For stage 4 of the 2014 Tour de France, we scored a ride in the No. 1 Mavic car, which was assigned to cover the day's main breakaway. This was a good place to be given that the day's route was mostly flat, making it perfect for a long escape.
With the 2015 race season well underway, it's time to pay homage to one of the pro peloton's great institutions: Mavic neutral support. Since 1972, the distinctive yellow cars and motos and the technicians they carry have been lending a hand at races across the globe, aiding all the competitors regardless of nationality, team, position in the race, or bicycle brand being used.
Whether it's a simple puncture or something more dire, if the rider's team car is not nearby, Mavic neutral support personnel intervene in order to get the rider back in the race as quickly as possible. Each year, they work more than 200 events around the world, including the biggest races on the calendar such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France. Indeed, it was at last year's La Grand Boucle that RoadBikeReview was lucky enough to score a shotgun seat inside the lead Mavic neutral support car for stage 4 from Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to Lille Métropole. Scroll through the photo gallery below to see what we saw.
The roof of the Mavic neutral support car is loaded with numerous spare bikes of varying sizes. These rigs don't get used very often during races, and instead see most of their ride miles after the stages when the Mavic staff sneak out to stretch their legs.
The spare bikes are outfitted with a variety of pedal types, from the more contemporary to the distinctly old school.
More important than the spare bikes are the spare wheels. Each Mavic car and moto carries the full spectrum of drivetrain choices from Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. Inside the car, the driver has a spec sheet detailing what system each team is using so no time is lost when wheel changes are made.
Jean Patrick and Max were our co-hosts for the day. Jean Patrick, left, is a longtime veteran of the pro cycling game and was working his 32nd Tour de France in 2014. Prior to coming to Mavic five years ago, the 56-year-old served as a mechanic for a variety of teams, including Ag2R, Astana and Phonak. Over the years, our driver also wrenched for the likes of Greg LeMond and Richard Virenque. Max (right) was what's known as the jumper. He sat in the back driver's side seat with an array of spare wheels at the ready. If a wheel change was requested, the Mavic car would pull over to the right side of the road, and Max would spring into action. They are both French but spoke enough English to carry on a conversation.
On the menu this day was a 163.5km ride from Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to Lille Métropole. This was the first stage on French soil, following a three-day soirée in England. The slightly rolling profile looked perfectly suited for a long breakaway and that's just what we got.
Our vantage point was shotgun in this sleek Skoda station wagon. The Czech car maker is a longtime sponsor of the Tour de France, and its emblem and name appear on the race's White Jersey given to the highest placed under-23 rider at the end of each stage.
The Mavic car is just one among a fleet of vehicles that support the race. This massive caravan includes numerous official and VIP cars, photo media motos, and team cars. Each of the 22 teams has two cars in the caravan.
Directing all that traffic is the lead officials car and the UCI commissars inside. These men in blue have final authority on which vehicles go where and when. Ignore their instructions and risk a fine or even getting thrown out of the race. Of course they also monitor the riders, assuring everyone plays within accordance of the rules.
The Tour de France is unlike any traditional sporting event. Instead of occupying seats in a stadium or arena, fans congregate in the thousands along the roads around France.
The day's prominent escape included Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Cofidis rider Luis Angel Mate of Spain. Voeckler is a bit if a cult hero in France, having made his name with numerous heroic but often unsuccessful long distance bids for glory. With a full day of broadcast coverage in the race's homeland, this was must see TV - and we had a front row seat for all the action.
The jumper uses these spacers to assure that each spare wheel's quick release is exactly the right distance apart to ensure that wheel changes are made as quickly as possible.
Every car in the race has its place, which is noted by a sticker in the front windshield. This includes all the team cars, which are ordered based on their best placed rider. On this day, Cofidis was 20th while Europcar was 22nd. The Mavic neutral support car slotted in just behind.
Motos make up a significant portion of the Tour de France caravan, carrying officials, photographers, TV camera operators, Mavic neutral support personnel, and in this case a water bottle distributor (sponsored by Power Bar).
Our driver Jean Patrick seemed to know just about everyone in the race caravan, including this race official, who stopped by to have a chat during a low moment in the race.
In this era of technology, it's refreshing to see some old traditions hang on. Riders in the break and chasing bunch are informed of the current time gap in between via a chalkboard that's continually updated by the crew on this timing moto.
With the bunch closing in, Cofidis rider Luis Angel Mate flatted out of the break. Because the current time gap was under a minute when the incident happened, the team cars had already been ordered out of the break, meaning it was up to Mavic neutral support to handle the wheel change. Look close and you can see Max bent over changing Mate's front wheel while the Spanish rider looks on. The whole procedure took less than 30 seconds, but Mate's fate was still sealed. He never caught back up to Voeckler, who was left to go it alone.
Up ahead Voeckler got on the gas, hoping he could keep the bunch at bay as the stage headed to its dramatic finish in Lille. The Frenchman first gained international notoriety at the 2004 Tour de France when he held the yellow jersey for 10 days. But like that year, Voeckler would eventually be reeled in.
While fans exhorted Voeckler from the roadside, the TV camera moto edged close behind the rider to capture the action for a national broadcast audience.
When the gap from Voeckler to the bunch slipped under 30 seconds with about 25km to go, our car was ordered out of the break. At this point we pulled ahead of the race and drove on to the finish in Lille, getting there just in time to catch the final outcome.
Team Giant-Shimano orchestrated yet another solid lead-out for Marcel Kittel, who did his job at the finish. Photo by Graham Watson
Marcel Kittel's smile tells the tale. The burly German sprinter (and Dolph Lundgren look-alike) earned his third stage win in four days. Photo by Graham Watson