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Make a Successful Feed Zone

Feed Zones – they may not win a race, but they can definitely lose a race
 
We have been standing in the Feed Zone for just about an hour.  To me an hour early is late.  I just do not want to take the chance of missing my rider.  We go to all the effort and expense of getting to a race, race fees, gasoline, etc. so let’s not blow the race due to missing a feed.
We have 2 sports drink bottles, 2 water only bottles, 2 gels, all ready to go.  There are two of us at different spots in the feed zone.  We have distinctive clothing our rider will easily pick out in the feed zone crowd.  We are ready.
A lead motorcycle comes through the feed zone telling us our category is just 2 minutes behind.  We go to our spot.  Someone yells – riders up!
The riders start coming through.  With all the feeders and riders, it is mass confusion.  We see one rider take a mussette bag and accidentally drop it in his crank/chain – down he goes.  Most riders are getting their feeds with no problem.
We see our rider.  He slows a bit to take the feed from the first feeder.  He drops his empty bottle safely. The first feeder extends the bottle and he gets the water bottle no problem.  Into the cage it goes – no problem so far.
Our rider approaches the second feeder where he will get his gels.  The gel make it into his had no problem.  He stuffs them into his pocket and off he goes with a fresh bottle and gels.
The feed zone was an hour of boredom and 10 seconds of pure panic.  But our rider has what is needed to safely continue the race.
The heart rate starts to go done – I mean the feeders not the racer.
 
Feed Zone Elements
 
As I said above, a feed zone probably will not directly win a race, but it can definitely lose a race.  On a 50-100 mile road race, most racers will need at least 1 to 2 fresh bottles and maybe a gel or two.  If the rider misses his feed, bad things can happen – more on this later.
If Feed Zones are so important, then what are the elements we need to pay attention to in order to make them successful?
  1. Where are the feed zones in the race course?  Are we in the legal place?
  2. Who is the Feed Zone team?
  3. What do you feed?
  4. How do you feed efficiently and safely?
  5. Use of mussette bags or do not use them
  6. Techniques for moving or stopping in feed zones
  7. Feed Zone etiquette – the unwritten rules
  8. Techniques for flat and on a hill Feed Zones
  9. Bad things that can happen if a feed is missed
  10. PPPPP
Get to the right place.
 
 The first step in a successful Feed Zone is getting to the correct place.  Way too many times I have waited until the last minute to find the feed zone location.  This just causes distress that can be prevented.  Read the race bible a few days before the race.  Get the Feed Zone locations.  Get a map and locate the exact Feed Zone location.  However, way too often the promoter does not adequately state the Feed Zone location.  Do not be bashful.  Call, e-mail, text the promoter and ask.  Frequently the promoter responds by saying, “I am glad you called.”  Feed Zones tend to be one of the last things that are determined.
USA Cycling Rules.
 
