This blog isn’t intended to be just about bikes. I also plan for it to be about what I’m calling cycle sportive culture and how we can intentionally work for that culture to grow and prosper. I think that organized and supported rides with a social component are an important part of that. They foster comradery by bringing people who may normally ride alone or in small groups together. A mixer after the ride allows people of different speeds and abilities to get to know one another and breaks down tensions that can emerge from natural, often unavoidable, frictions on group rides. Getting people spending more time together off the bike can often be the glue that puts together a successful cycling club.
In Olympia we have a well established club, The Capital Bicycling Club, that’s been going since the mid-seventies. We put on two big organized rides with attendance averaging 200-400 riders and do an okay job with the social aspects of club life. Our newest event, Ride the South Sound, incorporates a feed afterwords and really fits the model I am promoting. We put our events together with dozens of volunteers and spend a few thousand dollars putting them on and promoting them. If you are just trying to get a club started or have a small club in your community this sort of event is out of reach. I recently put on a small supported event and hope my experiences might serve as a useful model for people wanting to run inexpensive do-it-yourself organized fundraiser rides for less than one-hundred people.
Our Event: The Old Gate School Cycling Classic
The bike shop I was working at as the primary buyer rapidly downsized last fall when the economy and the introduction of a big-box REI into our community finally caught up with the parent company. My job was one of the first victims. The experience left me motivated to create a working situation where I didn’t have to have a boss, so I decided it was time to transform my and my dad’s hobby frame building operation back into a fulltime concern. We had no backlog and had intentionally avoided promotion to prevent having the production pressure that results from having a bunch of orders on the books. This meant that there would be an inevitable rebuilding process, with no income, while I created a pricing structure, set up a web page, and so on.
I’d gotten engaged last May and my fiancée and I had put down a large non-refundable deposit on a former boy scout camp for our do-it-yourself offbeat wedding. We were committed to a largish event. Our plan had always been to take a DIY approach and minimize expenses, we’re new wave radical sorts and didn’t want to support the wedding industrial complex, but we did want to throw a fun party for our community. When I lost my job, I also lost about 40% of my income, which put a big financial strain on our ability to pull off the big event. Being a self-starter, my response was to figure out a way to make up some of the shortfall, so we could give our wedding guests a nice experience. A cycling event came to mind. Some people might think that asking for money from people outside our families to support our wedding is ‘tacky,’ but in my mind what we were doing was providing a service. If we could put on a good event that provided some value, people would be happy to part with a few bucks for the experience. I didn’t want a handout. I wanted to put on event people would be happy to pay for. I talked to my wedding party, who are unsurprisingly all cyclists, and they agreed to take on the challenge and help me give it a go.
Scenic Low Traffic Roads Were a Draw for the Event
If you’ve never planned a cycling event, the prospect of doing so might seem overwhelming. I’ve organized some big rides in the past, so I was confident I could pull it off, but this was a little bit different. It would need to be done on a tiny budget, with a minimum of volunteers. I had my wedding party, my partner and I, and our immediate family, and maybe a few additional friends to count on so I needed to plan something with a maximum of ten people helping out. I figured that we could realistically expect 25-50 riders. It seemed doable. I set a maximum budget of $200 for the whole event and set it into motion.
The first step was to find a start-finish with parking. My dad, who happens to be my best man, had long wanted to run a ride from the Old Gate School. Gate is one of those communities that once had a railroad station and a reasonable population, but is now just a dot on the map and a cemetery. It straddles some nice low traffic roads that we often ride on. There was a rustic one room schoolhouse there that was no longer in use and rumor had it that it could be rented cheaply. A ride starting there could access some wonderful scenic roads that were just a little too far from town to be accessible for regular weeknight rides from Olympia. It was only about thirty-minutes away from town by I-5. It seemed like a natural choice. I explored some other options and then put a bit of effort into tracking down the people who ran the school. It turned out that it was run by a trust and if I ‘joined the school’ by kicking down $100 I could get one day use of the property. The school had plenty of parking, chairs and tables, and a kitchen. It would be a big chunk of our budget, but I figured we could make it work and that the quaint school and the routes we could put together from it would both be draws for the event.
Our Venue, The Old Gate School
The next step was to pick a date. It can rain any day,about nine months out of the year in the Pacific Northwest. We always say you can’t count on sun except from the weekend after the Fourth of July through August. Rain would deter some riders, so positioning the ride on a date during the narrow window where there was a high chance of clear weather was important for a successful event. July 21st worked for all of my volunteers and it was free of conflicts with other major cycling events in the area, so it would be a good date. The school was available that day, so I pulled the trigger and secured the venue.
