Tales from the Feed Zone

Or, Never Run in the Feed Zone

With Fitchburg coming up this week–featuring long races in high temperatures–everyone is suddenly interested in getting fed at the road race. And since I have already been asked about feed zone etiquette twice in private I figured it was high time to dust off this old post. I’ll warn you that this post is full of opinions so if that’s the kind of thing that upsets you then just move along, nothing to see here. But if you do read it you might just learn a thing or two.

If there’s just one lesson you can take away from this post, that lesson should be “never run in the feed zone.” Or I should say, NEVER RUN IN THE FEED ZONE. Seriously, just don’t. If it’s a really empty feed zone and you know you are the last ever person in the zone, then I guess you could run in the feed zone. If you’re the only feeder and there are only a couple of racers coming at you then I guess you could run in the feed zone. If you are at a MTB or cyclocross race and feeding in isolation then go ahead and run yourself silly. But don’t do it at a road race of any size, especially ones where there is a large pack of hungry cyclists.

I’ve worked a lot of feed zones, including multiple categories at the Fitchburg Stage Race, and I’ve seen many examples of why running in the feed zone is a bad idea. Running seems like the obvious thing to do to make life simple for your racer (lower relative speed between the feeder and the feedee, and all that), but trust me when I say that a feed zone is chaotic enough without one more maniac on the loose. You get racers swerving in and out looking for their feed. You get feeders running out into the pack to make a feed. Feeders throwing bottles over the heads of nearby racers to make a feed (actually, that’s pretty cool on the rare occasion it actually works). Racers making wheel changes in the feed zone. Empty and full bottles dropped all over the ground. Unfortunately, the officials can’t be everywhere, and just as unfortunately every newbie feeder (and some experienced ones) are either told or decide to run in the feed zone.

I was guilty of running in the zone when I started, and I know a lot of people who should know better who still run. If you see these people tell them to please stop or go feed somewhere away from civilized people who know what they are doing. OK, obviously this is a sore topic with me and I apologize for the rant. To make up for it, please allow me to share my feed zone tips, carefully gleaned from years of feed zone abuse:

  • Wear a team jersey so you can be easily identified. You want pockets if you are feeding more than a couple of racers. Some feeders wear them backwards for easy access to the pockets. In some feed zones, especially the higher categories at Fitchburg, you NEED a team jersey to be let into the feed zone (I guess someone thinks that proves you aren’t just a spectator, but whatever). Given the size of the club, it might be worth sauntering to each end of the feed zone to see if there are others from the club elsewhere in the feed zone—if so you might consider relocating to share company (and a tent, especially if you didn’t bring one).
  • Bring a cooler (duh), but include fluids and food for yourself. The beginner RR’s are only a couple of hours but the higher category races take all afternoon. Bring sunscreen and a tent of some kind. If I were the team director, I’d be on the phone to my local bike shop to borrow a tent. If you don’t have a tent, then try to make friends with a tent-bringer in the feed zone. Don’t forget a chair. A watch can also be useful, although it’s less important in the RR where the sight-line to the pack is pretty long and you have lots of warning. If you’re feeding in the circuit race the pack comes up really quickly and having a watch will tell you when to expect the next scrum to start.
  • Meet your racers early—remember they’re all wound-up because they’re racing later. Ask them what they prefer to drink and when. Some want to start with mix, some never want mix, some want their drinks warm, etc. They should give you already-made bottles with their initials or nickname or something, plus the team name, near the top of the bottle. If they initial the bottom then it will probably wash off in the cooler. Ask them how they prefer their hand-up: held from the top, the bottom, don’t care. If they and you are new at this, take a couple of practice runs. One of my former teammates did something funky when he took feeds and I dropped two of his bottles on a hot day before I figured it out.
  • If possible, tell your racers where you will be in the feed zone. If you have a tent, tell them what it looks like.
  • Before making a feed: wipe the bottles off. Condensation and melt from the cooler makes it very hard to grab and hold on to a bottle at speed.
  • When making a feed, try to get the racer’s attention in case they’re zoned out from the effort. Racers should indicate if they want to feed or not so you can ready the next bottle.
  • To make the feed, face into the race and hold the bottle out a bit in front of you (and I think a top hold works best but it’s also up to the racer) and as the racer goes by you can slowly move your arm back to decrease the relative motion of the bottle. Don’t whip your arm back though—you want the bottle to still move slower than the racer so the bottle is pushed into their hand.
  • Be careful of racers who don’t have any feeders in the zone because they might just cherry-pick a bottle or two. It’s good to keep your arm in close until your racer is near.
  • When you’re done, go pick up the dropped bottles and watch the show. If you’re feeding a large team during a long race then you might not have enough bottles for the entire race and you’ll end up cleaning and making up more bottles during the race.
  • Oh yeah: only feed on the side indicated by the officials. That’s usually the right side. Expect to be squashed by passing vehicles if you’re on the wrong side of the road in traffic.

If you’re a racer:

  • Make your own bottles and initial them on the top. Get them to the feeder early. Don’t expect them to have a cooler big enough for all your crap unless you know they do; instead, give them a little cooler unless you like warm bottles.
  • Pay attention in the feed zone. If you aren’t feeding, move over to the non-feeding side (usually the left).
  • Keep your head up and if you want a bottle then indicate to the feeder that you want a feed before you get there and move over to the right. If you don’t want a feed this lap but want something next lap then let the feeder know.
  • As you get close to your feeder, ditch the old bottle. Try to pitch it forward a bit so it lands near your feeder, but don’t throw it at them. Some racers worry that they’ll miss a feed and are reluctant to ditch a bottle until they have a replacement, but then they have to juggle two bottles in the feed zone. If you’re worried about running out of fluids, carry two bottles. If you’re worried about weight, carry two small bottles.
  • As you grab your bottle, tell your feeder what you want next time.
  • If you don’t get your exact bottle, don’t complain to the feeder. In fact, never complain to the feeder. They’re doing you a favor, plus they could do something unsavory in your bottle if you really annoy them.
  • If you don’t have a feeder: some races have neutral water being passed out by the Red Cross or the promoter at the feed zone. You can also cherry-pick some other team’s bottles, but who knows where those bottles have been? Have you seen how racers live?
  • Get out of the feed lane using all due caution.
  • Don’t expect all your bottles back at the end of the race. Just don’t. Describing the behavior of a dropped bottle could fuel a dozen PhD theses and can only be described to the lay person as: the little buggers have a mind of their own. And sometimes other people steal them. The corollary to this rule is: don’t bring your most-favoritest lucky bottle to a race where you want a feed.
  • Please remember to tip your feeder. Remember, they get paid less than minimum wage and have to live off your tips!

That’s probably more than anyone wants to know about my opinions on how to comport oneself in a feed zone. But to summarize: never run in the feed zone!

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3 Comments on “Tales from the Feed Zone”

  1. Greg Says:

    I hope you amend this tale with the (true) story from the Fitchburg road race (6/30/07) where a bidon was being held out by a baby being held out by a mother. Thought we’d seen it all….

  2. Todd Says:

    Now that I would have liked to have seen. Do we have photographic evidence? Shall we make some up? Which field was this?

  3. Greg Says:

    Seen in the cat4 race…


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