The race cavalcade consists of the team cars, press, sponsors, VIPs, race organization, commissaires, directors, police, and the neutral support. In the Tour de France, you’re looking at a traffic jam of hundreds of cars. The media contingent alone is around 2,500 journalists, some 250 photographers, and more than 50 TV crews. Add in the publicity caravan of around 200 vehicles and logistics crews, technical support, team cars, and trucks, and the carbon footprint of your average World Tour bike race would probably raise more than an eyebrow or two at a climate change conference.
The queue of cars at the start line is a formidable sight. The vehicles are crammed with technology — radios, fridges, televisions, and special sunroofs over the rear seats through which passengers can shout. The yellow Mavic cars take second place in the line, just behind the red car of race director Christian Prudhomme. The director and race commissaires have hotlines to all the team cars and the Mavic cars, enabling them to call team vehicles forward to assist a rider. Usually a rider raises a hand or drops back to the commissaire’s car to ask for permission to take assistance from the team vehicle, whether that assistance is taking on bidons and food or dropping off a rain jacket.
Stopping the team car or accelerating through the bunch requires experience, skill, and judgment in equal measure. It also has to be a singularly decisive process: barking orders to another driver would never work. This may be the main reason team directeurs take the wheel themselves.
Most race convoy drivers are ex-racers, and, when you experience the driving up close, it’s easy to see why. Immediate reaction time is necessary to be in control of the situation and react exactly at the moment you are called.
I have sat alongside such drivers when providing mechanical support on cycle races held on circuits and been suitably terrified, but the skills needed in the travelling support rally that follows a Grand Tour are something rather special. I say “rally” with qualified reason: the average driver in the peloton has to be navigator, timing expert, and driver rolled into one. Meals have to be taken at the wheel, conversations completed with one eye on the road. It’s a mass of multi-tasking, all carried out at exhausting speed. The neutral support team does all this, and its members have to be mechanics, too. When you experience the driving up close, it’s easy to see why.
The rules of the road are left at the start line, and the police wave you on to speeds unheard of in built-up areas. It’s pretty remarkable that there aren’t more accidents. Sometimes it’s a miracle that everyone gets home in one piece — near misses are inevitable.
It’s incredible how the support cars manage to get to the finish in one piece, too. These vehicles take pretty much the worst abuse you can give a car, plodding up hills with the clutch frying and then screaming down the other side with the brakes glowing red in the switchbacks. And, like the riders, they have to go through it day after day.
Bike Mechanic is an all-access pass to cycling’s back stage: the team truck, the service course, and the workshop. Through gritty photographs and striking interviews, Bike Mechanic explores the daily lives of the bicycle technicians who keep the pro peloton rolling, no matter the weather, no matter the hour. Bike Mechanic gets you inside the action that most never see, while providing bike tuning tips and time-tested procedures that will make you a better wrench. Buy Bike Mechanic from your local bike shop or bookstore or online from the publisher VeloPress.