Neutral Observer: Riding Shotgun With Shimano Neutral Race Service
The bustle of the start village fills the little market square of Zottegem. The usual array of World Tour and Pro-Continental team buses line the main shopping street of the modest Flandrian town. Crowds flock around them, spotting heroes who obligingly pose for pictures with babies inbetween greeting friends from rival teams ahead of the 2nd stage of the 3 Daagse De Panne-Koksijde, the traditional leg stretching bridge between Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. I'm sat in a cafe overlooking the square with Ben Hillsdon, PR Officer for Shimano Europe. He's booked me a front row seat riding shotgun in the Shimano neutral service car for the race's 200km plus dash to the coast.
Shimano will service the race with three cars, each with a specific role and place within the race convoy. Each car is crewed by two: A driver and a mechanic, the guy who jumps out to make those - hopefully - lightening quick wheel changes. The back seats of the cars are packed with Shimano C50's shod with Vittoria Open Corsa tyres, the roof rack, along with a couple of complete spare bikes, similarly so; a nice touch is the traditional 'Alfredo Binda' leather toe-straps fastening the wheels along the bottom edge to keep them from rotating. There are both rim brake versions of the C50s and the controversial disc-brake editions, necessary as the race is taking place before the recent UCI ruling that banished them from the peloton. Disc brakes are already a point of contention with the mechanics due to the fiddly nature of the wheel change and the fact that there is no standard sizing for the discs amongst the teams employing them. The debate is sure to continue for some time yet…
Ben suggests I ride in Car No.2, the car that will slip in behind the day's break once the race gets going. I'm on the verge of agreeing with him, both of us listening to our inner fan-boy and relishing the thought of riding along with the escapees, before having my mind changed by Guido, one of the Shimano neutral service old hands.
"Sure, being behind the break is nice, but today will come back together for a sprint. Also, each team has two cars in the race so one of them will always be with their guy in the break - this means there will be nothing for us to do all day... You should ride in Car No.3, behind the main bunch. These guys will see all the action, especially when we get to the cobbled climb of the Kemmelberg. It's so narrow that the whole rest of the convoy will be diverted around it apart from the Race Director and you. You’ll be right amongst it, the only support car for the whole race until the convoy can re-join quite a way later!"
I take up my seat in Car No.3 and meet my colleagues for the day, two amiable chaps named Geert and Paul. The first thing I learn is that this gig is neither of their full-time jobs: It's their love for cycling that draws them back each year. Geert is an engineer with a power company and Paul administers HGV regulations at the local weighbridge. Both use up precious annual leave from their 'day-jobs' to man the neutral service cars throughout the Flandrian races and have been doing so for at least fifteen years each - in Paul's case after a lengthy career as a pro with Lotto and CSC to name but a couple. Paul raced during earthier days in the peloton and finds the attention and luxury lavished on the young pros these days a tad bemusing; "I remember having to get changed next to the bloody rabbit's house in a back yard – just a bucket of cold water to rinse myself down with. This is how I was rewarded, stuck out with the rabbits after just missing out on winning the race that would qualify me for the World Champs with the National squad, not some piddling Kermesse!"
The car’s fitted race radio comes alive with instructions as the Race Director forms the convoy up ready for the off. We roll out and tag onto the back of the swiftly accelerating team cars and out onto the open road to the coast.
The first couple of hours are fairly relaxed. We head out along the N8 through towns and villages lined with people cheering the race on, standing at the roadside or on their doorsteps. It strikes me straightaway how much you see from the race convoy; it’s easy to miss your favourites in the blur when watching from the roadside as a race flies by. Not so from the other side of the pavement. The fans lining the road standout as individuals - especially those fans with real character, the ones who colour the race-day photos that bring the atmosphere to cycling websites and magazines. Paul is constantly waving and saying ‘Hello’ to friends as we pass by; this is a race through the local community and the ties to cycling are strong within it. We pull up at the roadside and Paul greets one of the many wielerschools, the ubiquitous junior cycling clubs that turn out the great Flemish champions. We spend a minute or so chatting to the wide-eyed youngsters and their coach. As we pull off to regain our place in the convoy Paul explains that this particular wielerschool is one he helps out with in his spare time, a clear sense of pride and enjoyment in his voice.
There is constant conversation within the convoy as team cars and motos pull up alongside us for a natter, animated hand gestures out of the windows of team-cars between Directeurs Sportif.
The sense of community within the race itself is, if anything, even stronger. There is constant conversation within the convoy as team cars and motos pull up alongside us for a natter, animated hand gestures out of the windows of team-cars between Directeurs Sportif hint at the politics, debate and wheeler-dealering that are the lifeblood of any working environment. We cheer and jeer as we pass the Tinkoff staffers as they try to take an inconspicuous natural break in a hedgerow decked out in their neon turquoise & yellow puffa jackets. In fact, you would not believe the amount of peeing that goes on in general at the rear of a race and the subsequent drafting of cars to get back on! (being as I'd been limiting my fluid intake since getting out of bed that morning, due to a niggling concern about the such logistical issues in a speeding race convoy vehicle, this is a relief in every aspect of the word).
I chat to Paul and Geert and ask about the job. “The majority of the guys out there are polite and appreciate what we do, they thank us and we like to help them out. But some - maybe not even the big names who you might expect – are a not so polite: Cursing us to work faster and banging on the bars…” says Paul. “It’s ok. We have a little trick for those types!” sniggers Geert from the back seat “They may find that their bike needs to be pulled up a little higher and a little harder than the polite ones’ in order to get the wheel in – and those saddles can be quite painful when they hit home!! Geert makes a wincing face as he mimics jerking the saddle of the bike sharply up between the straddling rider’s legs and… well, you get the picture!
