Behind the Scenes
At The 2018 Tour de Yorkshire with Mavic
May Bank Holiday weekend, 2018. Bank holidays in the UK are renowned for being wet, dreary and generally a bit of a write-off, yet with the forecast predicting the warmest bank holiday on record, the timing couldn’t have been better to make the trip up north for the Tour de Yorkshire.
The brainchild of Gary Verity, since its inception in 2014 the race has grown year on year, with ASO, the organisation behind Le Tour de France, taking the helm to deliver four days of racing around a county that has truly embraced cycling.
This was our second visit to the UCI race and our second opportunity to join Mavic in their iconic yellow neutral service car. A familiar sight on the professional racing scene, the cars and motorbikes are as popular as some of the world’s biggest names in the sport.
We were joining the team for the second and third stages of the men’s race, the second of which departed from Barnsley, on 4th May. Arriving a few hours before the 2:20pm rollout, we were greeted by a party atmosphere, as all ages were lining the barriers around town. From school kids to the elderly, everyone wanted to be a part of this popular race.
Amongst the sea of team cars, official vehicles and the extravagant publicity caravan sat six men, perched discreetly on two yellow cars who were watching the conclusion of the women’s race on a large screen that had been erected in the town centre. We were warmly welcomed by the French contingent and with the women's race finished we headed to the local pizzeria to get some much needed sustenance ahead of the 149 kilometre afternoon men's stage.
A light lunch consumed (we later found out this was a wise move), we had an hour to kill before Sigma Sports’ photographer/videographer, Jake, and I had to be in the Mavic cars. This gave us just enough time to visit the race village to see the teams preparing for the stage.
A glittering line up for the 2018 race had attracted teams such as Team Sky, BMC, Astana, and Cofidis, to name just a few. Along with these WorldTour outfits the home-grown talent was also evident, with domestic outfits One Pro Cycling lining up alongside a strong British contingent.
Before long it was time to get in the cars. Mavic operate with two cars and a motorbike in the race, with all three carrying a selection of rim and disc brake wheels, and a stock of spare bikes. The first car on the road would be following the breakaway, while the second car would provide support for the peloton. The motorbike would move between groups, a more manoeuvrable means of reaching the riders.
Jake would be travelling with the front car for stage two, while I would be in the second car on the road. After stage one saw the peloton miscalculate the gap to the break, and let the opportunity of a bunch sprint slip away, the big teams were not prepared to make this mistake again. As soon as the flag dropped the race was on, with those caught napping going out of the back of the peloton in the first few kilometres.
This was the point I was glad I'd kept lunch light. The Mavic service course team are incredibly experienced in navigating around a race convoy and have the driving skills to match. Flinging the car around bends with ease, moving effortlessly through tight gaps and all in a calm manner, this was really a sight to behold. Even with an expert level of control this was a rollercoaster of a ride. I was definitely glad I had a strong stomach!
A man of few words but with a clear passion for the sport, I used my rather limited French vocabulary to ask my driver for the day, Antonio, a few questions about his involvement with Mavic and where his love of cycling began. A veteran of 38 Tour de France races, he had seen it all, working for teams that had some of the sport's best riders on their roster, including the likes of Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly. More recently, with Mavic, Antonio has worked on a wide range of races, with everything from Paris-Roubaix to the Dauphine and even some mountain bike events on his CV.
The convoy is a support crew on wheels and features everything from the broom wagon to team vehicles and official commissaire cars. To the untrained eye this can look like a travelling traffic jam, but in fact, delve a little deeper, and there is logic to it.
The team car order in convoy is decided initially with a draw from a hat. After a stage has been completed and a general classification has been established, the team car order reflects this, with the race leader's team leading the convoy. Ahead of the team cars is the commissaries' car. The Mavic vehicle is the more transient element to the convoy, normally sitting behind the last team car but moving to the front of the convoy, just behind the commissaires' car, on narrower sections of road, where team cars cannot service riders as easily.
If the race splits to pieces the Mavic car follows the biggest group on the road, providing support, should the rider's team car be stuck further behind the race.
The Mavic car at the front sits ahead of the race, by as much as a kilometre, until a break gains a sizeable gap, usually around 30 seconds. Once this gap has been established the car moves behind the riders. If the gap extends further the riders, represented in the break, have their teams join them, making their very own convoy behind the breakaway. Once the break's time gap to the group behind drops below 30 seconds the Mavic car once again moves ahead of the race.