Promotion was the key at this point. One of my wedding party members has done some design work for the bike shop I used to work at, so I asked him if he would create a flier and he graciously agreed to devote the time to the project. I decided a two to a standard page layout would be big enough and would save some paper. The flier was generated in record time. We printed them out on color paper, so they would draw the eye a little better. I dropped fifty of these off at the shop I used to work at where two of my wedding people still work and could them hand out to likely prospects and posted another twenty-five at shops and other locations around town. I’ve got a second WordPress profile I’ve used to try to get bike industry work in Taiwan, so I threw up a page for the ride and hosted it there. I also created a Facebook event. We’d decided on a spaghetti feed after the ride, so my lovely fiancée was inspired to create a funny graphic with the Flying Spaghetti Monster chasing a cyclist on a fixed-gear in some steampunky goggles and we used it for a header on the FB event page. I didn’t think it would be ethical to use the local bike club’s mailing list for a personal event, so I dug through all of my email contacts and compiled a list of the people I know on the list who ride. I did three timed mass emails at a month, two-weeks, and four days prior to the ride.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster Graphic Maylee Developed for the Facebook Event Page
Another member of my wedding party is a randonneur with a lot of experience riding on the roads we had in mind. He agreed to come up with some routes. We decided on an eighty, a thirty, and a sixteen-mile loop. He developed the courses and mapped them out on Bike Route Toaster. This was cool because it supported downloads to Garmin GPS units and also allowed the rides to be saved online, so I could link from the web sites and social media. I wasn’t sure about the sixteen, but I hoped some of my fiancée’s friends who were not serious enthusiast cyclists might come and wanted to offer something they might be comfortable doing, but that would be a good challenge for a novice.
Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
We wanted the courses to be marked. I coerced my dad into helping me do the course marking with almost no effort. Our preferred method is to have a driver and a marker. The marker navigates off of the cue sheet. When you get to a turn or a confusing section, the car stops and the marker jumps out and paints a Dan Henry arrow on the road close to the turn then walks back about twenty-five yards and paints another. If the marking is on a fast downhill it makes sense to do a third mark further back. I typically use different colors of paint for different distance loops, so riders can easily differentiate if there is any course overlap. We’ve done this a bunch of times together, so it went smoothly, although it did eat up a fair amount of time, gas, and coffee (which my cohort in crime very graciously provided). We were able to find a good wide spot for a rest stop on a section about halfway through both the eighty and the thirty-mile loops while we were driving the course. I also took the pictures you see in this post and used them to promote the event on the web page.
While I was marking the course I took images like this one to promote the ride.
A few days before the ride we set our food plan into motion. My fiancée has some restaurant experience and is a veteran of doing food for guerrilla fundraisers and secret cafe style events. She researched spaghetti recipes and found some sites with information on planning pasta for big groups. We wanted a vegetarian and a meat option. We also wanted something distinctive that people would really enjoy. She pointed me at a pasta puttanesca option which involves tomatoes, kalamata olives, and capers. I adapted it into a more traditional spaghetti sauce, to stretch it out, with the addition of Walla Walla onions and tomato sauce. For the meat sauce we simply added a bit of jarred sauce and a bunch of ground pork, Italian sausage, and ground beef to the vegetarian sauce. Iced tea and lemonade could be created in posh variations for very little money. I decided watermelon, bananas, peanut butter sandwiches, water, and some brownies would be adequate for pre-ride fueling and the rest stop.
My future wife created a stylish menu for the spaghetti feed.
I was worried about getting just the right amount of food. During our research we learned that a pound of spaghetti would feed about four hungry people. I guessed that a single recipe of sauce for a family size serving would go with that and built a shopping list for enough food to feed thirty riders. Experience has taught me that buying for a best case scenario wastes food and money. We bought food for a realistic estimate and made backup plans to go to a supermarket near the start-finish if we got more riders. We got our hands on a variety of day old baguettes for free with a little hustling, knowing we could make good garlic bread out of them if we toasted it. Between Cash-and-Carry, Grocery Outlet, and Costco we were able to get the rest of the stuff we needed for drinks, salad, and garlic bread just barely within our budget.
Sauce is always better if you make it the night before. We wanted day-of service to be simple so we made the garlic bread ahead of time and froze it. I had a bunch of water bottles somebody had given me, so I brought them to pre-fill and give away, so I could get rid of them. I also grabbed a big insulated water container and made some ice packs to keep it chilled.
