Great Power, Great Responsibility
Is there anything more empowering than the combo of a hi-vis vest and a whistle? Probably, but if you observe the volunteers at a major bicycle race you might have some doubts. The volunteer staff is comprised of individuals who during the day might work as early childhood development psychologists, theme park guides, Buddhist monks or Cold Stone Creamery Employees. These are people who, in their day to day lives, might exhibit an uncanny amount of joy and patience. They aren’t here to make a buck. By definition they do it for free, they do it for the love of the sport or because they want to support a vibrant civic culture or because they are just bored to death. The important upshot here is that no one is being forced or coerced into this. Though I would imagine there have been a few girlfriend/boyfriend or parent/offspring volunteers whose interpersonal interaction as it relates to deciding to become volunteers verges on the psychologically traumatic, these are outlier groups at most.
The large majority of people volunteer of their own free will so it may be surprising that, when given the power and accoutrement11Volunteers are typically equipped with badges, hi-vis vests, metal whistles, traffic cones and flags, and—in especially intense circumstances—handheld radios. of a race day volunteer, so many of them quickly slide from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. To experience a bicycle race volunteer is to experience the Stanford prison experiment as the incarcerated.“Volunteers bestowed with power and responsibility from the race organizers often divorce themselves from civility.”MFS
In this role they are strictly a mechanism of the event, transformed from a thoughtful/observant/rational actor to a strict and dutiful rule-enforcing reactionary. A transformation that can turn a sweet, loving grandmother who makes the most delicious peanut butter cookies and stitches quilts for the needy into a draconian, whistle-blowing ogre.
What’s become important to MFS’s race coverage experience, practically speaking, is that there is no reasoning with the high-pitched squeals and the associated condescension. It doesn’t matter that you’re paid to cover and report on the race, it doesn’t matter that you’re wearing a colorful vest that indicates your position of journalistic privilege, it doesn’t matter that you’ve spent years of your life navigating these types of events. It doesn’t matter that the last person—the very last person in the world—you want to be is That Media Guy who causes some sort of brouhaha that screws up the event.
“Try to explain any of this? Sure, if you want to fill your ears with the deafening trill of a $1.65 stainless steel whistle.”MFS
It’s true that MFS can, at times, be contentious. We cop to that. And it may be that at some times it could be said that we invite this heightened level of Volunteer Policing, that this is just the result of the latent power Volunteers find in their vest and whistle activating. We can only warn you to be aware of it and to hopefully encourage those of you out there who are thinking of volunteering to use caution—lest the power engulfs you and you find yourself a Gollum to its pull.
Manual for Speed acknowledges that without the dutiful and selfless commitment of volunteers, many (all?) races would not be possible. While this obviously tongue-in-cheek account of volunteers does draw from actual real-life experience, it should stated that this does not account for all or even many volunteers. The idiom: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” aptly alludes to the nature of our commentary.
AT THE RACES is a study of the more ubiquitous or “prevalent” types of chillers found spectating PRRs on any given day, at any given race. To help us properly identify and catalog chillers, Manual for Speed commissioned world renowned interpretive illustrator and dog walker Thomas Slater. Thomas holds a Ph.D. in Contemporary Human Taxonomy from Oxford and has been supporting his family as a commercial illustrator since the age of 7. His recent work titled Gran Fondo’ler (Confessions of a Cycling Enthusiast) is currently being considered for a solo show at the Tate.