A lot can be learned from a bike race. Even if you have no interest in bike racing.
Several weeks ago, Event Allies, our event management sister company, produced the ninth edition of the Wilmington Grand Prix. Four days of events, 350-plus volunteers, racers and riders representing 13 countries and 33 states—and a menu of activities that provided something for every appetite. Many feel it’s the best weekend of the year in Wilmington. Sure, I’m biased, but I wholeheartedly agree.
Not, however, for the self-serving reasons you might assume. Instead, it’s because of the wonderful things one can experience when you’re careful about your assumptions.
When we introduced the Grand Prix to Market Street in 2008-09, some who view that territory as their turf during late nights and weekends resented our presence. And they took action to make those feelings known—like stealing essential supplies or equipment the night before the event, like rolling things onto the course as racers approached, like defiantly barging onto the course despite the pleas of our course marshals.
Many of these disruptors began to realize that the Grand Prix wasn’t simply another event invading their space. It was a celebration of the city they call home, and unlike many celebrations, they were invited to this one.
Then a transformational thing began to happen. Many of these disruptors began to realize that the Grand Prix wasn’t simply another event invading their space. It was a celebration of the city they call home, and unlike many celebrations, they were invited to this one. Even better, admission was free. And come to think of it, the Grand Prix looked like it could use their help.
So each year, men who live on the street or in homeless shelters become invaluable assets. They help us build the course with head-spinning efficiency, put up sponsor signage and other key infrastructure, then break it all down just 24 hours later. I doubt any of these men were among the disruptors, but they know the streets and those who roam them, and it’s no coincidence the disruptive behavior came to a halt with the creation of our new “street team.”
These men are as dependable as UPS, showing up 15 minutes before we ask and working tirelessly until the task is complete. “Hey Jerry, remember me…I helped you last year. You tell me what you need. I got ya…just save me an extra-large.”
In exchange for their help we provide a modest stipend, and supplement it with food and a souvenir T-shirt. But most important, we treat them with respect. And they return the gesture.
Then there are the crossing guards, who show up unannounced and in uniform, and proceed to assist our course marshals in ushering people safely across the streets. They ask for nothing but to be a part of the show. In fact, later on race day I went to find a young woman who had assisted for hours on the first turn (10th and Market). I wanted to say thanks and offer a souvenir shirt. She was long gone.
Then there’s Gary, a 10-year-old from the East Side who strolled over to see what all the commotion was about. When Gary saw Andrew, the son of my business partner (Julie Miro Wenger) helping out, he quickly recognized that they were about the same age. And if Andrew could help out, why couldn’t he?
So Andrew led Gary to Grand Prix headquarters, where Gary was outfitted with a volunteer shirt and badge. Minutes later he was working side by side with my 20-year-old daughter Sophie in Rodney Square, helping manage the kids’ activities. “Dad, that kid was awesome,” Sophie told me later.
Yes, our city had a world-class cycling event last month. One of the top criterium races in the country, in fact. And if you skipped it because of assumptions you make about Downtown Wilmington, well, be careful about that. Guys I was once leery of have become part of our Grand Prix team, and they take pride in the event. The only assumption I make about them now is that they will be there to help. Fifteen minutes early.