Wheel swaps, car ballet & power naps

The bright yellow of Mavic neutral support motos and cars is a familiar sight at races the world...

Tales from the peloton, April 27, 2005

Riding with Mavic neutral support's yellow brigade

The bright yellow of Mavic neutral support motos and cars is a familiar sight at races the world over and Georgia was no exception. Eddie Monnier hopped aboard Mavic car #2 to witness the world's fastest wheel-changers and power-nappers in action.

Almost every professional road racer has at some time had cause to be grateful for the skills of the mechanics and drivers that staff Mavic's worldwide neutral tech support service. At Georgia, the Mavic team numbered 16, staffing three cars and two motorcycles plus the ancillary services required to support America's premier stage race.

Aboard Mavic 2 on the final stage of the Dodge Tour de Georgia were driver Jennifer Holland and Mike Berlinger, a Mavic USA marketing man turned weekend neutral support mechanic, plus your humble scribe.

Thanks in part to the generally excellent roads, well-executed road clean up by race operations and relative lack of crashes, the Mavic team had enjoyed a relatively quite week. In fact, in the prior five stages there had only been about 15 wheel changes total, including those administered by team cars. Whether calm or chaotic, any one wheel change can make or break a rider's race. On this final stage, only eight seconds separated first and third place on GC. If either of them needed help, that's a lot of responsibility for the Mavic team to shoulder.

Take, for example, the under-23 jersey holder Trent Lowe's flat on the descent of Hogpen Gap, the penultimate climb before the infamous Brasstown Bald climb during stage 5. One of the Mavic motorcycles was following the elite group of 15 riders that remained at the front of the shattered field. Lowe credited the Mavic team with an excellent wheel change that allowed him to bridge back to the group in advance of the race deciding hors categorie Brasstown Bald. A poorly executed wheel change could have cost the young Australian his best young rider jersey. While the team clearly has fun, evident by the many humorous exchanges over their radios, they were absolutely on top of their game.

By direction of the chief commassaire, neutral support for the breaks was to be handled Euro style. This required Mavic to put two cars at the front of the race, Mavic 2 and Mavic 3. Our job in Mavic 2 was to support any break with at least 30 seconds advantage. Once the break reached two minutes, we would hand off support responsibility to Mavic 3 and drop back to our position just in front of the peloton. With no time bonuses on the intermediate sprints or stage finish, the day lacked excitement as team Discovery Channel simply rode tempo at the front all day. During the slow times the mechanic may opt for a bit of shut eye. This isn't the sort of sleep where one drools on oneself and wakes up groggy. These guys and gals can wake up in a flash, jump out of the car and execute a perfect wheel change on auto-pilot. And the best can even turn off the adrenalin when they're back in the car and almost instantly return to power nap mode. What do you expect from professionals that are part of adidas-Salomon, one of the largest sports-equipment copmpanies in the world?

Finally at about kilometer 105, Andrea Tafi (Saunier Duval - Prodir) had enough of the parading and chose how he earned his nickname 'The Gladiator'. When motor Danny Pate (Jelly Belly - Pool Gel) bridged to Tafi, we knew we'd finally get to drop in behind a break. A short while later, Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner) bridged with Dominique Parras (Kodak EasyShare Gallery / Sierra Nevada) in tow. Tafi was sporting one of the special Paris-Roubaix print jerseys he wore during his final ride in that event earlier in the month. [He donated this jersey which is being auctioned to benefit the Georgia Cancer Coalition. We will post information about the auction as soon as it is available.]

We kept a close tab on the foursome's advantage. Once they established a lead of 30 seconds, we looked for a safe spot to pull to the side of the road to allow them by so we could drop in behind the following commissaire's vehicle. The foursome worked well together and 15 kilometers later enjoyed a lead of 2:15 over the content peloton. Having cleared the two minute mark, it was time to hand off support to Mavic 3. The position exchange was orchestrated over the radio and executed as soon as safety allowed. We then dropped back to our position just in front of the rather sleepy peloton.

At the major races, the Mavic team will walk the pit so they know which teams are on which equipment. If they don't know what equipment a rider is using, they will "jump" (Mavic lingo for getting off the motorcycle or out of the car to execute a wheel or bike change) with three wheels: a front wheel, a Campy rear wheel and a Shimano rear wheel. Because all of the teams at Tour de Georgia were on either Shimano 10 speed or Campy 10 speed, they used Mavic 10 speed rears since they work on either set up, thus allowing the mechanics to "jump" with just a front and a rear. The mechanic tries to see which wheel needs changing as they run toward the bike. Additionally, the Mavic team will make sure they have a neutral bike sized for the leader of the race on the appropriate vehicle for the day.

Although professional riders know full well what to do when they flat, many amateurs lack experience and actually hinder a speedy wheel change. Berlinger suggests, "Get safely stopped and then unclip from your pedals. Relax, take a deep breath and have a drink from your water bottle. Let us get the wheel changed and get you back underway." Sometimes teams prefer to handle their own wheel changes. On this day, we heard from the Mavic moto about one domestic team that poorly executed several wheel changes, each time taking so long that their rider was outside the caravan before they were underway again. That makes it much harder on the rider than if they can surf through the caravan vehicles. Berlinger also recommends that every rider know his or her saddle height so that when neutral support bikes are available, they can set the saddle height correctly.

By the time we approached the closing circuits, the gap had dropped back down to our assigned window, so the Mavic teams orchestrated another exchange and our vehicle resumed responsibility for supporting the break. Forget about any stereotypes about women drivers. Holland piloted the screaming yellow Mitsubishi wagon through the tight turns with complete authority and confidence. But it's not just the course that must be negotiated skillfully. The driver also has to contend with riders who sometimes make erratic moves caused by oxygen deprivation; officiating motorcycles ridden by drivers of varying skill levels; and over eager fans who try to get as close as possible to their idols. Mishandling a turn could result in serious harm.

The huge crowds that surrounded the closing circuit cheered loudly for the four riders. Competing in the final race of his successful career, Tafi was clearly the sentimental favorite. As the peloton narrowed the gap, the break could see their pursuers when they rounded the 180-degree turn with just over two laps remaining. Tafi sat up momentarily and gave the peloton a final gesture of defiance, which set off a roar of laughter in our vehicle. The break clung desperately to its 30-second advantage but the catch was inevitable as Health Net and Team L.P.R. led the chase.

With the catch completed, we increased our lead over the peloton to allow plenty of room for last minute attacks. Tafi gave it another go. Sadly, it was short-lived. Floyd Landis helped drive the Health Net train, returning the favor for cooperation earlier in the week when Health Net's and Phonak's interests were aligned. We were out of sight for the sprint but heard over race radio that Gord Fraser grabbed the win.

And so ended the relatively quite day with the Yellow Brigade.

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