With food in order, we needed to take on other requirements. I put together a tool box, grabbed a pump, and an assortment of tubes so we could do tech support. I also grabbed a firstaid kit and made sure it was stocked with all the stuff you would need for roadrash, bee stings, and other likely occurences. I also grabbed sunscreen to make available if people wanted it. Finally, I made sure we had enough tables and chairs to handle registration and the rest stop.
Internet promotion doesn’t always provide a lot of feedback. The people that did contact me by email ahead of the ride were almost all apologizing that they would be out of town. The Facebook event only had about fifteen people signed up and my experience has been that you can only count on about half of the people who say they are attending or may attend. I’d leaned on all of my volunteers to twist arms to get people to come, but they were giving me mixed feedback. This was nervewracking. I’d told my partner we could get a reasonable turnout and I knew she was really hoping we would make enough from the event to cover the food budget for the big day. I was pretty sure that we would break even, but I didn’t feel like I could count on a good turnout.
Whenever I’ve run or been involved with big rides there have always been people who are very adamant about being able to start early. They may have other things they need to do or just want to be comfortable they have a lot of leeway to finish their distance. I liked the idea of having set start times so people could set out as a group because this would increase the social element. Ultimately, I decided that accomodating people’s schedules to maximize attendance was more important. I knew that some riders would be leaving at eleven for the thirty, so I put out that info on the website and in my targeted email, so there would be an option for those who wanted a group to ride with at that distance, but couldn’t find anyone to lead a group for the eighty. I figured eight-in-the-morning was the latest we could start registration with out aggravating the earlybirds. I was able to figure out when to start serving food based on that and expected average speeds and propose some suggested start windows. We put together a timeline on Excel with some these start times, plus info on when the rest stop would be available, when food service would take place, and so on and put it out on the web site and on a printed sheet at the start.
A timeline allowed riders and volunteers to have a clear idea what was happening when.
We set off a little before seven with all the gear and supplies, plus my future stepdaughter, her boyfriend, and a buddy of theirs (our rest stop crew) crammed into my Ford Explorer. Everything was set up by eight and our first riders came in shortly after, followed by a few more. By the time I set out to drop the rest stop people off on the course we’d had six or eight people come through. I knew there was a decent size crew coming at eleven to do the thirty, so I was finally able to relax knowing that we would have reasonable turnout.
We had people fill out tickets at registration, so I knew who was on the road, so we could do a raffle for some homemade pasta courtesy of my future wife, and so I could send out thank yous to participants. I had four people at the start-finish counting myself. This was perfect for getting setup done, food out, registration handled, and allowing a free hand to do some on call sag and course sweeping. I estimated when the last rider would be through the rest stop and swept the course at that time, picking up the rest stop crew on the way. There were no mishaps and all the riders were making good progress.
My fiancee Maylee ready to serve up some food.
When I got back spaghetti was being served and everyone seemed to be having a good time. The feedback on the loops, the food, the venue, and the level of support were all good. People socialized and we volunteers were able to relax and join in for a while until the riders all trickled out to head home. Clean up was a snap and we were on the road home an hour earlier than I had expected- exhausted but happy that we had put on an event with a turnout of a little over thirty riders that had achieved our financial goals. Everyone was stoked with the event and I think I will bring it back as a club volunteer appreciation ride in the future.
My Partner Maylee Dishing out the Salad
There are a few takeaways I can pass on based on our experience. First of all, you can do this. It’s not difficult to put on a fully catered and supported ride for 30+ people for under $300 with ten or less volunteers. There are a few tricks. Food portions need to be carefully planned for your expected number of riders. I got 30 at our ride. If I had bought food for a more optimistic 50, I would have spent another $100 and the food would have gone to waste. It would have eaten up a quarter of our net. Plan carefully and make check lists. We didn’t forget anything essential, but that’s because I’d done my due diligence ahead of time. There are a number of ways to promote your ride. I recommend all the methods I used, plus anything else you can think of. That said, expect direct email to be the most effective. I plan monthly social events for the Capital Bicycling Club and that reliably works better than anything else. If you want to promote well-attended events for your club, start collecting email addresses now. Finally, don’t plan this sort of event if your goal is personal financial gain. You depend on volunteers to make things work and you’ll be hard pressed to recruit them without some sort of emotional draw for them to support and you certainly can’t afford to pay them. It only worked financially for us because a key volunteer donated a bunch of gas for course marking and my because partner and I both had more time than money and no immediate way to capitalize on that time other than by doing something like our ride. On the other hand, it was a lot of fun. If you want to have a good time and start building up your cycling community get out and start planning!
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about putting on your own ride.
Old Truck on the Side of the Course in Galvin