When you switch on your TV to watch a bike race you only see part of the picture. The riders are the stars of the show — and rightly so — but behind the scenes there are dozens of hard-working individuals, each playing a distinct role to ensure the race runs as smoothly as possible.
Chief among these behind-the-scenes staff are the commissaires. These race officials ensure the laws of the sport are being upheld out on the road and that everyone within the race ‘envelope’ is behaving safely.
So what does an average racing day look like for a UCI commissaire? We went for a ride in the Commissaire 2 car on stage 2 of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour to find out.
There were five commissaires on duty at this year’s Herald Sun Tour: four in cars (the Chief Commissaire then commissaires 2 through 4) and one on a motorbike. All five had a different role to play.
The Chief Commissaire is in charge out on the road, and keeps an eye on proceedings from behind the peloton. Commissaires 3 and 4 sit further behind, each ready to drop back and watch over different groups when the peloton splits. Commissaire 2 is tasked with monitoring the breakaway, heading up the road when a move gets away, and the moto commissaire roams throughout the convoy, as needed by the Chief Commissaire.
Sitting in the front passenger’s seat of the Commissaire 2 car was UCI commissaire Karen O’Callaghan. Karen is in her 40th year as a race official and 19th year as an official at the highest level*. Driver Ian Maher is also a qualified Australian commissaire, but is best known as a commentator for Victorian events in the National Road Series, and for the Australian Road National Championships.
As stage 2 got underway we positioned ourselves roughly 100 metres ahead of the main field, watching out the back window as riders put in early attacks. It took a while for a break to get a lead of more than 30 seconds — the point at which neutral service and Commissaire 2 can move in behind the leaders.
We pulled over to the side of the road, letting Chris Harper (State of Matter MAAP) and Yuma Koishi (Nippo-Vini Fantini) ride past, before ducking in behind them to monitor the race from there.
The role of the commissaire comprises several parts. First, it’s about controlling traffic to ensure the riders and other members of the convoy are kept safe. If a team car wants to come up to service their rider in the break, they have to get permission from the commissaires to do so. Indeed, any car passing a commissaire is required to ask permission over race radio before moving forward.
It’s a chaotic environment — team cars come and go from the break, photographer and TV motos duck in and out, and all throughout the stage there are moto scouts buzzing past the convoy, ensuring the road ahead is safe for the riders.
The second part of the commissaire’s role is to ensure the breakaway riders aren’t doing anything they shouldn’t. Are riders taking a sticky bidon? Is the mechanic servicing a rider’s bike illegally (i.e. while in motion)? The commissaires monitor rider behaviour and warn the teams via race radio in the case of an indiscretion (see 1:39 in the video above).
A third role for the commissaires is measuring the time gaps between groups on the road. While this is done by the information moto — by riding up to the break, stopping by the roadside, starting a stopwatch, then stopping the clock when the peloton arrives — the commissaires spend a large percentage of the race checking time gaps as well.
On straight sections of road, and when the lead is small, Karen is able to take time gaps herself. She starts a stopwatch when the breakaway riders hit a landmark, road sign or crest in the road, then stops it when the peloton reach the same point. Once the gap grows she relies on the other commissaires to help gather the information she needs.
She’ll start a stopwatch as the break reaches a landmark then radio to Commissaire 3 (at the back of the peloton) to let her know when the peloton reaches the same point. Karen writes down each of these time checks throughout the race, noting who’s out front and how much of a lead they have over the peloton.
Two radios are used in each commissaire car. One is set to the Official channel, used by the commissaires, the race director, the judges (who adjudicate on KOM, sprint points and the finish), the sag wagon, and several other officials on the race. The other radio is set to the Race channel, used in all the team cars, in the media vehicles, in neutral service and so on.
Whenever a time check is calculated by the commissaires or the information moto, that check is then relayed (via the Official channel) to the race radio controller, who sits in the Chief Commissaire’s car, passing that info on via the Race channel. From there the teams relay any relevant information to their riders (the UCI has allowed the use of radios in more races in 2016).
Race director John Trevorrow sits in a car at the head of the race, chiming in every so often over race radio with information about the route ahead and warnings for the convoy. News of a crashed police moto and a truck parked on the road are communicated to the commissaires via the Official channel then out to the teams (and then riders) via the Race channel.
With two radios in operation at the same time, and both often broadcasting simultaneously, it’s noisy in the commissaire’s car. The Official channel is set to be slightly louder than Race — for those in charge of the bike race, it’s news from the Official channel that takes precedence.
There are several breakaway groups that get clear during the stage, only to be caught again some time later. On each occasion, when it’s clear the breakaway is doomed, we overtake the leaders to sit at the front of the bike race again. This ensures we’re not in the way when the peloton makes the catch and the attacks start flying again.
In the final kilometres, Karen stands up on the passenger’s seat, her head out the sunroof to get a clearer look at the potentially chaotic final moments of the race. She holds a paddle in her hand — red on one side, green on the other — to direct any traffic that might be trying to pass in the desperate run-in to the line. But there’s little drama in those dying moments as a small group of five riders dashes for the line, Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) taking out stage.
For Karen O’Callaghan, it’s been three-and-a-half hours of focused concentration, working with her fellow commissaires to ensure the smooth running of the race. We pull over just past the finish line as Karen runs back to confer with the judges and confirm the stage’s official results.
Those watching from the roadside barely notice she’s there, and fans watching the TV highlights certainly don’t. But it’s the hard work of Karen and dozens of others behind the scenes that ensure that races like the Sun Tour run smoothly, and are even able to run at all.
For more information about being a commissaire and what’s involved, take a look at the UCI’s training guide for road commissaires.