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Columbia cyclists volunteer, support Tour of Missouri

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 8, 2009

COLUMBIA — For the same reason that you wouldn’t want to shoot hoops with an NBA star, you definitely wouldn’t want to compete in a bike race with the cyclists of the Tour of Missouri.

That is the analogy Joe Silsby uses to explain to his friends and family why he does not participate in the Tour of Missouri, which begins on Labor Day in St. Louis. The race features some of the top names in cycling, including past Tour de France stage winners Mark Cavenish and Christian Vande Velde.

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“That’s the difference between a recreational cycler like myself, who is sort of even a fanatic,” Silsby said. “There’s no way I can compete with a professional rider. This is his life, what he can do for a living. His speed is something that I can maintain for a maximum of five minutes.”

Although the talented racers competing might deter non-professional cyclists from registering to ride, members of the local cycling community are eager to participate as volunteers and spectators.

The average sports fan might be unfamiliar with the names of many of the world’s top bike racers, but in the cycling community many of the participants in the Tour of Missouri are celebrities. These men are to cycling what Albert Pujols is to baseball.

The course will not pass through Columbia, but the thrill of watching cycling's elite is enough to prompt local cyclists and cycling enthusiasts to travel to places like Jefferson City and St. Louis to watch the race and volunteer.

 “As we get closer, we sense the excitement building,” said Jerry Dowell, the executive director of the Tour of Missouri. “I think with Columbia being such a cycling community, you definitely see excitement.”

Silsby is the former chair of the Columbia Bicycle Commission (now called the Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission) and has been biking for years. He is also a licensed cycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists and has signed up to be a course marshal for stages four and five of the race.

As a marshal, Silsby will ensure that the roadway is clear of cars, pedestrians, debris, and animals. He will be based in two cities, St. James and Sedalia. He takes his job seriously and knows that a successful race depends on his efforts and those of other marshals.

Other volunteers will follow the race across the state. John Johnson, who has been involved with the Columbia cycling community for two decades and has raced in the Show-Me Games, is looking forward to his third year as a traveling marshal. Starting at the race’s kick-off in St. Louis, Johnson will work at multiple stages.

Divided into groups and packed into vans with virtual strangers who share an interest in the race, traveling marshals get more exposure to the racers than other volunteers.

“You get on the inside track,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his co-volunteers will travel across the state in vans provided by Medalist Sports, the company that runs the race. In some cities, the traveling marshals stay in the same hotels as the competitors. Though Johnson has passed cyclists in the lobby and watched them lace up their shoes and adjust their spandex before a time trial, he said that his job provides him with an chance to observe, rather than interact with, the cyclists.

Johnson tries not to disturb the racers as they prepare and relishes the opportunity to be in such close proximity with the professional athletes. Johnson said he volunteers in order to watch the cyclists race, not to get autographs.

"You kind of don't want to bug the guys," he said, "Those guys are in a different category. It's their job. They spend all their time out there training for races."

Kristen Veum is a Ph.D. student and a member of the Columbia Bike Club and Racing Team. She will also serve as a marshal in Jefferson City, but unlike Silsby and Johnson, Veum relaxed on the sidelines for the first two races. She is disappointed that the cyclists will not pass through Columbia, but she thinks that the cycling community is still supportive and that fans will make the trek to Jefferson City.

“From my perspective, it has generated a lot of buzz,” she said.

For Veum the race is more than an opportunity to volunteer; it is also a social event. With members of local cycling organizations planning trips to various stages, she believes that many of her friends will organize race-related parties closer to the time of the Tour. In addition to her assigned shift as a marshal, Veum plans to drive to watch other stages.

Silsby said certain stages are more spectator-friendly than others. In many locations fans have only one opportunity to see a rider glide quickly past, a blur of helmet, jersey, and spokes, and watching the race can be somewhat of a letdown.

“In circuit races in St. Louis and Kansas City, you get to see the racers maneuver and use their strategies,” he said. “It’s too bad there won’t be enough of that in Jefferson City.”

Dowell said that the race was originally conceived of as a way to boost Missouri tourism, and he, unlike Silsby, believes that the Tour is a spectator-friendly event. A Columbia resident, he also thinks that the race has increased awareness of cycling in the area.

“It has kind of turned into a health and fitness event,” he said.

Veum believes that people who don’t know much about the race might underestimate the caliber of the cyclists participating, but she says that people who are familiar with the race recognize it for what it is: an opportunity to stand in the wake of some of the world’s premier cyclists.

“To me this is the most significant and by far the most important sporting event that Missouri has to offer,” she said.


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