Riding Shotgun with Shimano Neutral Service

Review: Riding Shotgun with Shimano Neutral Service

This piece originated from RoadCyclingUK and I think it’s one of my favourite pieces of writing to date.


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Out of sight, just out of view of the TV cameras, we sit. We wait. Two pairs of eyes switching between road and rider ahead, anxious to spot any potential issues and jump to deal with them.

We serve many masters; the race commissaires, the police out-riders, Shimano. Most importantly of all, and never out of mind, we serve the rider. The rider is everything.

I’m riding shotgun with one of Shimano Neutral Service support cars at E3 Harelbeke. To my left is Rudie, focussed on the road ahead, the riders, and the motos around him. I’m in the front passenger seat and behind me is Ivan. He looks like he could be my granddad, years of experience, and ready to pounce, to offer his wrench to the rider who needs it.

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The role is simple, we cover the breaks. If they go, we go. The gap has to stick to at least 30 seconds, when it hits that magic point we slot in behind them. At all other times during the race we are rolling ahead, about one kilometre in front. Our focus for the day is on the riders out front. We are not concerned about the peloton, it’s all about the break.

The larger teams who have with a couple of cars out on the road may not need our services if they manage to get a rider in the break. However, during the one day Classics, there is normally just one car from each team following the peloton, while each team’s soigneurs and staff are stationed out on the course, leaving some riders potentially vulnerable to a mechanical on the cobbles or in need or refuelling if assistance is not immediately at hand.

We play the role of glorified bottle carriers. The cars from half a dozen teams involved in the first break of the day load us up with bottles, bars and gels for their nominated riders before they themselves drop back to look after the rest of their team.nice rack

We are waved up by the commissaires to communicate with a rider when he waves a hand. We pass messages back; a radio isn’t working, someone needs a drink. We wait.

Ultimately, however, the role of the Shimano Neutral Service is that of mechanical back-up, but one that teams and riders hope is never needed. The car carries three complete bikes on the roof; unbadged frames with Shimano Dura-Ace groupsets and a bunch of Dura-Ace C50 wheels, with more in the car and in the boot. We also carry a set of Shimano’s RX830 wheels, currently the top-end road disc brake wheelset from the Japanese manufacturer. Looking around the team buses before the race it seems the RX830s will remain unused today as none of the teams appear to be riding disc-equipped bikes.

Rudie is a skilful driver, zipping along the back roads of Belgium with motos surrounding him. On television you never really see the sheer volume of motorbikes involved in a race the size of E3. It seems like every motorcycle rider in Flanders has been pulled in. There are the obvious ones, carrying TV, radio, and photographers, flitting around the head of the race, on roads barely large enough for a single car. Every junction, every piece of road furniture has an outrider on, blowing their whistle and waving their flag. These guys (seemingly all males) perform an admirable job, rolling around the race at breakneck speed. So many of them.

The atmosphere in the car is one of steady tension throughout the race, with the radio informing us of progress and the action as it unfolds behind us. The mood is lightened as we hear about the second break coming together, it carries the likes of Tony Martin, Fabian Cancellara, Michal Kwiatkowski and the world champion, Peter Sagan. This is where the day’s winner will be coming from. The Shimano crew are resolutely professional, but they are cycling fans to the core, and the sound of these names means big things about to happen.glimpse

When the gap hits thirty seconds and stays there we pull over from our position at the very front of the race and wait for the breakaway riders to overtake us. As they approach, the TV helicopter thuds into view, and the press bikes whizz by. The buzz in the car increases with just 70km left and the race entering the business end.

This time around we are jostling with a dozen press motos on the scene. Not just photographers but also the radio and TV, and Rudie is performing precision passes within just a few inches to spare. Ivan is perennially poised to leap from the car, his arm perched on the tool box in the centre console.

Dusty roads
Dusty roads

In the event of an incident needing either medical or mechanical assistance we have just one rule; Rudie stays in the car. Opening the door on the race-side brings with it additional perils so he is firmly glued to his seat. Not being a doctor, and having one in close attendance, means he would be of little use in a serious incident, more likely to be of assistance to the riders still up the road. As a passenger it seems a little strange to me, but it makes sense with its disciplined logic.

As the break continues to move away it appears that there are too many vehicles around so we push on ahead, again measuring the needs of the riders with the demands from the police. It’s very clear that within the race there are a great deal of factors in play to, hopefully, keep things running smoothly.pulling

Our ears prick up as the radio announces the moves which sees two riders jump from the pack. Sagan and Kwiatkowski are going all-in for the win today. This is out time, the tension notches up again inside the car, and Rudie and Ivan will be doing their job on the biggest stage should the requisite gap open up. I am willing the riders forward, to get the gap we need to slot in behind. It would be the two most recent world champions battling it out for the win – we really want that gap up to 30 seconds!

Race radio is a constant noise now, talking in French and English, updating the race convey with the action and response from the group behind. As the lead slowly stretches out we are on the edge of our seats. Then we get the call. Pull over. Stay. Wait.

Any journalistic integrity I had gets thrown straight out of the window as Sagan and Kwiatkowski arrive on the scene. As I tweet about the race from inside the car a follower points out that the car is in shot, we really are that close to the action.motos

As we slot in behind the two riders, Ivan moves a hand to a wheel in case it’s needed, and the next 40 minutes become a masterclass in watching riders bury themselves in tandem with each other.

Both riders have very different styles, with Kwiatkowski elegant on the pedals, while Sagan is all over the saddle, up and down frequently, forcing the bike to his will. It’s a fascinating competition between them, workmanlike and in partnership, while also putting the hammer down on each other. The perspective is unlike anything from the standard camera shots on TV and you can feel the effort required from the pair.IMG_5320

With the gap dropping as the peloton chases we are conscious that our time in the race is running out. At the three kilometre mark the gap is just 15 seconds and we are out of there, overtaking with caution then hammering it to the finish line ahead of the riders. I get out of the car with just enough time to get to the barriers seconds before Kwiatkowski flies past, Sagan just moments behind him, very much deflated.IMG_5322

The top five riders are all using Shimano today. With no punctures or mechanicals to deal with it’s been relatively quiet for us, but what a day it has been. Two breaks, two world champions and the rainbow stripes at close quarters, under sunshine in Flanders.

Big thanks to Rudie and Ivan for looking after me during the race, and to Shimano for the invite. You can check out more photos and videos from inside the race on my Instagram or on Twitter.

Footnote

The tragic events that followed at Gent-Wevelgem, with the tragic death of Antoine Demoitie, cast a long shadow over our sport. It’s clear that the presence of so many vehicles around the riders is a source of explicit danger to the riders. Mixing vehicles and cyclists at high speeds in such close proximity can exacerbate the inherent dangers of racing. It’s also clear that many of the vehicles are needed, either for rider safety in stopping traffic or highlighting road furniture, or for ensuring fair play in the race. Without the press in attendance the racing is done in a vacuum and will ultimately wither without the spotlight on it, as, of course, it ultimately would do if it was deemed to unsafe to continue. Race organisers have to balance many needs but the sport needs to do all it can to avoid an incident like that which occurred at Gent-Wevelgem.

Speaking with Rudie at E3, it became evident very early on just how important the safety of the riders was to him. He was always on the lookout for signs of physical problems with the riders and when it came to overtaking he did so with extreme caution. Like many drivers in the convey, and I include the majority of director sportifs in this, he is an ex-racer and has seen at first hand the dangers that vehicles pose. This experience clearly guides him as he drives.

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