The century-old cobbled farm roads of northern France offered a new spin on the Sunday drive.Daniel McMahon/Business Insider
PARIS — Think Tour de France and you think bikes, but what keeps things moving behind the scenes for the teams in the world’s preeminent two-wheeled event are the countless cars, trucks, and buses following the race.
La Grande Boucle — the Great Loop — is often a grueling three-week slog, so the vehicles need to be versatile and reliable and always ready to go, over the bone-jarring cobblestones of Roubaix, up the steepest Pyrenean climbs, and down the superfast, twisty Alpine descents.
The EF Education–Drapac p/b Cannondale team invited Business Insider to check out its fleet at the Tour. Take a look at the vehicles up close and in action:
Checking out the bikes and Tour tech is neat, but it’s also fun to poke around behind the scenes and hop into some of the cars. Above, the lead race car of the EF Education First–Drapac team for the 2018 Tour, the Škoda Superb, which has a 2-liter diesel engine with 180 horsepower — hardly a beast, yet a nimble enough wagon for a grand tour.
This model is a few years old, but the latest version of this car would cost in the neighborhood of £28,500 in the UK (about $37,350 USD).
These EF-Drapac Škodas are basically the same as those sold to the public, but with the Tour cars the suspension is raised after purchase and the cars are rehomologated, or legally recertified. The normal suspension can’t cope with the weight of the coolers, bikes, gear, and racks, I’m told — they’d just bottom out.
The Czech carmaker Škoda is a wholly owned subsidiary of the German Volkswagen Group, and the Superb model is one of the most popular choices for Tour teams. Škoda is also the official car of the Tour, supplying 250 vehicles.
This is one of the team’s two cars that go in the race and follow the riders for the 21 stages and 2,000 or so miles around France.
The Tour vehicles, like the riders, are moving billboards. In addition to the main sponsors, there are a number of smaller ones that get a shout-out.
Another stage, another hotel. With the pink and black, the fleet has an attractive, uniform look. It helps the cars stand out from all the teams in the race convoy.
EF-Drapac has four cars at the Tour — two go in the race and two go off-course. There’s also a small van, the riders’ bus, the bike mechanics’ truck, and a larger cargo van for hauling suitcases and other gear.
And there’s the chef’s van, a Mercedes-Benz, which fills hotel parking lots around France with mouthwatering aromas. The riders have all their meals cooked fresh by Olga Belenko. Her mobile kitchen has gas burners, an oven, a griddle, two refrigerators, an electric oven, sinks, and small appliances.
Belenko, pictured, told me every Tour rider she’s met loves burritos — except the Italians, who prefer paninis.
The team has a sleek Tesla Model S 100D but didn’t use it this Tour.
The most important vehicle is the bus, a sanctuary of sorts wherein the riders enjoy privacy and hold team meetings with the race directors. (When its tank’s empty, the half-million-dollar bus costs nearly a thousand euros to fill up.)
For an hour or so before and after each stage, the athletes get to relax in the air-conditioned coaches, with their covered windows, reclining seats, Spotify playlists, TVs, showers, espresso machine, and refrigerators packed with fresh food and cold drinks. And no matter how sultry it is outside, inside it’s always cool and dark.
But the bus is also a working office, and as in any job there’s a time to get down to business, to talk strategy and how to get results. The 22 Tour teams show up to win, after all, be it individual stages or the race overall. And they do need results — their jobs and sponsorship depend on it.
Then there’s the massive mechanics’ truck, which is filled with the world’s fastest bikes, hundreds of spare wheels, and plenty of tools to fix just about anything. This truck doesn’t ever go to the race but instead goes from hotel to hotel.
Inside the mechanics’ truck is a candy store for cycling enthusiasts, with a couple hundred thousands euros’ worth of carbon-fiber bikes and wheels, hand-sewn tubular tires, computers, and gear galore.
Each of the team’s two race cars carries eight bikes, so during the race, each rider has at least two backup bikes, in case they crash their No. 1 bike or experience some sort of major mechanical setback.
There’s an order in which the bikes are positioned on the roof, which you can see on the back of the front passenger’s seat: a simple diagram shows whose bike goes where. The leader’s bike goes up front, on the right, above the passenger’s seat. It’s important for the mechanics to know whose bike is where so that they can grab the right bike on the fly during the race.
The team had custom racks made, by the Belgian company Fietsrekken Chantal Roof Racks, to the tune of a few thousand euros. There are no fussy dials or straps to deal with; the mechanics just open and close the clamps. In a pinch they can whip a bike off the roof in seconds and get a rider on his way quickly.
Tour organizers give the 22 teams a sticker with a number indicating their position in the convoy. The team with the race leader gets the No. 1 slot, right behind the peloton. On this stage, EF-Drapac had a rider in sixth place. The order can be critical to a team’s success: If your rider gets a flat, the farther you are back in the convoy means the longer he’ll have to wait for you, and the longer he’ll have to chase back into the race.
“We do it instinctively, but it gets a bit more complicated when you’ve got someone in the breakaway or on a mountain stage,” EF-Drapac director Tom Southam told Business Insider, referring to team cars one and two swapping places during the race. “It’s always about making sure you’re as close as possible to the riders.”
Also up on top you’ll find antennas, one for the two-way race radios used to communicate with the riders and one for the TVs showing the race live in the car.
Inside there are lots of features that make this a proper Tour car — and a pleasure to be a guest in during the race.
On the steering wheel the director attaches his Garmin cycling computer so that he can see what the riders in the race see on their handlebars. It’s easier to communicate distances when everyone’s on the same page — and screen.
The directors use two-way radios to communicate with the riders but also with each other, on a separate, private channel
Mini speakers pipe the conversation from the race radios into the car, as well as the official Tour de France race radio (in French and English), which provides updates on what’s happening in the race.
