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In the car with Shimano Neutral Service

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The Shimano Neutral Service team for the 2016 Tour Down Under. Three Aussies and five from Belgium (Tom Class, motorbike rider not pictured)

The Shimano Neutral Service team for the 2016 Tour Down Under. Three Aussies and five from Belgium (Tom Class, motorbike rider not pictured)
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Stage over. Refill and prepare to do it all again the next day

Stage over. Refill and prepare to do it all again the next day
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Feeling the heat of the day, Belgium's Tom Class (driving) and Patrick Dils provide support from the bike. Class is a motorbike police officer back home, while Dils is a wiper blade consultant at Bosch

Feeling the heat of the day, Belgium's Tom Class (driving) and Patrick Dils provide support from the bike. Class is a motorbike police officer back home, while Dils is a wiper blade consultant at Bosch
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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And we're away. Neutral Service car two drives up ahead

And we're away. Neutral Service car two drives up ahead
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Our car was following the break of Sean Lake (UniSA-Australia), Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Martijn Keizer (LottoNL-Jumbo) on Stage One. Here they are early on, receiving a time update

Our car was following the break of Sean Lake (UniSA-Australia), Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Martijn Keizer (LottoNL-Jumbo) on Stage One. Here they are early on, receiving a time update
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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The guys in Neutral Service get the best seat in the house for watching the race, but they're forever focused on the job at hand

The guys in Neutral Service get the best seat in the house for watching the race, but they're forever focused on the job at hand
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Stage one wasn't the most scenic stage of the race, but there were still a few sights to keep it interesting

Stage one wasn't the most scenic stage of the race, but there were still a few sights to keep it interesting
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Time for a drink, riders from the break keep riding while our car was given permission to move up alongside them

Time for a drink, riders from the break keep riding while our car was given permission to move up alongside them
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Marty Millwood digging in the 'Esky' cold box seeking water for the riders

Marty Millwood digging in the 'Esky' cold box seeking water for the riders
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Letting Tom Class (driving) and Patrick Dils know that our car was out of water for the riders. They quickly got on the gas and went up the road to grab some off the car ahead

Letting Tom Class (driving) and Patrick Dils know that our car was out of water for the riders. They quickly got on the gas and went up the road to grab some off the car ahead
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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More bottles being handed out

More bottles being handed out
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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The break working together as they go through for another lap

The break working together as they go through for another lap
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Yep, not an easy day for those on bikes

Yep, not an easy day for those on bikes
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Plenty of Australian flags were waving in the hot winds

Plenty of Australian flags were waving in the hot winds
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Some bikes have quick release seat post clamps, others need a hex wrench

Some bikes have quick release seat post clamps, others need a hex wrench
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Having spoken to UCI, the drivers do some final planning minutes before the start gun

Having spoken to UCI, the drivers do some final planning minutes before the start gun
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Although Shimano runs it, they must provide neutral service and that means catering for other pedal systems too

Although Shimano runs it, they must provide neutral service and that means catering for other pedal systems too
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Prior to the race start, UCI come by to confirm the race rules and local laws with Neutral Service. Such things are wheel changes on the left side of the road only

Prior to the race start, UCI come by to confirm the race rules and local laws with Neutral Service. Such things are wheel changes on the left side of the road only
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Each morning, the bicycles and wheels are checked, the cars and bike are then loaded

Each morning, the bicycles and wheels are checked, the cars and bike are then loaded
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Subaru sponsor the Santos Tour Down Under, and so all convoy vehicles are from the Japanese company

Subaru sponsor the Santos Tour Down Under, and so all convoy vehicles are from the Japanese company
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Shimano Australia sources the bikes for TDU Neutral Service, these are Avanti Corsa's with Dura-Ace 11-speed

Shimano Australia sources the bikes for TDU Neutral Service, these are Avanti Corsa's with Dura-Ace 11-speed
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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One car fully loaded with drinks, food and wheels

One car fully loaded with drinks, food and wheels
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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A look at some of the Neutral Service rides. (The Ridley is just being transported to the race start)

A look at some of the Neutral Service rides. (The Ridley is just being transported to the race start)
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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These racks aren't quite as good as what they use in Europe. Toe straps are used to ensure bikes stay on during high speed cornering

These racks aren't quite as good as what they use in Europe. Toe straps are used to ensure bikes stay on during high speed cornering
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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The Neutral Service cars are badged up for the race, number plates like these ensure you have open access to otherwise closed roads

The Neutral Service cars are badged up for the race, number plates like these ensure you have open access to otherwise closed roads
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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There's already a stack inside the car, but more spare wheels are loaded up amongst the bikes

There's already a stack inside the car, but more spare wheels are loaded up amongst the bikes
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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With all the spares, it's a cozy fit for the mechanic in the rear of the car. Certainly no space to stretch your legs during the day

With all the spares, it's a cozy fit for the mechanic in the rear of the car. Certainly no space to stretch your legs during the day
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Plenty of planning for the stage takes place before getting behind the wheel. Such as knowing where the key points sections are and making assumptions for where breaks will happen

Plenty of planning for the stage takes place before getting behind the wheel. Such as knowing where the key points sections are and making assumptions for where breaks will happen
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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More discussions about what the plans are and the local rules

More discussions about what the plans are and the local rules
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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The motorbike is loaded with spare wheels, although they too need to drop back to the car for water

The motorbike is loaded with spare wheels, although they too need to drop back to the car for water
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)
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Sydney-based Marty Millwood has been doing Neutral Service for many years now

Sydney-based Marty Millwood has been doing Neutral Service for many years now
(Image credit: David Rome / Immediate Media)

When it comes to professional road racing, riders rely on their team cars to supply them with race tactics, hydration and mechanical support. However, sometimes things don't go to plan, or perhaps there's a split in the peloton and riders can be left stranded. Saving the day, Neutral Service is there to step in and provide support to any rider who needs it.

