By Peter Radowick
Few cycling clubs can match Houston’s Northwest Cycling Club for long-term viability and consistency. And the club’s calling card is its famous Saturday morning ride.
For more than 25 years, no matter what the weather, cyclists numbering from 75 to well over 200 converge every Saturday morning at Zube Park in far northwest Harris County. Many are club members, but many others are non-club members who are always welcomed guests.
To keep this event rolling smoothly, so to speak, club members volunteer to be the Saturday morning ride starter. By megaphone – or bellowing voice – the ride starter welcomes everyone, gives a few club announcements and safety reminders, then calls out the pace groups. Pace groups include new riders, no-drops, 14-16 mph, 16-18 mph, 18-20 mph, 20-20 mph, and 22+ mph.
Pace groups will cover distances from 25 to over 80 miles, riding on quiet country roads in Harris and Waller counties. Hours later, as they return, the ride starter sets out drinks, fruit and assorted treats.
Nancy Kotinek Chiczewski, NWCC’s vivacious and loquacious club secretary, responded to Wheel Brothers about the role ride starters play in the club’s ongoing success and provided pointers that might help other Texas clubs improve their members’ cycling experience.
NWCC’s ride starters have been sending bikers on their way for 25 years, but it is a tradition that is fairly uncommon. Most clubs in Texas don’t have ride starters. Is that your understanding?
Yes, I think this is an example of what makes NWCC unique. Ride starters, and the refreshments that they provide, make Saturday morning rides at Zube Park more of a social event than just a hammerfest.
Every NWCC ride starter is a volunteer. (Saturdays at Zube are not officially NWCC-sanctioned events.) And as volunteers, we have taken it upon ourselves to make Saturday morning something everyone can enjoy.
We love it when riders come to the table and share ride experiences and make friends. It’s not really a recruiting station as much as it’s a place to commiserate or extol your (or someone else’s) biking heroics. It’s a spot to thank your fellow cyclist for fixing a flat or for the encouragement needed to make it back in the always-present homeward-bound headwind.
Ride starters, and our new rider group leaders, are what we think sets NWCC apart from other groups. It’s important to NWCC that everyone has a good time. That might be achieved by stressing the importance of staying within a specific pace range or helping newbies find their way.
Zube can be a perfect ride for the absolute beginner or the hardened racer, and over a fig newton we are all the same.
Spell out the responsibilities of the ride starter as you see them.
Duties begin days before the Saturday the starter is scheduled. All the paraphernalia is located at the club’s bike shop, Northwest Cyclery, and the starter must make arrangements to load up all the drink coolers (4), dry good totes (2), boat paddle used (for mixing Gatorade) and the megaphone. Gathering supplies is just the beginning.
Barbara Wu, the NWCC volunteer coordinator, provides an email reminder the Monday before the start. Included in the email is a list of what the starter must provide such as ice, lots and lots (and lots!) of ice, cookies, snack bars, fruit – bananas are a must – and gallons of water. Then the shopping begins. There’s nothing like grabbing 10 different types of cookies, many dozen bananas, giant size peanut butter/jam, and 20 gallons of water, just for starters. Receipts are retained for everything and reimbursed almost immediately by our treasurer, Troy Ottmer, via PayPal.
If you buy fruit such as melons, you’d better factor in a few hours for cutting everything up the night before.
Ice, obviously, must be purchased last and the amount depends on the forecasted temperature; 200 pounds of ice is normal for summer starts.
The main responsibility is to show up. There have been days when the only people who braved the cold or thunderstorms are the ride starters (and a few of the crazier cyclists). It’s important to get there at least 30 minutes prior to the ride. People forget to bring water in their bottles or want a quick snack before the ride and we are ready.
Maps of the routes are included in the tote, although we recommend downloading from the club website, nwcc.bike, for the most up-to-date maps.
Then the ride starter transitions away from the food setup to dispatch each specific pace group starting with the 22+ mph, followed by the 20-22 mph group, 18-20 mph, 16-18 “liars” group and the real 16-18 group, followed by the 14-16 mph group. These groups are sent out about 2 to 4 minutes apart to prevent bottle-necking at traffic lights and cross-contamination among groups.
Last, but not least, are the no-drop, new rider groups. Usually there is a 40-mile group and a separate 25-30 mile group that maintains a 14 mph pace. Wayne Freeman and Samuel Wu are dedicated new ride leaders who are emphatic that all riders will be brought back to Zube safe and sound. These guys are the face of NWCC and they bring cyclists to NWCC in droves because of their welcoming and caring attitude toward riders of all experience and comfort levels.
After all the pace groups have left, the starter may get in a quick 25-mile ride but usually tries to be back before 10 a.m. to make sure the food table is set up completely and ready for guests.
What are the practical benefits of having a ride starter in place every Saturday?
The obvious benefit is that we are the delegated cat-herders. Getting all the cyclists off safely and in an organized manner is priceless when you have 100-300 riders going out on any given Saturday.
What are the intangible benefits realized by having ride starters?