The race laces a colourful ribbon through the lowlands of Flanders, snaking through the farmland in such a manner that we often see the break up the road heading in the opposite direction to ourselves under the hovering race helicopter some 3 or 4km away across the fields. We pass through the feedzone and leave the main road network, taking to the single-width farm tracks which head towards the Kemmelberg, the crucial pinch point, on the horizon. Suddenly the whole convoy comes to a halt as a crash in the bunch blocks the narrow farm track. The atmosphere sharpens in the car; we are losing ground on the charging pack at a critical point.
After what seems an eternity we manage to squeeze past the halted team cars and riders, re-orientating themselves and their bent bicycles, and speed off in pursuit at breakneck pace along the tiny trails, Paul constantly honking the horn as the wheels beg for grip from the grass verges we dip onto as we slew through corners. Ahead of us riders are taking tows off their team cars over the broken surface to regain contact with the race. It's incredible stuff: The bruised racers are hanging onto the cars’ doorframes at ridiculous angles on the very edge of disaster as the drivers send their cars bounding over rutted farm tracks usually reserved for vehicles of a more agriculture nature. Paul notices me watching the terrifying antics and draws my attention to the speedometer: We're touching 80km/h over gravel and mud strewn broken road slabs!
The bruised racers are hanging onto the cars’ doorframes at ridiculous angles on the very edge of disaster as the drivers send their cars bounding over rutted farm tracks.
We make contact with the back of the race in time for the Kemmelberg deviation. The entire race convoy is filtered off to the left by the race officials leaving only the Race Director, us and the medic’s bike with the riders as they crunch through their gears as the severe, tree covered cobbled climb starts to bite. The peloton shatters on the ascent and even more so on the treacherous descent with its iconic, fearsomely tight right-hander exit from the hilltop’s coppice.
It’s race on. The relative indolence of the previous two hours has evaporated and been replaced by the desperation of a severely fragmented peloton that is about to hit crosswinds sweeping in from the coast on pan-flat, narrow, twisting lanes. Ad hoc alliances are forming everywhere; an isolated Pippo Pozzato flashes past my window, flat out to regain the disappearing wheels on an incline before a speed-bumped descent into a small village. This is more like it! The almost serene looking stage I watched on the TV highlights a couple of days later bears no resemblance to the dog-fight that is now unfolding around me at the back of the race.
A hand goes up in the main pack, a Topsport Vlaanderen rider, Amaury Capiot, has flatted – YES! I wouldn’t wish misfortune on anyone, but this is what I came for! The car comes alive, Geert and Paul shout out simultaneously. We’re on! Paul is back onto the horn, hits the gas and is behind the slowing rider within seconds; Geert has a spare front wheel in his hand and the door open as we screech to a halt at the roadside, half out of the car before we’ve even stopped. Geert sprints to the rider: The change takes seconds. Geert discards Capiot’s useless wheel and deftly slips the replacement in, tensioning the quick-release as the rider holds the bike calmly up.
Wheel fitted, Geert slaps a hand on the riders back and starts pushing him back into the fray, running as fast as he can to get the rider moving, giving a final flailing shove as Capiot clips back in and engages the drivetrain. Geert sprints back to the car, remembering to collect the discarded wheel, and we’re off in pursuit once more. We pass Capiot who hops onto the wheels of a group of four riders, headed by Ian Stannard, who are now tucked in inches from the rear windscreen of our car. We pull away from the group now that our guy has allies to work with and re-join the back of the main pack behind the Race Director’s car. Job done. All that is left to do from the action is for Geert to label the wheel with the rider’s race number with a sticky note so it can be re-united with its owner at the end of the day…
Wheel fitted, Geert slaps a hand on the riders back and starts pushing him back into the fray, running as fast as he can to get the rider moving.
The team cars have now re-joined the convoy and the whole circus ploughs on through the flatlands. A continual cycle of splits and crashes sees a steady stream of riders in ripped kit grimacing through the sort of all-or-nothing effort through the cars that is normally only seen on TV screens at the glorious end of proceedings. Race radio crackles with constant warnings to Directeurs Sportif with gaggles of their own riders in tow behind their team cars - one particularly insistent offender receives a final, exasperated warning: "How many times do we have to talk about this?! Maybe we should talk about you pulling over right now as I kick you out of the race?!"
We hit Koksijde and its familiar landmarks: The seafront tramlines and a restaurant, so beloved of Carlton Kirby, built in the shape of a ship. The crowds are six deep along the roadside to watch the race wind itself up into a crescendo over multiple criterium-like laps. A group of children with homemade cardboard and marker-pen signs asking for unwanted bidons wave and shout to all of the team cars and riders as they stream by and leave with a sizeable horde at the end of the day. The ONE Pro car we have been tailing pulls over and hands a musette of goodies to a couple who have been waving a Union Jack at the roadside for all they are worth - a nice touch: I told you that roadside support doesn't go un-noticed!
We listen in on race radio from our position amongst the stragglers and those who've already spent their legs for the day in the service of the sprinters; Elia Viviani takes the win in a frantic bunch sprint. But, as the results are relayed through the speaker, it is 4th place on the day against the World Tour heavyweights of the sprint world that puts the biggest smile on my face: Amaury Capiot! The rider we had been there for during our time as lone race support vehicle! Knowing our help meant that he was able to be there and scrap for victory at the finale is a strangely satisfying feeling: I guess that can be chalked up as good day in the office for Paul and Geert as they slip quietly away from the ensuing media scrimmage and podium celebrations.