Back to the race and with 18 kilometres to the finish, Rossetto, the last survivor of the day's break, was swept up as the now diminished bunch readied themselves for the final challenge of the day the Cote de Cow and Calf, a 1.8 kilometre (8.2%) ascent which would decide the day’s stage and potentially the next wearer of the blue leader’s jersey.
A drag race saw some of the world’s punchiest riders battle it out for the line, with Astana’s Magnus Cort narrowly pipping former Paris-Roubaix winner, Greg Van Avermaet, to the line.
Regrouping after what was a truly memorable stage, we paused briefly to admire the view atop the Cow and Calf. Like a military operation we were soon back in the cars, in formation again, heading back to our hotel in Leeds, where we would recoup ahead of stage three.
Afternoon stages rock. A 1:10 pm departure for stage three meant we were able to enjoy leisurely 9:30 am departure ourselves. Beginning in the market town of Richmond, we had just over an hour to drive to the start.
Arriving two hours before the race, the atmosphere in the town was building, with Richmond covered in Yorkshire Roses and warm sunshine. Heading to the sign on we watched as the race announcers welcomed the teams on stage, interviewing local riders including Adam Blythe and Russell Downing to huge cheers from the crowd. The last time I visited Richmond was in 2010, when I lined up to race Richmond GP Premier Calendar Race. Swapping Lycra for lounging in the historic market square was a strange feeling but one I was embracing.
We were adopting a slightly different tactic for stage three, with Jake capturing the action from car two and myself from the lead Mavic vehicle. Following the race from the front gave me a whole different perspective as the stage began with us sitting ahead of the race, listening to the action unfold over the radio. I think it is akin to waiting for Christmas morning, when you know something is coming and the build up begins to reach fever pitch. In the case of a bike race, hearing the gap from the break to the bunch is extending and you will soon be a part of proceedings is an exciting feeling.
One thing that really made this race just that little bit special was how the people of Yorkshire embraced it. Whether they were seasoned cyclists or locals out enjoying the spectacle, the enthusiasm for the race was infectious.
This electric atmosphere was summed up perfectly on Sutton Bank. A notorious climb, jutting out of the landscape at 69 kilometres in, the 1.4 kilometre (12% average) ascent was littered with sections that ramped up to eye-watering gradients of as much as 25%. Yorkshire had really come out in force here, with Tour de France like numbers lining the climb, cheering the riders on and creating an atmosphere similar to what you would see at a monument or iconic mountain ascent.
One element of the race you rarely see when watching it unfold on the TV is the suffering at the back of the race, the riders that are just out to make the time cut, who have worked tirelessly for their team leaders up to this point and are facing their own personal battles to make it across the finishing line.
The Mavic car gave me a unique perspective as the narrow line between a good and a bad day on the bike was becoming apparent late into stage three. A noticeable name succumbing to the pace was Mark Cavendish, who tried in vain to make contact with the group off the back of Silpho. Professional cycling is a cruel mistress and takes no prisoners. There are no free passes for Tour de France stage winners; if the legs aren't cooperating there is nowhere to hide out on the road.
A cycle race can be played out like a three-act play. A frantic start setting the scene for the day, a truce like middle and a conclusion that is both enthralling and often unpredictable.
Into the final 20 kilometres and the sight of the sea was soon greeting us, and stage three of the Tour de Yorkshire's touch paper had been ignited. With the day's breakaway being swept up, our job for the day was pretty much done as we moved ahead of the fast moving peloton and tuned back into the race radio to follow the closing stages. Yes, it may seem slightly like an anti-climax, but still on standby should a break form and gain a sizeable gap meant we were not switching off yet.
Whistling into the seaside town of Scarborough, the peaceful backdrop of sea and coastline provided a stark contrast to the events unfolding a kilometre down the road behind us, as French cycling legend, Sylvain Chavanel's brave last ditch effort to escape the clutches of the peloton was foiled just a few hundred metres from the line. Cruel, maybe. A thrilling end to stage three, definitely.
The race may have been finished but there was no time for fish and chips or ice creams by the seafront. Not hanging about, we set off for the 100 kilometre or so drive back to Leeds. Returning to the hotel after around 380 kilometres in the car, we were tired but buzzing. The experience has given us the utmost respect for the work Mavic do, servicing and being alongside the peloton every kilometre of the way. Like a well-drilled machine, these guys navigated the race convoy and not just serviced the riders, but also provided a real presence on the road. The Mavic yellow car is more than a vehicle for transporting wheels, it's an integral and iconic part of the professional cycling scene.