The role of neutral service
The role of the neutral service team is to provide support to any of the riders in the race, regardless of their team or position on in the race. While a rider’s first port of call in the case of a puncture or other mishap is their team car, there are times when the team car simply can’t get to a rider in time.
At the Tour Down Under each team is only allowed one car in the race convoy. And if they happen to have a rider in a breakaway they might well send their car up to that breakaway to support their rider (the necessary time gap is at the chief commissaire’s discretion bit is normally a minute or so).
And if the team car is up the road, it’s left to neutral service to look out for the riders on that particular team.
Like every car in the race convoy the neutral service vehicles are at the command of the chief commissaire. Each vehicle in the convoy has a default position but if the chief commissaire calls them forward or asks them to stay back, that’s what they must do.
The team and gear
The Shimano neutral service team at this year’s Tour Down Under consisted of eight staff spread across four vehicles: three cars (Skoda Superb TDI 4x4s) and a motorbike. The first two cars and the moto were positioned near the head of the race, ready to respond to breakaways, splits in the field and, most importantly, instructions from the chief commissaire.
The third car sat towards the back of the convoy, directly behind the last team car (the team cars are ordered according to their highest-placed rider on the general classification. On stage 1 the order is determined by drawing numbers from a hat).
I spent the day in the third of the Shimano neutral service vehicles, at the back of the main field. I was in the front passenger’s seat while the car was being driven by Mario, a Belgian police officer who has done a similar job in Europe for roughly three years.
Mario has provided neutral support for races such as the 2012 London Olympic Games road race, Amstel Gold, Tour of Flanders and more. This is Mario’s first visit to Australia and we spent many of the race’s quieter moments trying to spot kangaroos by the side of the road.
In the left-hand passenger’s seat in the back was Marty, an electrician by trade who is working his 11th Tour Down Under in neutral support. Marty comes from a racing background and used to do neutral support with Shimano full time but with many races being cancelled around Australia (particularly in NSW) there’s far less work going.
The rest of the car was full of spare wheels (mainly Dura Ace C24s and a few C50s, all fitted with Michelin Lithion 2 tyres), spare bidons and gels for riders who might need them. On the roof were three spare bikes in different sizes and with different pedal systems. The bikes aren’t made by Shimano — they are simply repainted bikes provided to Shimano specifically for neutral service.
How the day unfolded
Stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under started with a climb up the Princes Freeway out of Adelaide into the surrounding hills and within just a few kilometres riders were starting to get shelled out the back of the main field into the convoy behind. Our job for the day was to stay behind the the teamcars, unless told otherwise, and help out anyone that needed it.
Near the top of the freeway climb race radio crackled to life and said “Shimano neutral three, please come forward”. The bunch had split up and we’d be asked to look after one of the groups ahead while the riders behind would be serviced by their team cars.
Mario sped up the right hand side of the field and started the descent towards Aldgate at great speed. The road was windy and narrow and we must have been doing 80km/h or more as we flew down the opposite side of the road with team cars and struggling riders on our left.
It was an amazing display of driving skill, being able to navigate the madness of the convoy, the riders on either side of the car, the fans getting too close to the road, all while moving up the field safely.
In the backseat Marty was acting as a second set of eyes for Mario — “rider on your inside!”, “he’s on your hip now!”, “the chase group is 200m behind us!”. I have no doubt Marty’s instructions from the backseat made Mario’s job a lot easier.
A short while after we got in position behind our bunch the chase group behind caught up and we pulled over to the side of the road, allowing the riders and the teamcars to pass by and catch back on. It was time to head to the back of the convoy again.
It wasn’t long after this that the riders passed through the first intermediate sprint point (which was won by Simon Gerrans in his bid for bonus seconds) and after that the peloton let a break get up the road. This calmed things down significantly and we spent the next little while just following the team cars, looking out for kangaroos and koalas, while Marty and I explained to Mario why he should be afraid of dropbears.
Every so often we’d catch a glimpse of the peloton as the road straightened out, the riders spread across the road at the head of a long line of team cars.
Some time later there was another small split in the race and we were called back up, ahead of the teamcars. Again Mario showed his experience and driving prowess, powering up the road all the while navigating the mess of team cars and shelled riders ahead.
At some point in our brief time ahead of the teamcars Jack Haig (UniSA/Australia) fell off the back and stuck his hand in the air. It looked like he had a rear puncture. We pulled over, Marty jumping out of the still-moving car with spare wheel in hand. He pulled Haig’s wheel out and went to replace it but the Avanti rider had spotted his team car and chose to grab a spare wheel from there instead.
We were soon sent back behind the team cars where we stayed until we hit the day’s only KOM, about 95km into the stage. There’d been a big split in the field due to crosswinds and the climb itself and we were to cover the lead group (there was a break up the road being service by other vehicles).
After a hair-raising descent over the dam wall just out of Myponga we hit the climb and saw Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) with his hand in the air, slowing by the side of the road.
Marty jumped out and after ascertaining the problem — Clarke’s chain had come off and become twisted, necessitating a replacement bike — Marty pulled a bike off the roof and gave Clarke a shove to get back on as a group flew past him. The whole process took barely seconds and allowed Clarke to go on and take fourth on the KOM (behind the two breakaway riders and Adam Hansen).
Aside from a brief wheel change later on, that was more or less the end of the day’s excitement. The split forced by the KOM and the strong crosswinds saw roughly 70 riders popped off the back and the chief commissaire asked our car to service them. As the lead group of 40 riders powered to the finish in Victor Harbor, our group sat up and took it easy, many of the riders chatting to each other as they went.
The fall out
At the end of the stage the Shimano neutral service staff liaise with the teams to ensure any bikes or wheels are returned. Simon Clarke’s bike was on the roof of our car until the finish at which point the neutral service team went and swapped it with the neutral bike Clarke had been riding (before he stopped and swapped it for a team bike).
While most riders and teams are good at giving their borrowed gear back, Marty spoke of some riders who go months without returning wheels.
With all the wheels and bikes swapped over it was back in the car for the long, traffic-filled drive back to Adelaide. It had been a reasonably quiet day at the back of the field but we still got to see some action, both in terms of what it takes to be able to drive safely and effectively in the convoy, and the important role played by the Shimano neutral service team at the Santos Tour Down Under.
Disclosure statement: Shimano Australia is a sponsor of CyclingTips but they did not pay for this article.