Shimano looks after the Neutral Service for most WorldTour-level UCI events, with the exception of those run by ASO (the small matter of the Tour de France, for instance) and RCS Sport (Giro d'Italia). With this, a team of drivers, motorbike riders and mechanics are there – dressed in blue – to follow the race.

While on duty at the Tour Down Under, I managed to hitch a ride in one of the three Shimano Neutral Service cars for the first stage. It was a sweltering hot day with high winds, during which a small breakaway of Sean Lake (UniSA-Australia), Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Martijn Keizer (LottoNL-Jumbo) was left dangling out the front without the support of their team cars, which were behind the peloton. (In the end, the peloton came together in the final kilometres with Caleb Ewan winning the sprint.)

For the Tour Down Under, the Neutral Service team is made up of eight staff, four mechanics and four drivers, two of whom are on a motorbike while the other six get to enjoy the comfort of air-conditioned cars.

During the Australian race, each team has just one car in the convoy. So if there's a break or split, then there's a good chance Neutral Service will need to provide assistance. The race commissaires will call upon the Neutral Service motorbike if a breakaway gets a gap of 15 seconds. One of the three cars will be called upon if that gap opens to 30 seconds or beyond (as was the case during my time with them during Stage One). Another Neutral Service car waits up front in case a secondary split forms, while the final vehicle is placed behind the peloton.

The personalities

The majority of the Neutral Service drivers and motorbike riders are friends from Belgium (the remainder being Aussies), and all have deep roots in cycling. They also all have full-time work away from cycling, but are drawn to the Neutral Service work out of passion for the sport.

For these guys, being part of the race operation in Australia is a chance to get away from work and do something they love with their time off.

Here for the race from Belgium, Tom Claes (driving) and Patrick Dils were on the motorbike

Steering the Neutral Service motorbike was Tom Claes from just outside of Brussels, Belgium. He told us that racing is in his blood, with his father (George Claes) a winner of Paris-Roubaix in 46 and 47, and his father a former pro too. Although he joked that he failed at keeping the legacy going, he still gets paid to ride two wheels as a motorbike police officer back home.

Our driver for the day was Koen Vermeire, who works in the automotive electronic components industry. He's experienced behind the Neutral Service wheel, and grew up racing bikes himself.

It's a common story among the Neutral Service staff, where the mechanics have a wealth of experience in the role. Marty Millwood, who was in the car with me for the day, also grew up racing bikes, with a deep heritage in Australian cycling.

Millwood waiting for the racing to begin

Millwood spent the day rustling in the boot grabbing sealed water bottles and emptying them into bidons to keep the breakaway riders hydrated. It's not always just water handed out; for example, Keizer (LottoNL-Jumbo) seemed to be under the weather that day and asked for something other than water. His requests were met with a chilled electrolyte drink.

At one point, the riders had burned through the supply of bidons and a quick bit of communication with Claes on the motorbike saw them scoot up the road to grab from the second neutral service car. Within a couple of minutes, the motorbike was back, with bottles being handed out like a domestique rider would to their team.

The gear

The bikes are stopgap – if riders can, they'll get back on their own equipment as soon as possible

While this varies from country to country, the Shimano Neutral Service setup at Tour Down Under offers Avanti Corsa carbon bikes with Shimano 11-speed Dura-Ace components. Despite the fact that riders use tubulars, the neutral service wheels are always clincher-type, with a variety of C50 and C24 wheels seen.

These wheels are shod with puncture-resistant Maxxis Detonator tyres. They're not exactly race rubber, but something that should ensure the rider can continue on without issue.

Although it's run by Shimano, Neutral Service means catering for all pedal types used

The Avanti bikes on the roof feature a mix of the three pedal systems used in the peloton – Shimano, Speedplay and Look. The mechanics have a detailed list of which team is on what, and know which bike to grab in an emergency. Some of the bikes feature quick release seat clamps, while the more aero models would need a quick adjustment with a hex key.

In reality, there's no rider in the peloton that wants to be given a Neutral Service bike. It's a last resort. It's not because these bikes are bad, but rather the riders are so accustomed to their individual setups that a Neutral Service bike is never going to be a bike that they'll be truly comfortable riding, let alone jump on and win a stage with.

The riders are however far happier to take a spare wheel from the Neutral Service mechanics. Such a task is made easier by the fact that all WorldTour teams are on 11-speed drivetrains, allowing for easy compatibility between Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano-specced outfits.

Of course, all the industry talk of disc brakes is sure to throw a few spanners in the works. Neutral Service did have a few disc wheels packed for the races, but in the end, left them out of the cars as not a single rider was riding on the new braking systems at the Tour Down Under. The mechanics are wary of the new system, citing that compatibility between brands and speed of wheel changes is sure to cause issues.

If you're watching the race on TV, it's unlikely you'll ever see the blue Shimano Neutral Service vehicles. The mechanics' job is a rather thankless one, but it's certainly something the staff involved love to do.

Click through the gallery above to see the action from Stage One.