Mark KG4GVJ, Judy W3JUU, and I recently signed up to volunteer at the Bike MS fundraiser in New Bern. Mark has done the event several times before, but for Judy and me, it was the first time. There were approximately 1,200 cyclists riding and they could choose from 30, 50, 75, or 100 mile courses around New Bern. Radio operators were needed at rest stops along each course and in SAG vehicles throughout the courses. Here are my thoughts…
Me before the event: “Ohgoshohgoshohgosh, what did I get myself into? I just volunteered to be a ham for a huge bike event. Why did I volunteer for both days?!?”
Me after the event: “That was fun and very well done. I’m putting it on my calendar for 2022.”
I was hesitant to sign up, since I had no experience, but the radio coordinators were very encouraging. They said that no prior experience was necessary, and no special radio equipment was required either. Hams could either be assigned to a rest stop or as a Safety And Gear (SAG) vehicle, but for that you should have a mobile installed. We were required to sign up in two places, the MS website, which is the main coordinating site for ALL volunteers and with the Raleigh Amateur Radio Society, who arranges for the ham volunteers because of the numbers that come from that area.
There was an online informational meeting for all the ham volunteers about a week prior to the event, and a team meeting first thing in the morning on the day of the event. Additionally, there was a volunteer release form to sign, an online covid screening questionnaire, and for SAG drivers, background and driver checks since you might have riders in your vehicle.
I knew that I would be assigned to a rest stop, but not much else. Eventually we received information manuals with schedules, maps, forms, rules, phone contacts, etc. And the radio coordinator sent out separate emails with the repeater and simplex frequencies and our ham assignments. I programmed our frequencies into the radio and prayed that I had done it correctly.
The communication duties fell mainly into two categories, arranging for SAG drivers to transport injured or tired cyclists and monitoring the flow of riders along the course. If a cyclist fell or had a mechanical problem, they were transported to the next rest stop, where the medical team could check them out, or the mechanic could look at the bike. If the situation was an easy fix, they could get back on the road and continue. If not, they waited at the rest stop for a SAG to come take them back to the start/finish line at the convention center. Monitoring the flow of riders was important to make sure that none became lost or got left behind as rest stops closed in one section and opened at new points further up along the course. Additionally, there were some sites where the local sheriffs were directing traffic and they wanted updates so that they would know when to change positions.
I arrived at my rest stop to meet up with about a dozen other volunteers who were setting up. Ice and water were being dropped off, tables and chairs were being set up, food was being put out, and medics were inventorying their kits. Two heavy duty pop up tents had been set up for the event, and PortaPotties were on site. On this first day, my rest stop was used twice on the course as riders made a big loop, so I stayed in the same place all day,although other volunteers came and went throughout the day. I wasn’t sure where to station myself, but I was on a HT, so I didn’t really need a “place”. Eventually I wound up sitting with the medics, where it was a little quieter than at the food tables. The volunteers were enthusiastically cheering on the riders, and I found that I couldn’t hear very well and I had to move off a little at times, even with an earbud.
On my second day, I worked the first rest stop, which then closed and I was forwarded on to another rest stop. In the meantime, yet another rest stop reported that they didn’t have they’re medical kit, so, after checking with net control, I shuttled the one from our closing rest stop as I moved to my next position. There were fewer bikers riding on the second day, but still four routes with the varying distances, and different from the previous day’s routes. When traveling from one rest stop to another, I found it helpful to make sure that I was not following the bicycle route, which were slow moving for car traffic in some cases.
My second rest stop was one of the farthest out along the 100 mile course (called the century loop). I had a little trouble getting a consistent signal. It seemed like the signal would be fine, then cut out, unless I moved around the parking lot looking for that sweet spot. Most of the time I could receive and transmit well, but at the end of the shift, it seemed to get worse. A SAG was temporarily at my rest stop and helped passing information, but was also receiving scratchy messages. I probably should have attempted using my jpole or climbing up on some of the playsets on display to attempt a better receive, but by then, my stop was closing and I was dismissed as all the other positions were covered.
Over the two day event, most of the traffic was about tracking the riders or arranging for SAGs. Occasionally we called to arrange for restocking if we ran out of items. There was a time when I was instructed to hold riders at my rest stop because of a bottleneck up ahead. We occasionally were told to watch for a certain rider who seemed tired, had been injured, or warranted monitoring in some other way.
One other note is that all the hams and SAGS were connected on a tracking app that shows your position on a map. This was helpful for knowing where the final riders were along the routes and which SAG was near which rest stop. However, riders weren’t on the map, so sometimes they were difficult to locate if they had a flat or had popped their chain. Sometimes they called in asking for a SAG, then would push the bike to a convenience store or some other location and the SAG had to really search to find them. Our ham coordinator suggested looking into using a mapping app called https://what3words.com , which uses three random words, assigned to a 3 square meter grid location. It can be used like map coordinates, but might be easier to transmit than strings of numbers. Plus it’s fun to look up your location’s string of words (I’m at dirt.categorically.boasted as I write this).
