Singletrack Magazine Issue 114: Last word

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Words Chipps

Event organisers and the cycle of abuse, forgiveness and eventual love.

As well as writing about bikes and the people behind them, I’ve been involved in organising mountain bike events for 20 years or so. Since helping organise the very first Mountain Mayhem in 1998, I’ve spent countless weekends in random fields with my big boots on and stripy tape and secateurs to hand. 

The world seems to divide reasonably easily between actors, audience and backstage crew, and there seems to be a particular type of person who finds themselves called to work behind the scenes (usually unheralded and barely rewarded) for the glory of the event. 

The motivation of the players – the actors, the racers, the rock stars – is pretty easy to trace. They’re (often) blessed with talent and bring that determination and ambition to succeed. Performing, whether it is at the front of the race, or sitting on the drum riser, is what they live for. That drive and hunger to succeed needs to be sated. The rest, as they say, is just waiting. 

The audiences, meanwhile, want to be entertained. That’s a pretty simple deal to understand too. Pay your money (or don’t – but even turning up to a free event still costs your time and effort) and then expect to be amused, or enthralled. Shocked or delighted. There’s something about a live event that feels different to watching a screen. 

And then there are the event organisers. Those mostly hidden backstage workers who bring you the spectacles to watch (or perform in). They’re a different breed, for sure.

Something like 50% of Singletrack’s readers never do events, but the other 50% do. And those riders expect to turn up on the Friday night, or Sunday morning or whenever, take part and go home again. The organiser and their team will often be on site the week before, prepping the course, bringing in the barriers, directing the toilet delivery and putting the flags up. It’s a long process – and anyone who’s seen the literally miles of course tape that flanks the course at Fort William or Mountain Mayhem, can only guess at how long that takes to put up. (Securely, so it won’t blow away, but also with the sponsor’s name the correct way up.) And just as races tend to go on regardless of the weather, so the whole preceding week of weather can’t have any bearing on getting that course up and marked. Winter cyclocross organisers will be in the town park before it’s light, wearing head torches to see where to put course markers while fielding complaints from the ‘But I always walk here on a Sunday’ dog walkers.

As the riders start arriving, every event venue I’ve ever been to (save, perhaps, the London Olympics) is still taking shape. However much time you leave to get the place pitched, there’ll always be enough last minute jobs to ensure that early practice lappers will have to use a bit of common sense and course finding until the rest of the tape goes up. 

The event itself, for the organiser, is usually a blur of plate spinning and on the spot improvising. A rider is down, do you need to stop the race? Or reroute it? And then what about the affected lap times? There’s a dog on the course. Three riders are missing timing chips. The farmer needs to get to his gate. The inflatable finish arch genny is starting to run out of petrol. It’s a rare (or very well organised, or master delegator) organiser that will hear the start gun and think ‘My work here is done’.

In fact, I’ve often been so frazzled by the time the event actually starts that I find I resent the whole thing. The thought of doing another event just makes me shudder. I’ve seen that look in other race organisers’ eyes, in the lead up to, or during, an event. That thought of ‘Let’s just get this over with and then I can have a glass of wine’. Or after an event as the VW T5s leave the car park and the organiser is filling wet bin bags with wet rubbish and muddy course tape. Ask them then and they couldn’t think of anything worse than doing it all again. 

Give it a day or two for the positive comments to appear online, or the messages of thanks by text and phone, and the organiser starts to forget the early starts and crappy days. And soon the entry forms for next year are drafted again. 

Next time you’re at an event, spare a thought for the organiser, teetering between love and resentment for their own event and remember the power of a ‘Thank you’.

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