I think all cyclists like the idea that they are being sent out in a group of like-minded and skill-based riders. No one likes to ride alone – there’s no fun in that. Being part of a group makes the ride that much more enjoyable. Additionally, you can try to start with a faster group because you know that if you get dropped, there is always another group behind you. This pushes you to get faster, a tremendous benefit.
The security of knowing that food and drink will be there for you after you finish your ride is a huge asset when your water bottles are nearly empty and you just had your last Gu pack. And not just healthy food, all sorts of crap that you would never have around your own house but somehow, after riding for 2-3 hours, seems like the perfect thing to eat! (Editor’s note: Amen to that!)
The notion of the ride starter also providing the post-ride refreshments is really the cherry on top of the sundae. You’re a savvy ride starter – what kind of treats await returning cyclists?
Cookies of all kinds, but multiple packages of Oreos are a staple, as are fig newtons and chocolate chips. Bread, peanut butter, jam, and Nutella are always available for sandwiches. Sports bars, candy and crackers can be hit or miss, but bananas are a must! Oranges and watermelon make an appearance when in season, too. I brought five Hempstead watermelons on my last ride start and they went like wildfire. The trick is to cube them big enough so that they don’t break down while chilling in the cooler.
We all try very hard to keep everything we bring as iced as possible using whatever method we can. An additional cooler, just for extra ice, is a necessity in summer. Gatorade and water are kept chilled throughout the morning and strictly monitored so as to not run out, especially for the longer mileage riders. There’s no worse feeling for a ride starter than to run out of water or Gatorade before the 60-milers come home.
Some ride starters like to kick it up a notch when it’s their turn to provide the extra goodies. Is that your experience?
Definitely!! Homemade is the way to go! Homemade bars, muffins, or cookies will definitely get you extra thanks (and hugs).
I’m no baker and my sister, Jane, is no cyclist, so she always bakes homemade banana bread muffins to help me with my ride start. We have a tacit agreement that I don’t bug her to ride if she provides treats for me. Now, I don’t dare show up without them. She has gotten more elaborate by adding in cranberries, coconut, and nuts to them. Plus, it’s nice that they are muffins so you can just pop them into your mouth. Over and over again.
It’s not even just the snacks that you need your A-game. Decorating and dress-up is key also. Easter and Christmas decorations are a must. One couple, Sheila and Brad, dress up every year for St Patrick’s Day in leprechaun outfits and their homemade soda bread that is to die for! Ino Sofjan and Jeanette Tyler both have New Year’s Day birthdays and fight for the first ride start every year. Many choose their dates months in advance and maintain an arsenal of decorations and clothing for particular day. We like to show our personality in our ride starts.
How do the snacks vary from season to season?
It’s not really the snacks that vary from season to season. It’s the amount of supplies that vary.
Many people that don’t have a large vehicle will deliberately choose a winter month because you can certainly knock off two of the water/Gatorade coolers and even the extra ice cooler during the winter months. I have a full size F150 and last week my ride start had my truck filled to the brim! Much easier to manage a winter month in regards to “baggage.”
NWCC members roll out every Saturday, without fail. Is there ever a problem filling the ride starter slots?
Most ride starts fill pretty easily. In fact, as of early August all ride start slots for the rest of the year and January 2017 are full.
Weekends when we have big club participation in events like Hotter n Hell, in particular, make for a hard Saturday to fill, but we have almost 800 members now to draw from. Plus, all of our race team members have volunteer obligations to meet and being a ride starter is a good way to attain those hours.
Even with a huge volunteer base, NWCC has had moments when we have had issues filling ride starts. Recently, NWCC implemented a program to reward the ride starters by including them in a monthly raffle for a $50 gift card. As you can imagine, with five huge sanctioned events that NWCC presents every year, our base of volunteers can get fatigued so we are constantly trying to find ways to keep them motivated. This year we began the inaugural “Super Volunteer” jersey. This jersey will be awarded free to anyone that volunteered at all five big events and a ride starter.
If another Texas cycling club is considering having ride starters, how would you advise them?
Our volunteer coordinator makes it easy on us with reminder emails. Our hardest decision is choosing between Nutter-Butter cookies and Peanut Butter Delights.
A central organizational pickup and delivery center at the bike shop is crucial although picking up the stuff for your week the week before cuts down on shopping trips. You can see what is left over and plan accordingly.
The PayPal reimbursement system has been a great convenience for our ride starters and treasurer. Most ride starts cost around $100 and people like having the money reimbursed within a week.
While it’s not the club’s responsibility for the rider’s safety, ride starters do remind everyone to know the rules and follow them. (Mona Lincoln and Andrew Rubin teach our safety classes and NWCC is a firm believer that all cyclists, new and experienced, should take them routinely.)
One thing we would like to get out to more people is that the food table is not just for NWCC club riders. It’s for everyone. We absolutely love it when newcomers partake and enjoy the fellowship. We are all part of the cycling community and it’s important that we take care of one another.
And this can happen one Oreo at a time.
Northwest Cycling Club, based in Houston, is a four-time USA Cycling Club of the Year, earning the honor in 2005, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Club members ride every Saturday morning, rain or shine. To learn more, visit NWCC.bike or like the club on Facebook.