LOTOJA’s secret heroes, heard but unseen

JACKSON, Wy. — As more than 800 cyclists pedal their way from Logan, Utah to Jackson, Wyoming, a group of men set around a table and prepare for the afternoon ahead.

Though they wear LOTOJA t-shirts, they’re not racers in the 200+ mile cycling race, though Zac Rosser says he’d like to try it one day “just to do it.” These six men are LOTOJA’s ham radio volunteer crew. Their job? Keep each racer safe through constant, effective radio communication.

“Ham” basically means “amateur,” and ham radio is largely considered a hobby these days, but these guys are the real deal. For them, ham radio is a hobby in that they don’t get paid, but they’re experts in their work. They know the technology, the lingo, the code of ethics. And every year at LOTOJA, they volunteer their skills to help the race run smoothly.

Their day begins with lunch, either at Bubba’s or The Virginian depending on availability. This year it’s The Virginian. They’re experienced enough by now that the occasion is more of a rendezvous than a formal meeting.  They reminisce about previous incidents: the year with two fatalities (2012). The Horsethief Fire started the same year during the race, and they were all listening over the radio as it grew. “Two days later I was evacuated from my own home,” Rosser says.  The time Tyler Griffiths found a racer in the middle of the road in Snake River Canyon. “He was out,” Griffiths recalls.

This morning, each volunteer already knows what is expected of him for the day.

Griffiths and Ted McArthur will station “Net Control,” which is like the dispatch center for LOTOJA volunteers. They’ve traveled from Logan to be here. They will spend the day in their Teton Village hub, which is just a rented condo at the base of JHMR. And if anything goes wrong from Hoback to the finish line, they’ll be among the first to know.

Ted McArthur communicates with volunteers on the course while Tyler Griffiths documents. Photo: Buckrail

When a racer crashes on South Park Loop, one of the many safety cars radios into Net Control.

“He’s OK — conscious and has some cuts and bruises, but his bike is done,” a voice says through the radio. McArthur asks for the rider’s bib number — 655, he finally learns — and tries to pinpoint is exact location on the map so he can send support.

Moments later, another voice signals to Net Control that a racer has committed a drafting violation on Teton Village Road. It’s the second time this rider has done it, the voice says.

Racers are allowed to draft within their pack, McArther explains, because generally teams are working together anyway. But drafting outside your pack (team) is against the rules, and this guy is drafting a tandem. That’s extra cheating, McArthur says.

He logs the complaint in the system, leaving out that this is allegedly the racer’s second violation. The race director will decide what action to take from here.

Net Control is busy with calls from volunteers along the course asking where they should go, reporting their positions, and reporting “incidents.” Radio technology also allows Net Control to keep track of their volunteers using APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). Roughly 40% of the LOTOJA route is out of cell service, so that’s a huge asset. When a volunteer radios for a re-assignment, McArthur and Griffiths can look at a map on their computer screen and “see where it’s sparse,” Griffiths says. It also means they have a general idea of where the racers are.

By 4 p.m., McArthur and Griffiths have logged 206 incidents from accidents to rule violations to health concerns and there’s still plenty of race to go. Roughly 15 miles away, Jackson’s Amateur Radio Club President Mick Dettmer is getting ready to take another scouting lap in his green Astro van from South Park to Hoback.

“I’m just making sure everything is OK,” Dettmer says. He stopped to help a guy with a muscle cramp recently. If he’s behind a pack of riders in a hairy spot, like just north of Hoback Junction where the road is narrowed by construction, he’ll turn on his hazards and tail them for a while. He’s not supposed to, he says, but he does it anyway — better his van get rear-ended than a cyclist.

Mick Dettmer stops to assist a cyclist with a flat tire, but he’s already well taken care of. Photo: Buckrail

The drive to Hoback is incident-free, but Dettmer recalls 2012’s fatal accident — the race’s first fatality. A cyclist hit a pothole going over the Snake River Bridge north of Hoback and flipped over the guard rail. Another racer would die from brain injuries that same year, 21 days after the race.

On the drive back to South Park, Dettmer pulls over to check on a cyclist with a flat. Another volunteer is already on-scene, and in no time, racer 1611 is back on the road.

Dettmer has done this drive countless times already, and he’ll do it countless more before the day is over. Back at Net Control, McArthur and Griffiths have started to dismiss volunteers for the day. The messages come through Dettmer’s radio. But the later hours are the most critical, Dettmer says. People have been riding for close to 10 hours, and are exhausted. Accidents become even more likely.

This year is a good one. The injuries, accidents, and incidents were all relatively minor. Next year, the team will do it all again. Not for a love of cycling, or even of civic duty, though it’s safe to say a sense of duty courses through each of them. Their motives are primarily practical: “It’s good practice for emergency communications,” Griffiths says at lunch.

But their motives are a bit romantic, too. These guys are hobbyists, after all, and radios are their craft. Griffith’s reflection of why he volunteers each year is perhaps the most honest:

“I just enjoy working with radios.”

More than 800 cyclists raced 200 miles last weekend. Some rode faster than others. Roger Arnell rode the fastest, followed closely by Gilberto Melendez. See 2019’s race results here.

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