Cycling’s Helpers

Attending to cycling

It’s tempting to treat events as somehow ‘natural’ – they just happen and we simply show up, to watch or participate. But that’s the easy bit, consumption. What about production? Because events never just happen, they’re made to happen, they’re produced. This includes cycling events – and if you want more cycling you might sooner or later want to get involved. At this time of year cycling events abound even in a small place like Lancaster. There’s something happening (or rather, being made to happen!) most evenings, and at weekends too.

Helping hand

For example, every Thursday from early April until late August Lancaster Cycling Club organises an evening time trial at Salt Ayre cycle track. I participate regularly, and help out occasionally. A gorgeous warm and sunny evening, 68 people rode last week’s event: 15 (mainly younger children) at two miles; 19 (children and adults) at six miles; and 34 (mainly adults) at ten miles. Between them those 68 rides reflect enormous work on the part of the riders, in training beforehand and the race itself. But those 68 rides also require huge work from others.

Signing on

Much of that work takes place elsewhere. Cycling’s unsung heroes, its hidden helpers, are busy all year; meeting, planning and preparing even in the darkest depths of winter. But it’s likely these same people who on a Thursday evening during the racing season are down at the track before the first riders arrive, still there after the last riders have gone, and – when back at home the tidying up and paperwork are finally done – back again next week to do it all again. For its helpers, cycling is often less about riding than about making the riding of others happen. People often say they’re ‘giving something back’ to cycling, but these people don’t just ‘give something back’, they keep cycling going. And their lives are shaped by the help they give cycling.

Pushing off

Much work is out of sight, but on any evening at the track there’s plenty still to do: someone must put signs around the track to let other people (especially dog-walkers) know cycle racing is taking place; the track might need sweeping, dog mess clearing up; there are tables and chairs to get out, and – if it looks like rain – gazebos to erect. At the signing-on desk people help riders register, collect race fees, and issue numbers. At the start line, riders are pushed off at the appropriate time (one minute intervals). Near the finish line someone spots and shouts numbers to the time-keepers, who monitor riders’ progress (each lap is 0.8 miles, so 10 mile riders must complete 12.5 laps) and ensure everyone gets their finishing time. Back on the other side of the track, someone sorts refreshments – drinks and biscuits that keep people hanging around and turn the event into an important social as well as sporting occasion.

Salt Ayre time-keepers

When the racing’s over and the riders gone, everything’s quietly and carefully tidied away again, and cycling’s helpers head home to do the paperwork, process and distribute the results, clean kit, check equipment, and circulate details of the next event.

Lancaster's time-keeping crew

That’s Thursday, time trial night. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings see bunch racing, which requires more helpers – including commissaires, marshals, and gear checkers. Racing also takes place at weekends. Then there are training sessions on Saturday mornings, and other evenings. And this is just what happens in one small place, Salt Ayre. But if there weren’t people prepared to organise all this, it simply wouldn’t happen. And a similar story is of course repeated, with local variation, elsewhere. So thanks to cycling’s helpers everywhere.


It’s easy to become a cycling helper. Besides the key organisers, every event requires a bunch of people simply willing to lend a hand – stand with a flag, note down numbers, make some cakes or pour the tea. ‘Doing a turn’ is a basic ethic of how we ride, and applies off the bike too. Because we’re good at taking turns cycling’s calendar is crowded with events. If we’re able, we willingly do our bit. And this is the way to make a more bike-friendly world – if cycling matters to us, by working together, contributing to events, we can help make it matter more to others. Cycling’s profile and popularity will rise as more people commit to doing this kind of work; it would fall were it not for the countless people who already devote a chunk of their lives to help cycling.

Cycling doesn’t just happen; it’s always being made to happen – by people, people like you and me. There are countless ways to help cycling. The cycling world is full of clubs and associations which, between them, contribute to cycling culture and keep cycling going. I’ve focussed here on cycle sport but we can choose any cycling focus. The point is that nothing ‘just happens’; the Berlin Wall didn’t fall by itself, South African apartheid didn’t end by itself; and a cycling-friendly world will not come about by itself – it will be made by people such as those you see here, people like you and me.

Hard to see

This post is dedicated to Bob Muir, who is on the far right of the above photo – it is he who, more than anyone, makes Thursday nights at Salt Ayre so reliably and so successfully happen. Thank you Bob!

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8 Responses to “Cycling’s Helpers”

  1. khal spencer Says:

    “…The point is that nothing ‘just happens’; the Berlin Wall did not fall by itself, South African apartheid did not end by itself; a cycling-friendly world will not come about by itself – it will be made by people such as those you see here, people like you and me….”

    Hear, hear!

    • khal spencer Says:

      p.s. to Dave.

      On this side of the pond, I’d dedicate your essay to two friends who left this world too soon, Eve DeCoursey and Dr. Gail Ryba.

      Eve, who went on to join the Washington (D.C.) Area Bicyclists Assn., was the first Exec. Director of the Hawaii Bicycling League and personally invested more sweat equity and enthusiasm than any other four people I know into big rides, coaching, childhood bike education, and running a statewide cycling organization.

      Gail was a research chemist from Sandia National Laboratory who left that great job to tackle one closer to her heart: promoting cycling and other forms of economic and ecologic sustainability. Gail was president of the Bicycling Coalition of New Mexico.

      Both Gail and Eve were struck down by cancer while still having so much we could learn from them and so much they still wanted to give.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Khal, we stand on the shoulders of Giants and continue their work as best we can. And those who come after us will only be able to do what they will do because of what we have done. There’s no hiding, eh? We may not do much, but it all counts, we’re all part of something, and I’m encouraged by how many people are joining the move(ment) to a cycle-friendly world.

  2. kevinmayne Says:

    What a lovely piece Dave.

    Put simply, my people. The world I grew up in, the friends and families we mixed with as kids, some of them still in my home town 50 years later, still doing the same jobs for our club.

    When I was at CTC I pushed to introduce “Volunteer of the Year” because some of these amazing people need to be recognised more widely.

    And I a regard it as a rare privilege that I now get to meet some of the same people doing similar things all over the world.

    Thanks for writing the post.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      You’re welcome Kevin. Thanks, in return, for all the amazing work you’ve done and continue to do for cycling. When (as I often do) I’m working ‘all alone’ in my little bubble, it’s a source of strength & sustenance to remember how there are so many of us working – albeit mainly virtually, invisibly – alongside one another.

  3. Creaky Says:

    I’d just like to say ‘hear hear’ – well said, and it needed saying and needs repeating.

  4. tejvancycling Says:

    Great post. It looks inviting to come along and enjoy the race.

  5. The start of a cycling life | I Do Not Despair Says:

    […] “Cycling’s helpers” by David Horton on the ever excellent “Thinking about Cyclin… […]

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