Our information packets contained rest stop information, including whether there was electricity, rest rooms, or running water. My stops had no electricity, and I was worried about my battery holding out. I had back ups with me, in addition to a charger, which I could run from my car if necessary. Both days, I was able to work the whole day on a single battery though. I was unsure about what else to bring but ended up not really needing as much gear as I thought I might. Even though we had canopy shelters with tables and chairs, I was happy to have a hat, sunnies, and a chair of my own. I also brought my own snacks and drinks, but we were allowed to share in the plentiful food and drinks put out for the riders. Lunch was supposed to be provided, but my rest stop didn’t receive any on the first day (although I did get two lunches the second day). There were first aid supplies and sunscreen with the medical kits, although I also had my own. At my rest stop with the inconsistent signal, I might have acted sooner to set up my jpole at my vehicle if I had my own shelter from the sun available. I hate the heat and didn’t want to sit in the hot sun. Maybe I will look into getting an EZ Up of my own. And as I mentioned above, I wish that I had a headset, rather than just an earbud with me. Those other volunteers can be pretty noisy. I was happy to have pockets so that I didn’t have to hold the HT the whole time. It was good that I had a notebook and pen to make notes of riders that I had called for transport for, sent forward, or to watch out for as they came through. Also, I had downloaded a local map to my phone and I was able to visualize most of the action over the whole course even though I wasn’t required to keep up with anything but my rest stop.
I think this event in particular was very well done. It had over 1,000 riders, and probably at least 100-150 volunteers in various positions. This has been a long running event and I think all but the random kinks and acts of nature have been worked out. All the other hams were very helpful and encouraging, and even complimented us on our professionalism. I had a good time, felt like I was serving the community, met some nice people, and will definitely volunteer for this again in the future.
73, Beth KN4FZB
JUDY W3JUU: Here is my take. I thought Beth would give fine details of the race so I did not, just to not say the same thing basically.
On race day we had a meeting early morning to discuss how the day would go. It gave me time to get to my rest stop once the meeting was over. I was stationed way out on the coast in Oriental at a marina with no cell phone or internet coverage. The only thing working here was ham radio.
I ended up setting up a mobile 25w radio with a 14ah agm battery and mag mount antenna strapped to a microphone boom stand to get it up higher. This worked lovely. I shared a table with the medic who was quite happy to have company as well as be able to hear what was going on.
At one point, in the far distance we could see a rider down and police vehicle with them. My medic went immediately with a sag to offer medical assistance until the doctor could arrive if needed. I called this in to net control and they dispatched their protocol but it was canceled once the medic found the rider was not injured luckily. Sag (safety and gear) was able to take the bike and rider where they needed to be.
I called in for supplies needed once in awhile. Some of the volunteers were brand new like myself there but seemed to feel better with having a ham radio person around. Possibly a bit uncertain without cell service.
I also called for sag to pick up riders and bike on occasion. I relayed information passed to me from sag as well as the medical doctor.
Not only did I have the 25 watt mobile radio setup on the table in the shade, but I used my HT to walk around every so often. Just to reassure the volunteers a ham is around if needed. I also gave them information such as 7 riders heading into our rest stop any minute now so they could prepare better. It was especially helpful for all volunteers when telling them how many riders were left on the course. This meant, tables and chairs could be packed up, up to a certain amount of food moved, etc…. All the behind the scenes clean up involved with shutting down a rest stop.
It was a wonderful experience with constant chatter on the radio. It was nice hearing the information coming through and knowing what was happening.
I was a little nervous at first, not knowing what to expect, but that went away quickly once it felt like a normal net we would do with the club to a degree. It was great experience trying out my gear to see what worked or did not. I had my HT which worked great on location but not well while driving to location. Once I realized this, I put the mag mount on the roof and used that driving and it solved that. Once my “job” was completed and my rest stop closed, I called net control for reassign. They sent me to another rest stop. I had planned to do this the next day as well but instead, when I called net control to tell them we were closing, net control asked me if I could stay and do another rest stop. I of course jumped at that.
I can’t tell you how many riders thanked me for being there. It felt good. Not to be thanked necessarily, but the fact we are needed, it is important. As I found out with no cell phone coverage, the only way to get 911, or our medical team quickly, is via ham radio. In other spots there was coverage but it was frustrating for the higher up officials coming through with sag drivers. They are trying to text or call things but can’t always. They know how important the ham radio operators are. Of course, it goes without saying, without riders, there is no fundraising, so it’s amazing these people rode 30, 50, 75, and 100 miles each day. I would need a sag and the doctor. Haha!
I got to see some very impressive vehicle setups with radio and antenna. Talk to many long time hams, I definitely learned a thing or two. I spoke to many riders and volunteers as well. Everyone was happy to be there. I, like Beth and Mark, will be doing this again. I’ve signed up to do some other races coming up in October. It’s really fun and ham volunteers are always needed…. hint hint.