The angels in the blue overalls: Behind Shimano's neutral support
Two races. One, the last stage of the Tour of the Basque Country, featuring the best riders in the world. Another, the Valenciaga Memorial, an amateur race down the road. Two days. Both observed in all their guts and glory from the passenger seat of the Shimano Neutral Service car.
Everyone sees them but no one notices them. Fans know that they are part of the race but they never know their names. Perhaps this is their role; to go as unnoticed as possible. Yet all the riders, teams and organisers know that they couldn’t do without the presence of these guardian angels. They go where others cannot. When things get complicated, they leap into action. They are the neutral service and their mission is to make sure the best racers in the world perform, without interruption, on the world stage.
Shimano — a company that is this year celebrating its 100th anniversary — has a wealth of experience in this. Today Shimano provides neutral support in the most important cycling races in the world, such as all three Grand Tours, the Olympic Games, and the World Championship.
It’s the final stage of Itzulia, the Basque word for ‘tour’ that gives the Tour of the Basque Country its new name. As with the riders and teams, the Shimano neutral service can begin to reflect on their work well done so far. The morning is calm. Yet every day is different, and they know all too well that the greatest satisfaction comes from finishing the job off. At the hotel they distribute the tasks. They collect the sandwiches. Everything that could be needed by the mechanics and drivers using three cars and a motorbike — although the support team does have another car and motorbike on hand if needed — must be made ready long before the flag drops and the racing begins.
These mechanics, most of them former racers, have been preparing their whole lives. Experience is the key to keeping your nerve. In that unpredictable moment of truth, success will be based on two things: good preparation and sangfroid.
House of cards
Each neutral service car carries the same number of bikes with Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo groups, two models of each – well, maybe a bit more of Shimano — to reflect the mechanical diversity of the pro peloton. The same goes for the brakes: the assistance car must have disc and rim brake options. The logistics are multiplied with the need for at least three sizes of bike: small, medium and large. The worst outcome would be somebody looking to the neutral service car in the heat of battle only to discover that they can’t get what they need.
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So far, so straightforward. Anybody with a proper to-do-list could work this one out. But the key to solving the complex equation to maintain order in the peloton is the intangible experience of the staff. They are the ones who know how to interpret a race.
They take a walk through the different team cars. The spare bikes belonging to the team leaders and expected protagonists of the stage are always placed on the corners of the roof rack for maximum accessibility.
Now they know who to prioritise in the neutral service: in this case Primož Roglič (small, disc brake, Shimano) Tadej Pogačar (medium, rim brake, Campagnolo) and Brandon McNulty (large, rim brake, Campagnolo). Because, although this is not about class, a mechanical breakdown of the overall leader is not the same as that of the guy in 92nd overall.
The Shimano squad is divided into three cars and an assistance motorbike. Each one assumes its role within the competition in the same way that a cycling team works out a strategy among its riders. In this case, two of the cars will go to the front, where the race is decided and where, presumably, more groups will be formed. At the front of the peloton, as the breakaway is drawn out, the first car will be close behind.
The race director must decide on whether the Shimano support vehicles are allowed to overtake the teams during the race – depending on how the race is developing and the characteristics of the route. The neutral support team is usually given permission to move forward and get behind the riders at the front of the race when the team cars are forced to fall back, such as the start of a climb, narrowing of the roads or other dangerous situations. Then responsibility falls entirely on the mechanics in blue.
The evolution of each stage will determine the position of the second car; today, despite being considered one of the key stages, no breakaway has formed and the neutral cars simply wait. The only work has been at the back of the peloton. It's just an element of racing – that it’s impossible to plan.
You wouldn’t expect more action in an amateur race than in the finale of a WorldTour stage race, but nothing surprises Javier Cherro. A former rider on Kelme, where he was teammate of Alejandro Valverde, Cherro knows he can never relax. Every period of calm during racing is an opportunity for the neutral service to move freely, follow the race and anticipate potential changes. And so it unfolds that the Memorial Valenciaga is full of action.
Just like the radio comms between riders and team directors in the following cars, neutral service has a radio channel between the three cars and the motorbike. They can also communicate with the race management via race radio. But when it comes to communicating with sports directors, they have to resort to the good old-fashioned method of winding down the window and shouting as loud as they can.
Thanks to the astounding variety of potential scenarios that can arise, communication is always constant between the support team. When a rider in the Memorial Valenciaga needed a bike change, the mechanics not only had to hop out and get the rider moving on a neutral service bike, but they also had to negotiate a speedy repair of the original machine at the roadside. In quite a statement to the quality of the Shimano neutral support bikes, the rider decided that he no longer wanted his team bike back. Instead he finished the race on the blue machine.
Then there was Mikel Bizkarra, a rider with the Euskadi Foundation who needed a shoulder to cry on and a few warm words of calming encouragement when mechanics got him up off the ground after a crash. They settled his nerves and set him off on his way again. The next instant, the Shimano mechanic was leaning out of the window and adjusting a rider’s bike on the fly.
After the race is done, it’s back to work at the local bike shop or, on occasion, with a cycling team. On race day, or in their normal day-to-day life, these mechanics form the pipes of the cycling industry and sport, flowing beneath the floorboards to maintain the fine veneer of the sport.
From the roadside they may just look like neutral support, but these are true members of the cycling family, who know it from the inside out.
Produced in collaboration with Shimano.