On Thursday night, Charlene and I drove up to Truckee, and on Friday morning we got back in the car, drove up highway 89 to Sierraville. A right turn on to highway 49, and we went over to the little burg of Loyalton, at 5,000 feet in a huge valley up in the Sierra, to start about 30 hours of being part of the support crew for the Christian Encounters Ministries' Agony Ride, a 24 hour bike ride that loops 50 miles in a U, from Loyalton almost out to Beckwourth, back through Loyalton, and up to Vinton ( my best guess on Google Maps, it isn't quite right because the actual course is almost exactly 50 miles round trip). Lather, rinse and repeat for as many times as you can. The riders ranged from happy to complete 50 miles on Wal*Mart special mountain bikes with knobby tires, to one professional mountain bike racer sponsored by Cannondale who cleared 446 miles, and his riding partner who managed 413 before pulling in to our rest stop and then passing out and needing professional medical attention.
When that last incident occurred I was over in the radio tent managing rider dispatch info. He went down but was only unconscious for a little while. However, I still giggle over what I imagined, and what was reported was, the discussion with the responding paramedics: "Anything out of the ordinary prior to this fainting spell?" "Yeah, I haven't slept for over 24 hours, and I just rode 413 miles in temperatures that ranged from the mid 90s to the upper 20s, only stopping when I had to refill my water bottles...". It takes a hell of a lot of professionalism on the part of the paramedics to not just completely lose it and double-over with laughter.
Charlene had signed up to do massage at the Beckwourth rest stop, when I'd signed up I volunteered to bring tools, which got me assigned to do mechanical work. It turned out that after the first stop, where there were some problems including a rear wheel that got torn up and lost several spokes (that I'll be ready to tackle next year) the mechanical work basically boiled down to tossing a zip tie on the occasional light or reflector, and pointing people to the floor pump.
Until I let slip that I did, in fact, have a HAM license (KI6MZO, for you keeping track at home), at which point I ended up spending a bunch of time in the radio tent.
We showed up around 9 because we were worried that I might have to run Charlene out to Beckwourth and then go back to Loyalton, but I ended up staying at Loyalton where we did a tech inspection on every bike. This was something of an eye-opener; I saw both the experienced cyclists who knew what they were doing and were going for broke, and people with knobby tires on cheap bikes, and a few folks with 30 year old bikes that hadn't been ridden for most of those years. In all cases my goal was "how can we make sure this bike is safe and these people are going to have a good time", which meant some tuning up happened.
About noon we drove out to Beckwourth and set up, they'd been putting things together since 10 or so, the ride officially started at 1PM, and we got our first riders about 1:40 (though those guys mostly just turned around and booked back, the rush happened circa 2). Traffic dwindled off at night, I think only about 7 riders actually went all night, but that continued 'til 1PM on Saturday. We tried to get some sleep at 11 or so, weren't sleeping well and Charlene got called out to work on some sore muscles, we grabbed another few hours from 1 'til roughly 5, and then hit the ground again.
The Agony is something of an outlier in organized bike rides. Most organized bike rides aren't profitable until there are somewhere more than a thousand riders, and the support to rider ratio is generally on the order of 1 to 10. The Agony is a "pledge per mile" (although we've always just done block grants) ride, and is a fundraiser for a camp with a whole bunch of interns and former attendees who want to support the organization. So it manages a support to rider ratio of somewhere on the order of 2 to 1, and had, this year, just over 80 riders. One of the things you can do with a support staff like that is track every single rider. So in the radio shade we had a big board with a tag for every rider, with their status in a rest stop, or en-route to another stop, or, for a very few, pulled from the course.
In practice, this process took about 3 people: Out at the entrance the people with the drinks and snacks would use FRS radios to send rider numbers in and out, then in the radio tent we had one person logging in and out times, one person on the radio sending these times back to the other rest stops, and one person managing the big board.
Having the big board separately maintained at all 3 stops let us catch the inevitable errors, but also gave us enough eyes on the boards that we could start to see problems develop before they occurred. We saw patterns in the groups of riders moving together, and when two arrived at a rest stop without the usual third, flags went up and mobile SAG drivers got alerted.
But the whole thing was really itching for some automation, so one of the projects I can see working on for next year involves a couple of phases:
- Putting "the board" on computer. We should have a simple interface that manages the display of which riders are where, and this could then keep track of how long we expect each rider to take between stops, and alert mobile SAG if they're overdue.
- Automating transmitting this data back and forth to other rest stops via HAM packet radio.
On that last point, the valley is pretty flat, so we were almost line of sight. However, there were a bunch of issues with... I don't know, I'm not a radio guy (yet)... so we had a number of problems. The packet radio had problems. And when the packet radio did have problems, we had a situation where we could talk to Vinton and Loyalton, and Vinton could talk to Loyalton, but Vinton couldn't hear Loyalton, so when the packet radio link went south we ended up doing relay of long lists of numbers from Loyalton to Vinton.
One of the things to experiment with is point-to-point WiFi.
But the other thing is that I need to look for is how to set up this stuff via HAM packet, because in areas that have more interesting terrain, point-to-point WiFi isn't gonna happen.
What was I, a declared atheist, doing helping out at an event to raise funds for an organization called " Christian Encounter Ministries"? Charlene's brother and his wife are long-time Agony riders, and their sons have both been to the camp that this organization supports, and all feel that the kids got a lot out of the camp. But, beyond that, it was quite good for me to spend the weekend hanging out with people who see the world very differently than I do, and I'm still processing some of those differences.
I didn't bring up the issue of religion, other than the usual things that slip out ("I take my coffee black... like my soul."), and I got a chance to listen and learn and maybe, some years hence, we'll bring a little understanding.
Until then it's great to be out there supporting people who want to push themselves just a little bit further, to find that extra reserve that they didn't know they had.