The Tour of Alberta is a professional, UCI 2.1, road cycling stage race and has been held in Alberta for the past 3 Septembers. It is the highest ranked professional road bike race in Canada, participated in by many of the same riders who ride in the Tour de France, Olympics and World Championships. I have volunteered at many of the Edmonton area stages in a number of capacities for the first 2 years – as course marshal, crowd control, team parking, and anti-doping chaperone – but this year I decided to go all in and follow the tour around the province. Through a friend with connections, I was able to snag a position as “hydration staff” in the VIP tent. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I mean, how much work can it be to be a bartender? In this case – lots! It was supposed to be a plumb job but I haven’t worked that hard for years! Long hours and more physical than I imagined because we were considered as part of the crew, helping set up and take down the show every day. One of the regular crew described it as like working for a traveling circus.
There were 4 of us volunteers in the VIP area – 2 hydration staff, 1 hospitality manager and 1 hospitality front door manager. None of us expected the work to be as physically exhausting as it was. For the four of us, it meant setting up the VIP area at each of the 6 finish locations – hauling and setting up tables, chairs, and enough cases of beer, wine, pop, juice and water to serve up to 300 guests; decorating the venue with sponsor banners, flags, etc.; serving the guests for a 3 to 4-hour duration; deconstructing the place back to how we found it in the morning; loading it all back into our supply truck, then helping the finish crew pack up everything else on site in preparation for the move to the next day’s finish line. It wasn’t often that we got to sit down. At least contractors set up and took down the tents each day so we didn’t have to do that too! Besides the long hours and the physical effort, the abnormally cold and wet weather was draining as well. The longest day was September 5th, the mountain top finish at Marmot Basin. We were up at 5 a.m., on the road by 5:30, and at the top of Marmot by 6 to start setting up. We opened the bar by noon, “hydrated” the guests until an hour after the race ended at 3:30 p.m., then started the tear down. Once our work was done at 6 p.m., we were able to start the 4-hour drive back down the mountain and home to Edmonton. After 2 nights in Grande Prairie and another 2 in the Jasper area, the next day’s stage was in Spruce Grove so at least I got to sleep in my own bed that night!
All this is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the experience. It gave us a great insight into how a well-coordinated, time-constrained operation worked and was an eye-opening example of organized chaos.
It was also great to see how the pro riders and different teams dealt with the day-to-day challenges. Weather that I wouldn’t think of going riding in, these guys did it for over 200 kms. Of course, that’s their job but it still takes a special type of person to love the sport that much to endure that much discomfort and pain. Dirt – no, check that – mud roads, temperatures barely above freezing, pelting rain and buffeting winds were all in their days work. And the riders we got to talk to were all regular guys. No prima donnas with elite athlete arrogance, just regular guys who like to ride bikes very fast over long distances.
Also a hoot for Chris, my hydration partner, and I was a chance to ride in a VIP pace car for 2 laps in the Edmonton circuit. My driver was an ex-highway patrolman from the U.S. who also taught pursuit driving to his officers. Whoa – what a ride! It wasn’t long on lap 1 before the circuit went downhill and the riders were doing 70 kph. Blasting through the red lights and stop signs and cutting corners very fast was a little unnerving and VERY fun! Something we don’t get to do every day – or ever.
I came back from the tour with a bunch of team bidons (water bottles), hats, and musettes (courtesy of friendly soigneurs) and a ton of respect for the people who put this show on, from organizers to racers. And I’d love to do it all over again next year.