Written by Alex Kay, guest blogger for the live Orange blog
During a typical Tour de France, a team car will cover around 10,000km, driving to and from the stages and then pursuing the peleton as it races across Europe. For the 18th stage of the Tour, and 222km of their journey, I joined directeur sportif, Julien Jurdie, and mechanic Daniel Cianchetti, in Ag2r’s team car. Here’s what I learned that day:
The ‘neutral zone’ is hectic
At the start of each stage there are several kilometres where the peloton will coast along. This ‘neutral zone’ allows the riders to warm up their muscles and sort out any mechanical issues that have arisen overnight. This is a fairly tranquil time for most of the riders and the spectators on TV, but not for those in the bunch of team cars just behind the racers.
It may have been my inexperience, but there was action going on all over the place. The huge crowd that lined the streets of Blagnac created a tunnel of noise and colour as we sped away from the start line.
All of a sudden riders who had dropped off the back of the peloton due to an early problem started to pop out from the mass of vehicles in front of us, looking for their own team’s car. Our car seemed to just avoid taking out the world champion, Mark Cavendish, as he dropped back looking for Team Sky. Two minutes later he reappeared one foot from my window as he charged back up to the peleton.
The same happened with a number of other riders including Chris Horner from Team Radioshack, the 40-year-old even grabbed on to our wing mirror and flung himself forward using the speed of our car. It soon became apparent that both the cyclists and car drivers are quite happy careering along the roads within one foot of each other!
Directeur Sportifs have a unique set of skills
Despite having team mechanic Daniel sitting with me in the back, it was Julien who passed the water bottles or ‘bidons’ out of his window to the cyclists, all while speeding along the road at 60kph.
One of his hands remained on the wheel while the other offered a bottle for the rider to either take or just grab onto while he stabilises himself at the same speed as the car.
The main benefit of this system appeared to be that Julien could pass on instructions about the stage, but it does seem like the mechanic could drive and then Julien could do all this from the passenger seat.
That said, if a rider needs something fixing on the move I’m sure it would be Daniel hanging out of the window fixing a rear mech! What’s more, Julien drives with the skill of a man who has clocked up many thousands of miles racing around the closed roads of Europe.
The team’s Skoda estate car is pushed to the very limit of its performance. Tyres would screech as we powered into and out of every apex, particularly on the narrow winding descents. Then, as soon as the peleton was slowed by the next climb, the brakes would be slammed on and we would come to a sudden halt inches from the car in front.
Team cars rotate in a choreographed pattern
There are two sets of support cars and within each set is one car from each of the teams. The order they take is the same in both sets, being decided by the team classification from the previous year’s race. These two sets, and the cars within them, then rotate to the front of the queue (immediately behind the peleton) when it is their moment to dish out bidons or instructions to their riders, before dropping to the back awaiting their next turn.
Over and above this there is a radio system operated by the Race Director which, apart from giving updates on the state of the race in various languages, will also ask for a particular team car to come forward due to a specifically named rider requiring assistance. The result is organised chaos as cars stream down both sides of the road jostling their way up to the front, not to mention the cyclists, gendarmes and officials’ cars.
There’s no time to be shy when nature calls
One of the day’s more bizarre sights occurred when the team cars started pulling over for ‘pit stops’. Within full sight of the crowd everyone piles out, rushes to the verge and relieves themselves. Many teams stood in strangely neat rows and resembled men at stadium urinals during a football match, except they’re in the middle of a cornfield surrounded by families.
Our own ‘pit stop’ was followed by some driving that Julien’s compatriot Sebastian Loeb would be proud of. As we blasted back up to the peleton France’s top gendarmes, riding their sleek blue motorbikes, happily waved us past. On a bend. At 110kph!
Helicopters can be surprisingly acrobatic
The race was joined after about an hour by a sextet of helicopters. They generally flew in a single file formation to one side of the peleton, apparently offering the lucky passengers the best viewing experience possible.
However, as the afternoon progressed the two choppers with cameras hanging from their cockpits became more and more acrobatic. As the peleton raced through wide fields of sunflowers the pair would swoop down towards the action like a pair of hungry seagulls with their eye on a tourist’s lunch.
France becomes a beautiful blur
As I peered out of my window at the endlessly enthusiastic crowds which line the roads, it became apparent just how picturesque France is. Beautiful villages and towns, which could only be fully appreciated after a good week’s sojourn, were blasted through in a matter of seconds in a blur of flags, families and fetes.
A race to remember
As we neared the finish in Brive the race came alive for team Ag2r. After having no participants in the day’s early breakaways team leader Nicolas Roche made a bid for glory. Prompted by Julien’s remarkably calm transmission of ‘allez, allez, Nico,’ the rider who had told me he was looking forward to a quiet day in the bunch burst away from the peloton with a handful of other elite riders.
Nico led with 5km, 3km, 1km to go and suddenly we were all hunched around the TV mounted in the dashboard (Julien was now driving with his ears!).
Suddenly the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish, appeared from nowhere (much like he did in the neutral zone earlier!), swooping out to Nico’s right with just 500m to go. The world champion rocketed across the finish line with three more sprinters in tow. They took the top four positions and left Nico with a creditable fifth place finish.
Typically cool, Julien got straight on the radio to the valiant Irishman’s earpiece and summarised the stage: ‘bien, Nico, bien.’