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Going on behind the scenes of the Tour de France is a fluid race of it’s own directly behind the peloton. However this isn’t immediately obvious because TV crews and photographers are trying to get “clean shots” that crop out all the in-race vehicles. The ‘race convoy’ of commissaires vehicles, team cars, television and photography motorbikes, media vehicles, etc is a logistical challenge that carries it’s own set of rules, sometimes which is affected by the bike race itself. Here’s a look at the race caravan and what happens behind the peloton.
Two sets of team cars are allowed to be in the race convoy. The order of the first set of team cars depends on the overall GC ranking of the team’s highest placed rider. For example, a particular team will get first position in the convoy because they have a rider who is leading the race going into that stage. This changes as the GC of the race evolves. Being in the first car of the convoy can be advantageous because in a convoy hundreds of meters long, it allows the team car to have the closest access to their riders in the peloton in case of emergency, or if a domestique is coming back for food and bidons.
In the lead car is the Directeur Sportif(s) in the front seat and the mechanic in the back. Wheels, bike parts, bidons, food are carried in this car.
The second line of team cars travels behind the first line which is again decided based on the GC placing of the team’s lead rider. This car carries team staff (i.e. another DS, press officer, owner, mechanic, etc) and sometimes VIPs. Team car #2’s work tends to begin when the race reaches the mountains. This is when the peloton splits significantly and the second car makes sure the team’s trailing riders are fed and assisted as required.
Most teams in the Tour de France have a total of four team cars. Only two are in the race convoy, and the other two are used for other tasks such as driving to the race finish, transporting riders around after the race, and other odd jobs.
If there is a break up the road that exceeds 2 minutes, the team car(s) of the rider(s) in that break are allowed to pass the main peloton and drive up behind the breakaway group. Often team car two will cover the breakaways unless it’s one of the team’s top riders. This depends on the team and how they like to work in these situations.
If the breakaway group gets below that 60 second mark, the cars are sent back by the commisaire to their position behind the main peloton. This is also up to the discretion of the race commissaire depending on the circumstances and race situation.
Riders are constantly dropping off the back of the peloton and going back to their team cars. They’ll casually stop to take a nature break, come back and chat with the DS or get small mechanical adjustments. If the team car needs to drop back from it’s position in the convoy to give a rider assistance (puncture, mechanical, crash, etc), then it will go back, attend to its rider, and return to its assigned position when complete. It’s almost never as smooth as that and there’s usually lots of honking, driving on the grass and rally car driving to get back into position.
The riders are usually calm and collected when they drop back to the team car and will even get off their bike on the side of the road for whatever reason. They know that as long as they’re not dropped from the convoy, they’re not dropped from the race (unless it’s in the hills). It’s relatively easy for the riders to draft team cars and hop from one to the next in order to get back onto the peloton. Drafting cars is not necessarily legal, but commissaires usually turn a blind eye to it unless there’s blatant abuse happening.
There are a few simple pieces of technology that help the team directors navigate, assess the situation of the race, and communicate with the riders.
In the team car there are two radios (or one dual-band radio). One to communicate with the riders, and one for the race commissaire to communicate the race situation and conditions to the team DS’s (the riders do not hear the commissaire radio – they only hear the team radio). The commissaire speaks in the official language of the UCI which is French and quite often the second language spoken will be English. However there are exceptions sometimes. In Italy the languages will be in French and Italian. Belgium will be Flemish and English.
Team car one and two typically have televisions in the vehicle. For safety reasons, team car one is not allowed to have a television on the front dashboard. However, they will have a television in the back seat which will let the mechanic see what’s going on. Team car two will often have a television in both front and back of the vehicle.
Other tools the DS’s use are the daily map, rider number information (the commissaire will broadcast rider numbers over the race radio when announcing a situation of the race), course profile and GPS. There’s nothing they have that you or I couldn’t get our hands on.
There are many rules about overtaking the pack or breakaway, and most are common sense. Even though the caravan is driving on a heavily secured closed course, regular highway and driving laws do apply. Over the years the ASO has been clamping down and Gendarmerie have been setting up speed traps and even breathalyser tests on the course and on parallel roads.
As you’ll begin to realise, there are over 100 cars in the immediate race convoy and hundreds more on the course when including media, commissaires, police, transport vehicles, advertising caravan, etc. It’s a tremendous logistical feat for the ASO and police to coordinate and supervise so rules and order needs to be put in place for it to all happen smoothly.