Before we continue, let’s look at Feed Zones from a USA Cycling Officials view point.  There are several paragraphs (3A4, 3B7, 3B8, and 3B9) that address rules and issues in Feed Zones.  Please go to usacycling.org to read all the rules that may apply to your race and situation.  Remember that individual riders are responsible to know the rules.
Let’s specifically look at rule 3A4:
“Feeding stations or repair pits shall be located at points wide enough to allow passage of riders with one clear lane at all times.  If possible, they should be situated on an uphill stretch with a wide shoulder.  Feeding stations should be along the right side of the roadway unless the course is closed to traffic and it is not practical to use the right side.”
This is the basic guidance officials and promoters use for Feed Zones:
  1. Wide with one clear lane
  2. Preferred place in on an uphill stretch with a wide shoulder
  3. Right side of the roadway
I wish it were that simple.
One year at a major stage race in the US, our support crew went to a feed zone.  There were several problems with this Feed Zone:
  1. It was located on a slightly downhill stretch
  2. The marked Feed Zone boundaries were much too short to accommodate the support personnel for the 120+ riders
  3. No promoter or officials were at this Feed Zone
There were some major US continental teams represented in this Feed Zone.  We were supporting 3 amateur Cat. 1 riders.
At first, we all just looked at each other.  Not being a bashful person and I am a licensed USA Cycling Official, I took the initiative.  I walked the Feed Zone and asked everyone – do you have enough room?  The answer was very, very clear – “No way.  Especially with a downhill slope.  We need lots more room because the riders will be coming through here at 30 miles per hour!”
One of the other team managers and I literally picked up the Feed Zone boundary markers and moved them about 100 additional feet.  I later informed the Chief Referee of this action and was complimented on my initiative.  Feedback was also provided to the promoter.
The feed was still mass chaos, but at least we did not have any crashes.
Another quick story about a Feed Zone incident.  This was at the criterium for the Utah Summer Games several years ago.  It was a very hot Utah summer day.  The riders were having a difficult time with the heat.  We asked and received permission from the official to feed the riders during the race.  Here is another suggestion.  ASK.  Race Bibles and race rules are developed without knowing specific situations – like temperature.  Once you are at the race and safety or health might be an issue, ASK.  Several of us just asked the race promoter and official if it would be OK to feed the riders at a safe place.  We were given permission.  The place that was selected was flat and riders were coming very fast.  We just had to deal with it and without incident, we did.
During the race, our rider needed a feed.  My 13 year old daughter was a race support veteran.  She had been to scores if not hundreds of races. She knew her way around Feed Zones.  Her rider came into the Feed Zone at maybe 30 mph, she had perfect feed position and “whap” her rider snagged the water bottle with no problem at all.  The sound was so loud that everyone heard it.  The next thing we heard was a roaring applause for such a successful feed.  It was funny and fun.  Throughout the day, many support people (family members) came to this teenager for Feed Zone instruction.  I quote her, this day was “Way fun.”
To summarize Get to the right place:
  1. Riders and support personnel have the responsibility to find the right place
  2. Promoters and officials should clearly identify Feed Zone boundaries, preferably on an uphill stretch.
  3. Be smart.  Be safe.  I am not giving you permission to move Feed Zone boundaries.  I did and I was ready to pay the consequences – maybe even have my rider DQ’d.  But at that time, it was the right thing to do.
  4. ASK to make needed changes to a Feed Zone.
Feed Zone Team.
 
All you wives, girl friends, boyfriends, Dad’s, Mom’s, sisters, brothers, etc. -- you know who you are.  You are the Feed Zone team.  For every one pro team Feed Zone team member, there are 100 or more of us family and friends supporting our racers.  We are the ones standing out in the heat, cold, wind, rain and yes snow waiting for those vital 10 seconds to give our racers nourishment.  We are a critical link in our racers welfare.
We know who we are.  We also know how much we are reimbursed for performing this critical task.  And that is somewhere between ‘not much’ and ‘nothing.’  But still, we need to perform our Feed Zone duties flawlessly.  How do we do this?  Training and practice.
I am amazed that of all the times I have asked Feed Zone team members if they have practiced with their riders, that the answer is NO.  It takes little time to practice this, but the returns are significant.
Here are a few hints:
  1. I like the end of the Feed Zone, however, this may not always be possible.  Practice at the beginning, middle and end
  2. Do not move backwards.  Remain within 1-2 feet of your position
  3. Hold the water bottle by the top, loosely but not easily able to drop the bottle
  4. Facing the rider, hold in your right hand, not left hand
  5. Hold the bottle at the level the rider will grab it
  6. You can move your arm a bit backwards to minimize the ‘whap’ like my daughter experienced above
  7. Let the rider come to you
  8. Do not stiffen up, remain loose
  9. Do not panic if you miss, hopefully there are 2 of you and the 2nd feeder will be able to pass the bottle to the rider
  10. As a courtesy, go and pick up the discarded bottles, AFTER all riders have passed through the Feed Zone
Written by Mark Hoffman, Support Crew

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