do events like these bring more awareness of cyclists (and possibly motorbikes)? Is it worthwhile to force the interaction, hoping nothing bad happens, to make ourselves (as bi-cyclists overall) more visible?
I'm just not sure of an answer to that.
I'm not going to say this is old hat for us. This was our fifth time volunteering as marshals for MS rides. We have progressively gained more experience overall, as well as increased our bag of tricks for what is needed or how to handle situations.
The big news is that this year we both received our HAM radio licenses (Amateur Radio). This was going to take our involvement to a new level. In past years communication had to occur through cell. Given where some of the routes took us cell coverage could be a bit sparse or command central could be busy with calls. Therefore, it could be difficult to contact the control dispatchers (Net Control) if we had a rider that needed to be picked up, or worse yet, had an emergency.
With our HAM radios we could just dial into the proper frequency and speak directly with Net Control. And even listen in to all of the chatter traffic. A few other marshals have their licenses, but all Support and Gear (SAG) vehicles have a driver and radio operator in the vehicle (two separate individuals). There is tight communication across the course of where the first riders are located along the route, to notify break points of when they should be ready. Or where the absolute last rider is on the course, since the Turtle van is right behind them. Or when another SAG is needed to pick up a rider that doesn't want to continue, needs a lift to the next break point that has a mechanic, all sorts of contingencies. Amateur Radio allows all of the people to be connected with each other to run as a tight unit and facilitate the event as a whole. You aren't going to get that if everyone is calling in to talk with operators on cell phones.
This year Oilburner and I get to be part of the "IN" crowd. We get to listen in, and participate when needed.
Right out of the gate the level of involvement was great! I took the first shift on the route when the first cyclists started to pass. As I was hitting every single stoplight I was able to call Net Control and have them inform my leads to spread the next marshal back farther than our original 10 min schedule. I wasnt going to get anywhere in 10 minutes, so the next marshal didn't need to get that close.
We were able to listen in when support vans were fending off loose dogs. In one instance, there was a request for a motorcycle marshal to sit with the dogs as the support van was needed to pick someone up on the course.
We learned when someone messed with the route signs. New signs were needed quickly. And oversight was needed when the second set of signs was removed.
I was able to inform Net Control the location of SAG #6, because it had just passed me. (The one support van that didn't have a radio operator on Sunday.) I was then dispatched to chase it down and tell it to phone into Net Control as it was desparately needed to pick up a cyclist. That was a fun one as I bent a few rules of the road to catch the van.
We were all on hand to listen to the Turtle van call in to report that it had stayed on the primary course, while the actual turtle cyclist had taken the Century route. (The Century refers to the 100 mile route.) We all got to hear the radio silence just before Net Control asked them to repeat. ;)
With so few attendees this year the riders were either bullet fast, finishing by 12:30, or turtle slow, coming across the finish line between 5 and 6. There wasn't much of an in between. It was the same thing on Sunday. There were large gaps between groups or riders, spreading thin, leaving us with very little job to perform. I was actually stopped by more non-involved cyclists, asking me what was going on, and sheriff's, asking me where everyone was, than I was by cyclists actually needing help!
We had been obsessing about the weather all week. I was hoping for intermittent rain showers since the temps were supposed to be in the 80's F. It would cool things of a little bit. And the weather patterns toyed with me as the predictions varied every day. Unfortunately the actual day of events say high 80's to low 90's with absolutely no rain. Of course, this had to be the hottest weekend that we have seen here this year. Murphy seems to be working overtime.
In all this was an extremely uneventful weekend. No accidents, no injuries, no flats. Many miles, many smiles, much sweat and some great people to ride with.
I took exactly four pictures the entire weekend. They were all the same shot and this was the best. ;)