Monday, May 19, 2008

Part two: Dude, you're a neutral support motor driver.

Photo shot at the San Francisco GP in '04

In 1991, the Trump race became the Tour du Pont – and I became a Mavic tech support motor driver.

The race flew me to New York. A van took a bunch of us to BMW Headquarters in New Jersey where we were introduced to our new bikes. In my case it was a BMW R100GS with 600 break-in miles on it. Our bikes were to become BMW’s road test fleet after the race.

I confess: I was not sure when I accepted the tech motor driver job just what a tech motor driver did. Greg Miller, Mavic’s most experienced race mechanic, trained me. A wizard race reader, he knew what was gonna happen before it happened. He made sure we were always in the right place – 90% of the tech motor battle.

Almost 20 years and dozens or hundreds of races later, I still do some things the way he taught me. But I’m often surprised by how a race unfolds. Greg seldom was.

Here’s what the tech motor is and does. A tech support (or neutral support) motor is a motorbike, a driver and a passenger. The passenger is a bike race mechanic, carrying bicycle wheels and hand tools, so he can help riders with flat tires or mechanical problems.

The yellow Mavic tech motors are the ones you see in TV broadcasts of the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix. The motors are reserved for mountain stages at the Tour; cars suffice for flatter stages. For Paris-Roubaix, Mavic uses dual-sport (street-dirt) motors.

Here’s how a typical service goes: When a rider flats, he will raise his hand and move to the right-side edge of the road. The driver will stop the motor immediately behind him. The mechanic will jump off, remove the flat tire wheel and put in a new wheel. Takes between 15 and, oh, 40 seconds.

The mechanic will then push the rider off. The motor will follow him up the road. He’ll jump on and the driver will find the neutral car, where they’ll exchange the dead wheel for a good one. Then they’ll slot back into position behind the pack or breakaway.

When the pack is together at the beginnings of races, the tech motor can do services or leave the services to the neutral car. If there’s a crash, the neutral car and the team cars will stay at the crash scene to help the fallen riders. The neutral tech motor will follow the riders who did not crash, supporting riders who are still in the race.

If a breakaway goes off the front of the pack, when that break gains 30 seconds on the pack, the officials will send the tech motor up past the pack. The motor will catch the break and shadow it to support the riders. Until the break gains a minute lead, team cars are not allowed in the gap between the pack and break.

If there are three riders in the break from three different teams, and the three team cars come up to the break (after the lead grows to a minute or more) the tech motor will continue to follow the break to watch for a split in the breakaway riders – into which a team car is not allowed.

As the racers climb a long hill and the pack or break strings out, the tech motor will work its way forward, supporting the top riders – at least the top three.

If the event is a stage in a stage race, and the yellow jersey wearer is not among the leaders on the climb, the tech motor driver and mechanic must decide where to place the motor on the road – to cover the leaders but not abandon the yellow jersey.

A word about descents. On tight, technical descents in pro races, only the best motor drivers can keep up with the cyclists. Veteran bicycle race motor drivers (officials, marshals, tech drivers, time-board drivers) know that and try their best not to get caught on a descent by a swarm of cyclists – passing on both sides with millimeters to spare.

In a race like the Tours of California or Georgia or the old Trumps and DuPonts, the race passes through several police jurisdictions each day. Each change of area means a change in the motor-mounted police who accompany the race.

The officers are justly proud of their motorcycle handling skills. They have no idea of the speeds that professional cyclists can attain on descents, especially twisty descents with corners marked 10 and 15mph. We bike race motor drivers would warn them, but we'd sense their skepticism.

Until after they had worked their first mountain stage. Then – they were believers. Oh yes.


TBS said...

Hey Maynard,

I'd all but given up on blogs recently (my own as well) and I came across yours. It's a pleasure to read good writing and again!
Hope this finds you and T doing well : )


justin said...

great information for those of us who would give a you-know-what to be able to experience up close and personal those things which you have so beautifully described. cannot wait until part III shows up.