The Story of #BackRoadsCent Volunteers — Our Ride Marshals and Road Guards

By Dave Helms

2015 was the @PotomacPedalers inaugural Back Roads Century in its new home, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Just as in Berryville, we organized groups by ride class. I participated in several of the group rides within the Back Roads Century, they were fun as I really enjoyed riding with people I only occasionally tag-up with. Unfortunately, the size of these groups grew to levels too large that safe (and lawful) passing (e.g., keeping number of riders abreast to two or less) was problematic. Just as in Berryville, complaints of rider behavior followed to Shepherdstown, and in our preparations for the 2016 #BackRoadsCent, community representatives and law enforcement asked our Club to make necessary changes.

In response to community concerns, the Club decided to eliminate the internal group rides, encouraging our members to participate in the Century in smaller, manageable groups. A second decision was to have Ride Marshals patrolling the seven routes covering 200 miles of roads and estimated 2,000 riders. The role of the Ride Marshals was to courage safe riding, respond to minor mechanicals and to manage response to crashes if necessary. The rub, our Club had not recruited, trained or deployed Ride Marshals before. How many Ride Marshals to recruit? What should they do? How they be deployed?

The Club started organizing the Ride Marshal program in June. I got “recruited” as Ride Marshal coordinator after offering to help so Matt Birnbaum could do RAGBRAI without fretting about BRC planning. After discussions between the route managers, Jim Quinn and Eric Pilsk, and Matt Birnbaum, Club Chair, it was decided adequate coverage of routes and ride classes would require at least 10 Ride Marshals for the two Saturday Antietam routes, and 25 Ride Marshals for the five Sunday BRC routes. Guidelines for Ride Marshal roles and responsibilities were borrowed from National MS Society and adapted for the BRC. Recruiting for Ride Marshal volunteers focused on using experienced Club Ride Leaders, many have whom have participated in Club training workshops over the past 3 years which discuss crash management and group riding techniques. Using the Club’s Ride Leader list which contains 400 riders, a request for volunteers was sent. I was very pleased at the number of positive responses to the request, as we quickly filled the 35 Ride Marshal positions. In return for being a Ride Marshal, volunteers were invited to the Saturday volunteer dinner and offered a free Back Roads Century registration. After identifying the volunteers, we spent a couple weeks gathering contact information which was very useful for the BRC Command Center staying in touch with Ride Marshals on their routes during the event. Additional communication with volunteers was needed to organize the appropriate route, distance, speed and start time for each Ride Marshal.

In the weeks prior to the Back Roads Century weekend, several Ride Marshals completed check-rides of all 7 BRC routes (200 miles), documenting potential hazards requiring our attention, such as gravel to be swept and location to station Road Guards and law enforcement. The Event Planner used this information to coordinate with County Sheriff Departments to position officers at key intersections (the are 4 county jurisdictions along the BRC routes!). Eric Pilsk and Jim Quinn used this information to organize the sweep crews and deploy the route caution signs. After discussions with Jim Quinn, it became clear that we also needed to position stationary Road Guards at potentially hazardous intersections. It was tough to recruit Road Guards, just not the most exciting job to stand next to traffic for 2-4 hours directing riders. Thankfully, we did get four volunteers. Those guys are real heroes! We used 3 Ride Marshals as temporary “Road Guards” at intersections requiring positions less than 2 hours on the Century route because we didn’t have enough Road Guards.

Finally, the Back Roads Century weekend was upon us and all our preparation was put to the test. Many volunteers participated as Ride Marshals on both Saturday and Sunday. We used “Ride Marshal” vests borrowed from WABA and from the Club to identify ourselves. After the initial chore of finding the ride start near Sharpsburg, Saturday’s Antietam Ride Marshal crew performed flawlessly, as we gently shepherded a couple hundred happy riders. Sunday, on the other hand, was pretty stressful, just tons of stuff going on. I scheduled a VERY early Ride Marshal pre-ride brief at 6:15AM (sorry Ride Marshals!) and a Road Guard brief at 6:30AM. The Ride Marshals had a good idea of their routes and responsibilities, while organizing the Road Guards was tricky, especially getting a driver to drop-off and pick-up them at the right time and place. I was very concerned about having my Road Guards stranded and/or needing a nature call and not having a driver available.

At 6:50 AM, Joe Pixley, Luis Filipe and myself jumped ahead of the pack to position ourselves at the three “temporary” Road Guard intersections. In my haste to get to the starting line, I crashed at -0.1 mile, dropping into a hole riding down the little grass hill between the Wellness Center and the starting line, going over the handlebar. I was okay, but my ego was a little bruised (luckily it was still dark and few saw my acrobatics). My bike was rideable, but I would learn I bent the derailleur hanger which kept me from using my easiest 3 cassette gears. The rest of the day was a blur for me. After 100 miles, I was almost shocked to see the Bellevue Estate finish line as I was so busy doing my job as a Ride Marshal. To my relief, almost all 1,900 riders made it to the finish line in good shape, although one rider did crash requiring an ambulance call.

We conducted a Ride Marshal survey within a week of the BRC to assess our planning and execution of the Ride Marshal program, receiving 20 responses. Here is a summary of Ride Marshal feedback:

  • 70% said they had enough information to do their jobs
  • 74% indicated they saw at least 1 rider flagrantly violating laws
  • All riders complied with Ride Marshal requests to improve behavior
  • 89% of BRC riders were grateful to have the RMs riding with them
  • 37% observed car driving aggressively near riders
  • 50% said completing their assigned route increased their ride duration by at least 1 hour as a consequence of assisting riders
  • 50% assisted at least 1 rider with mechanicals
  • 85% said their experience as a RM was “Good, I would do it again if asked”
  • 90% said the role of RM should be kept in future BRC as the RM role works well

In closing, I give my sincerest gratitude to the 40 dedicated Potomac Pedalers Ride Leaders and volunteers who stepped up to be Ride Marshals and Road Guards. You helped make this ride fun and safe, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome! Thank you are taking the time to respond to the Ride Marshal survey, we will improve next year. Organizing the inaugural Ride Marshal program for the #BackRoadCent was challenging and time consuming, but also rewarding to see its success.

Ride Marshals:

  • Ajit Baid
  • Karen Berlage
  • Bob Bernstein
  • Matt Birnbaum
  • Bill Bresnicow
  • David Cottingham
  • Chuck Feerick
  • Joan Feerick
  • Luis Filipe
  • Tim Guilford
  • Dave Helms
  • Paul Huey-Burns
  • Jon Ivins
  • Peter Klosky
  • Lee Langford
  • Sunni Le
  • Bob Manka
  • Dave Matthew
  • Rob McDonald
  • Joe Pixley
  • Deb Reynolds
  • Rudi Riet
  • Farshad Rowshandel
  • Monique Sears
  • Ruth Sheridan
  • Mike Skinnell
  • Rick Studley
  • Leslie Tierstein
  • Ron Tripp
  • Mariette Vanderzon
  • Laura Welsh


Road Guards:

  • Geoffrey Ballou
  • Rick Brush
  • Les Cannon
  • Gary Mendelson

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