If you want to see the action at the front of a bike race, grab a coffee and turn on your TV (assuming the race is televised) but if you want to see what really happens in the caravan, there’s no better place than the front seat of a team car. If the team did not make the break then you will never see the front of the race again but that doesn’t mean that there’s no action, sometimes white knuckled, hang on type of action.
The day can go from sedate to a violent explosion by just a few quick words from radio tour, “feeding”, “crash”,…. Then it’s all hands on deck as the caravan reacts, cars dart forwards trying to respond to the request. The movement of the caravan is like a spasmic and violent ballet, coordinated chaos with no (or almost) no contact.
Stage 2, from San Francisco to Santa Cruz County, had flats, crashes, on the bike adjustments, cars racing down narrow twisty descents sometimes two abreast, feeding and more. I had front row seat in the Team Exergy car driven by DS Tad Hamilton with mechanic Joshua Geiszler sitting in the back seat.
Each team at the Tour of California has two cars in the caravan, ordered by the GC position, and the caravan is divided into two sections with a team car in each of them. Once the riders roll off the start line, the cars jockey to get into position which meant that Liquigas-Cannondale had car #1, Garmin-Barracuda car #2, UnitedHealthcare #3 and Team Exergy was #4 for stage 2. But that’s not all, the caravan also includes the commissaire cars, the judges’ car, SRAM neutral service and the medical car. Moving around the cars are all the media motos, the SRAM neutral car, the marshalls, and more officials.
The early part of stage 2, from San Francisco to the bottom of the first climb was fairly sedate in the car. An early break reeled followed by another break but still involved dashing up for a wheel change and feeding and some dexterity feats by the mechanic. Geiszler adjusted saddle heights and switched a bottle cage, all from the back seat while the car and the riders were moving. It falls in the ‘do not try this at home kids, we are what we call experts’ category. Also part of the equation are dashing back up to your spot in the caravan, swerving around cars that stop abruptly and always watching out for riders.
And then, the climbs and the windy, sketchy descents. The front of the field surged up the first climb on the hunt to reel in the break shelling many riders off the back. The roads are narrow, fans are lined up on the sides and the tension kicks up a notch. Some cars are trying to move up to the break, waiting for the approval from the comm, while others are staying with one of their riders. A slow-down to talk to a dropped rider, a bottle is handed over, words of encouragement and a reminder to think of the time cut are given. Then, an acceleration to move up to the next group which contains the team’s rider while going around other groups and other cars doing the same thing. All the while race radio is giving the action at the front and then she quickly says “crash”. Swift reaction as all cars try to move forwards, at the same time. Hard stop, mechanic jumps out with wheels and runs to the crash. Nothing major and then we have to wait until the road is clear to move forwards again. And repeat the action until the crest and then hold on.
The action hits a crescendo on the descent, with cars trying to move up and do what they need to be done. But it’s all done at much faster speeds, on tight twisty roads, sometimes two cars abreast with motorcycles darting in and out and dropped riders zooming through. It gets noisy, DS honk their horns when they see riders coming through to alert the others, tires are squealing on some of the turns. And the smell of burnt rubber is in the air, from both the bikes and the cars. The DS has to watch everywhere for cars and riders, at the front, on the side and at the back, brakes are hit hard to stop when needed to allow the shelled riders to come through the corners – after all they are going faster than the vehicles in the caravan.
For one second, we were three cars abreast on the road, and the mirrors missed hitting each other by millimeters, all at 50 mph. White knuckled. Radio Tour quickly says to watch out for a rider on the right with a flat, and there he is, a quick swerve to go around him.
This descent was a hang-on gnarly one. At the bottom, I asked Hamilton if he enjoyed it. He smiled and replied ‘oh yes’.
But the stage wasn’t over. Another climb and another fast descent to the finish. More riders all over the road to watch out for, more cars darting everywhere, more of everything.
We drive into Aptos for the finish, listening intently to race radio to know what is going on the front. Deviation to team parking 50 meters from the finish and then we hear the winner being called. Deception for the team staff not to hear their rider but the work is not over for the day. Riders have to be feed and massaged, bikes washed and fixed if needed, cars washed, because it all happens again tomorrow,
A few tips to remember about riding in team cars
- It may be difficult, if not impossible, to get a nature break as a female passenger, so intake must be rationed starting at least one hour before the race.
- It is recommended to bring some snacks for the mechanic who really controls how far forwards your seat is moved.
- If you get car sick, well don’t.
- The car is full of stuff, wheels, coolers with bottles, food bags, clothes, so think about what you’re bringing in. The space available is around your legs.