By Pete Radowick
The Pedaling the Prairie charity ride was near its conclusion at the Waller Fair Grounds in Hempstead, with only two miles to go, but in the span of five minutes the sometimes unheralded duties of a ride marshal were about to become clearly illustrated.
First, veteran ride marshal Dennis Yanchak stopped to massage the calf muscles of a weary cyclist so she could finish her trek. A routine courtesy, but Dennis was just getting warmed up.
Around the corner, about a mile later, he stopped to help fix a flat tire for another rider, also on the bonk, in the home stretch of her first charity ride. An extra pair of hands is always appreciated in the awkward business of repairing a flat by the side of the road.
While making that assist, a passing cyclist – perhaps rubber-necking the roadside flat repair – lost control of his bike on the downhill and careened into a heap just a few yards away. “Are we good here? I think that guy over there needs a hand.”
It’s times like this that guys like Dennis Yanchak earn their pay. Only they’re not paid. They volunteer their time to help others enjoy their time in the saddle.
With the BP MS150 on the horizon, and cyclists all over Texas getting into high gear with their training, Wheel Brothers thought this might be an excellent time to hear from ride marshals like Dennis Yanchak and Andrew Rubin on what makes them tick.
Wheel Brothers: What is a ride marshal and what are the duties?
Andrew Rubin: First and foremost, we’re there to help riders stay safe. This means promoting safe cycling and coaching riders on safe practices. Many of us also serve as safety coordinators for our teams. About a third of us are certified as cycling instructors by the League of American Bicyclists, and teach formal classes to our teammates and other riders. We also help in emergencies in any way we can. We fix flat tires and other minor mechanical issues on the road. We direct bike traffic around accidents, and provide first aid when needed. Finally, we help with organization and crowd control at the start of the MS150 each day and at MS150 recommended rides.
Dennis Yanchak: A ride marshal serves as an ambassador of safe riding and to help riders finish the ride as safely as possible. In that role we help them with minor mechanical repairs and help fix flats. We are all trained in first aid, so will assist riders that have an accident and direct the other riders around the scene of an accident. Overall, we try to promote a safe and fun ride for MS150 riders.
- What are the unofficial duties you’ve encountered that nobody told you about?
Andrew: I’ve listened to ride marshals explain to unsuspecting parents over the phone that their teen-age kid is in an ambulance and their permission is needed to transport the minor to a hospital. I’ve done impromptu bike fits on the side of the road, hoping it’s enough to let the rider get through the day. I also give out a lot of sunscreen.
Dennis: The most notable is being a supplier of tubes for those who don’t carry them (or even the tools).
- Is there a training requirement to become a ride marshal?
Andrew: To be a ride marshal, one must have completed two MS150s. This specifically means the Houston-to-Austin ride because we’re expected to know the intricacies of the route. We complete the League of American Bicyclists “Traffic Skills 101” course. Additionally, there’s a half-day of training specific to our ride marshal duties and the MS150. Finally, all ride marshals are certified in first aid and CPR/AED.
- What keeps you doing it year after year?
Andrew: I enjoy helping people. It’s very rewarding when riders say “thanks.” Not all MS150s around the country have ride marshals. I don’t think our Houston-to-Austin MS150 would be nearly as large and successful if not for our great safety program. Ride marshals are an integral part of that. The most rewarding thing, though, is knowing that my efforts are helping to end Multiple Sclerosis.
Dennis: I have a passion for cycling and enjoy helping others to learn to cycle safely. I am a certified instructor by the League of American Bicyclists and teach safe riding to those that want to learn.
- Does being a marshal negatively impact your own riding/training?
Andrew: It doesn’t negatively impact my training. I get to ride as often as I want. Rides do take longer as a ride marshal because of the stops to help others, but it’s not a big impact.
Dennis: It does not negatively impact my riding or training. My response to similar situations (flats, accidents, etc.) on my own training rides is pretty much the same.
- In addition to the size of the MS150 event, how is working this event different than other organized rides?
Andrew: The ride marshals on the MS150 are exceptionally well organized. We’ve had the same two people running the program for many years, and they’ve pretty much got it down to a science. I’ve done similar roles with a few other rides here in Houston, and generally their training requirements and organization are more informal. For this reason, they often recruit MS150 ride marshals to help out on their rides. When we get to a ride, especially one of the charity rides leading up to the MS150, we’re almost on auto-pilot.
Dennis: The organization and support of this ride is by far the best, but other organized rides are quickly improving.
- When you get together with other marshals after an event, what do you talk about?
Andrew: We all finish at different times, so we’re rarely together after an event. I don’t know how many stops I’ll make; sometimes I don’t stop at all, other times I may change three flats and help with four other problems. When we do get together, though, we’ll often trade stories just like any other group of people. We never mention names, though, and usually we don’t even now riders’ names. It’s just “this young rider on a hybrid” or “this racer on a time trial bike.”
Dennis: Typically the first question is whether anyone encountered an accident and, if they did, what happened. From there it goes to understanding the cause of the accident and if there is anything that could be changed to prevent a similar accident in the future. We also talk about how many flats we fixed, what was the most unusual thing we saw, things of that nature.
- Who makes a good candidate for being a ride marshal?
Andrew: First and foremost, you need to enjoy helping people. Second, you need to be comfortable influencing people. We need to be assertive without being authoritarian. Third, you need to be OK with sacrificing parts of your ride to help others. If you pride yourself on getting to La Grange before 11 a.m. on Day 1, this job isn’t for you. We come in all different speeds, which is important because the newer riders are usually slower. We can’t help them if we’re all partying in La Grange or Austin when they still have 30 miles to go.
Dennis: Someone who is passionate about cycling, knows how to cycle safely, and is willing to help others.
- What volunteer opportunities exist for someone who may not be cut out for marshaling?
Andrew: When I was a team captain, we had volunteers doing everything from photography, to signage, to managing the waiting list for massages, to simply cheering on the side of the road for us. On the MS150, there is always short of SAG drivers. If someone wants to fill a very critical role, that’s a good one. SAG vans are critical, especially if the weather turns bad.
Dennis: Certainly, if you don’t like to cycle, there are numerous other ways to help. All that requires is a desire to help support a good cause, like the Multiple Sclerosis Society or other worthy organizations.