The Superb has six-speed automatic transmission, which makes it easier for the directors to drive as they’re often busy multitasking.
There are lots of screens in the team cars, including one that shows live images of the race just up the road. There’s also a smaller screen with information about day’s stage distance and duration, as well as an iPad.
Most of the conversation between the directors and the riders during the race has to do with the directors telling the riders what’s coming up the road — a dangerous corner, a strong crosswind, a threatening breakaway.
“The key is, there’s only so much riders can do with the information given to them,” Southam said. “A lot of people will get excited and start shouting at them: “Let’s go!” “Come on!” There’s just no point to that because the riders can’t do anything with that. We try to give them something they can actually use.”
As for the directors, they talk about any riders who might be on a bad day, how to deal with a sick rider, and so forth. Sometimes it’s banter to pass the time.
The team director has a door full of energy bars to hand the riders.
Teams are always using hand sanitizer — on the bus, at the hotel, at the dinner table, and in the cars — for fear that a cold could spread and end up putting riders out of the race.
In the passenger door there’s a stash of energy gels for the riders.
The Superb has a lot of space and legroom, though the back seats are often packed with spare wheels, tools, and, of course, a mechanic, who sits behind the passenger’s seat.
The rear doors are packed with ever-handy toe straps, a first-aid kit, and precut stockings, which on hot days are filled with ice. When stuffed into jerseys, the “ice socks” help regulate body temperature and improve performance.
There are lubricants and bunch of musettes, or small satchels, used for handing the riders multiple bottles and energy bars in one go out the window.
It’s not uncommon for the riders drop back to the car to find the mechanic hanging out window ready to fix their bikes.
Sep Vanmarcke got a bottle after being given a musette by Southam. It’s common for directors on all the teams to offer their riders a “sticky bidon,” or bottle, which is basically a little stiff-arm tow. Race organizers are cool with this as long as it’s not abused. But if the bottle becomes a little too sticky, there could be penalties, including disqualification.
The vehicles appear in front of millions of eyeballs, in person and on TV, so the staff keep them spotless, washing them inside and out after each stage.
The bike mechanics are in charge of making sure the cars are in perfect working order. Above, head wrench Geoff Brown runs a tight ship.
Each car has a huge cooler in back packed with bottles. The team goes through a few dozen bottles of water and energy drinks each stage, with that number skyrocketing on the hottest days when they bust out premade ice socks.
The soigneurs — literally “carers” — pack the coolers every morning, marking the bottles to indicate which contain water and which have an energy-drink mix.
There are always a couple of extra helmets, just in case.
The open hatch is handy for when you just need a place to sit.
The race organizers have gotten stricter over the years when it comes to safety on the roads of the Tour de France — after some serious accidents. All “improper behaviour” is subject to warnings and even getting kicked out of the race, according to the official roadbook.
Brown is working his 21st Tour this year. (He used to wrench for Lance Armstrong.) He sits in the back of the second car with his set of tools at the ready. He jumps out to change wheels and give a rider a spare bike if he crashes; he also helps the director by relaying information coming through on the team’s Slack channel.
Southam drives team car two at the Tour. He’s in constant communication with the head director, Charly Wegelius, who’s up the road in team car one. He’s in communication with all the riders on the road via the two-way radios.
Southam’s job entails many things, but mainly he is there to help Wegelius carry out the team’s plan for the day as well as give riders bottles and food and spare bikes and wheels as needed.
Whenever team car No. 1 has to stop, he speeds up and takes its place in the convoy, to be close to the riders in case there’s an emergency. Once the first car rejoins the convoy, Southam will fall back into the order of second cars.
Whenever car one and car two pass each other, there’s usually some banter back and forth or even an exchange of snacks.
The cars take a beating during the Tour and all season long, from January through October. Asked if the staff like driving the Superbs, mechanic James Griffin said with a smile, “Yes, they perform very well and have a hard life.”
One of the paradoxes of being so close to the Tour and following the peloton, say, in the convoy, is you don’t see much of the actual racing, save for rare glances. It’s all happening way up the road. You do see plenty of the riders before and after the stages, but little of them during. You’re left to the screens in the car and the hopefully benevolent gods of connectivity.
Cruising in the convoy has its own rewards. You get to see the riders, many of whom are the best in the sport, dropping back to take care of any number of things, including refueling and getting their bikes fixed. It’s a perspective you don’t see the same way on TV. If there’s a lull in the racing, the riders might hang at your window for a quick word or to crack a joke.
And then there is that rather thrilling moment when you do get up close to the bunch as it rolls along at 40 mph. And, if you’re lucky, some of the riders will break away, or a crosswind will cause a split in the field. Then the heat is on, and you can watch it all unfold, even if you’re straining a bit to see.
Above, the closest I got to seeing the Tour de France peloton from the team car.
Alas, the cars are a means to an end. There’s nothing better than getting out — when you can — and seeing the race up close, just feet from the riders. This was EF rider Lawson Craddock on stage nine, hammering the cobblestones of northern France with the broken scapula he got on stage one, just a couple of hours into the three-week race.
The riders will have pedaled over 2,000 miles when they get off the bike in Paris on Sunday; the directors and staff driving the fleet of cars, trucks, and buses will have covered many more than that. When the race is over and the riders fly home for some R&R, the staff will drive the vehicles to Girona, Spain, where the team keeps all its bikes and gear. They’ll inspect the cars, tune them up, detail them, and get them ready for the next races.
After all, there’s still another three-week race this summer, the Vuelta a España, in addition to several one-day races. It’s a lot of work, going from January in Australia to October in Europe, but as one mechanic told me, “It’s amazing work — you see things you’d never see sitting in an office.”