A year ago, at my first Santos Tour Down Under, I got the opportunity to ride with Shimano neutral service and it was a terrific experience. When I got an offer to do so again on stage 3 of this year’s TDU I took it without hesitation.
Here’s a video I put together of the experience:
What neutral service does
The role of Shimano neutral service is simple: provide mechanical support — and hydration and nutrition where required — to any rider that can’t be serviced by their team car. Each of the 19 teams in the race was allowed one car in the convoy and if that car went up to the breakaway to look after one of the riders, say, it’s left to neutral service to cover any issues the rest of the team might have had back in the peloton.
That’s true for neutral service car #3 at least, where I was this year and last year. The other two cars and the neutral service motorbike sit at the front of the peloton, ready to support groups that go up the road.
If a breakaway gets a gap of 15 seconds, the commissaires will ask the neutral service motorbike to move up to the breakaway. If the gap widens to beyond 30 seconds, one of the two neutral service cars will move up to the break. The other car stays at the front of the peloton, ready to service another breakaway should it happen to form.
The reverse happens when a breakaway is being reeled back in. When the gap gets to roughly 30 seconds the neutral support car will stop travelling with the break, and when it get inside 15 seconds the motorbike will move away as well.
In the car
In the car with me on stage 3 was Belgian driver Raf (right in feature image), and Australian mechanic George (left in feature image). Raf has worked with Shimano neutral service in Europe for eight years now, having covered the Road World Championships, the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race and many other races.
He’s normally piloting a neutral service moto which he prefers to the car given there’s more action. He spoke fondly of driving neutral service at last year’s Tour of Flanders where he was up in the breakaway with Greg Van Avermaet, Stijn Vandenbergh, Sep Vanmarcke and Fabian Cancellara, watching the race from “the VIP seats”.
Working with neutral service is Raf’s second job — he makes a living as a technical manager at a beverage production company in Belgium. This was his first visit to the Tour Down Under and indeed to Australia.
George, meanwhile, was in what he thought was his ninth Tour Down Under. He started his association with the race as a mechanic for Team Navigators before joining Shimano neutral service. He’s also been running neutral support for triathlons for 18 years now. For the rest of the year George runs a bike shop in Sydney.
The gear that neutral service used for this year’s Tour Down Under didn’t seem to be any different to last year. There were four “cleanskin” bikes on the roof and four sets of spare wheels in and on the roof of the car. These were mainly Dura Ace C50s with a few RS81s thrown in as well. All wheels in the Shimano neutral service vehicles were clinchers, in contrast to the tubulars being run by the vast majority of the teams.
All the cassettes on the spare wheels were Shimano Dura Ace 11-speed which, George tells me, works fine across the peloton. Most of the teams are riding Shimano Dura Ace Di2 11-speed as it is, and Dura Ace 11-speed cassettes work fine on bikes fitted with Campagnolo and SRAM groupsets, albeit with a little more care required when slotting the wheels in.
The only hassle the team had during the week was with one wheel change for a UniSA-Australia rider who was riding 10-speed. The 11-speed cassette didn’t mesh properly and the rider was limited to only a couple of gears until he could get a replacement bike or wheel from the team car.
The variety of pedals in the TDU peloton created an additional challenge for the neutral support team. Of the four bikes on the roof, two were fitted with Shimano pedals, one with Look pedals and one with Speedplay. George had a list on the back of the passenger’s seat in front of him showing which teams had which pedals, ensuring he grabbed the right bike right away. Apparently only one team in the race was on Speedplays — Drapac — but Jack Bobridge (UniSA-Australia) also uses Speedplay pedals.
How the day unfolded
Compared to last year, this year’s ride in neutral service 3 was rather quiet. We changed just one puncture for the day — for Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Christophe Riblon — but there was still plenty of action out on the road.
Stage 3 featured a four-rider breakaway, comprising Will Clarke (Drapac), Calvin Watson (Trek), Axel Domont (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Lasse Norman Hansen (Cannondale-Garmin). They got away early in the stage and were gradually whittled away until just Clarke remained. He too was caught in the final 10km, setting things up for the final climb up to Paracombe where Rohan Dennis pounced, taking the stage win and the lead overall. You can hear most of the action through race radio in the video above.
As you can also see in the video above, we were called up from the end of the team-car line to the back of the peloton as soon as the race started splitting up on the final climb. This gave us a great view of the race, and we even caught a quick glimpse of Rohan Dennis charging away from the lead group to win the stage.
We saw several near-misses in the team car convoy, most of them caused by cars ahead stopping suddenly in the chaos of the feedzone. We didn’t see any crashes thankfully, but according to Raf and George crashes aren’t uncommon at all in the convoy. That’s not surprising — it’s a high pressure environment with many variables for the driver to consider, and with vehicles often moving at great speed in close proximity to one another. This certainly became clear as we descended the narrow, winding Gorge Road at 70km/h, constantly overtaking vehicles (and riders) to try and get to the back of the peloton.
It’s the sort of driving that would be extremely dangerous out on the open road, but with trained and experienced professionals behind the wheel, and in a controlled environment, the dangers are certaintly reduced. It’s certainly a buzz to see it first-hand.