The Mavic car left the roads of northern France hours ago, along with my old notions of an orderly bicycle race. Now, we’re a yellow spaceship juddering through an asteroid belt, cyclists, team cars, race vehicles, bidons and spectators swirling in disorder around us.
And dust – so much dust – hanging in the air like thick fog, thrown up by the vehicles ahead of us. At the controls, Maxime Ruphy is practically driving blind; only the brake lights in front are visible. An unexpected dip in the cobbles sends our Skoda’s front end lurching into the pavé with a sickening crunch. No time to check for damage: stop for a few minutes and we’d never catch up.
Snapshots flash up through the acrid haze over the next two minutes: our emergency brake to avoid rear-ending a team car, a rider clutching his head in agony, a Quick Step man passing a Bora rider on the floor. If they don’t need a wheel, we keep going. There’ll be many cries of roue avant and roue arrière today, but not here.
At the end of the cobbles, a dozen women in Moulin Rouge-style dresses emerge like spectres from the dust, high-kicking and showing their legs. Mademoiselles, please: as if Paris-Roubaix wasn’t enough of a madcap crash-trap.
And with that, sector 25 is over: only 24 more to go. Then Maxime puts his foot down: 100, 110, 120km/h. Time to enter hyperspace.*
Yellow and black is hard to miss. It’s the colour of biohazard warnings, caution signs, the AA and the WorldTour bunch’s most prominent breakdown service too. Through the year, Mavic service everything from ASO’s coterie of top WorldTour events to humble sportives. Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme has likened them to Saint Bernards, as the loyal figures saving cyclists from mechanical misfortune since the 1973 Paris-Nice. But the sport has changed a lot since that introduction: with two cars per team in the caravan at the sport’s top races, they often have less work than they used to.
So, often we don’t notice the Mavic neutral service vehicles. They faithfully trail the bunch and breakaway during many stages races, hiding in plain sight, only to stand out in extraordinary moments. Consider the quick fix made on Rigoberto Uran’s broken derailleur, enabling him to win a Tour stage in Chambéry in 2017. Or the motorbike riders behind Adam Yates on Lac de Payolle in 2016 who recovered immediately from being felled by a deflated flamme rouge to prop it up for the approaching group of favourites. Not all heroes wear capes or lycra: some are clad in yellow motorbike leathers.
Paris-Roubaix is different to the modern norm. Mavic are never more visible, mob-handed or integral to the outcome of a race. With team support scattered across kilometres of northern French roads, their motos and cars are regularly the first ports of call for assistance.
That means they’re especially ripe for criticism too: nobody commends them for a job well done, but woe betide a ponderous wheel change in front of the TV cameras or, worse, fetching a rider off, as another neutral service provider did at the 2015 Tour of Flanders. Paris-Roubaix is Mavic’s most important day of the year and the pressure is on: there’s no hiding in a bright yellow car.
“Waiting for the first wheel change is always the worst. After that, you’re in it and you really get the adrenaline flowing,” Duncan Ledingham tells me at the race presentation on the eve of Paris-Roubaix. He will spend the race on one of Mavic’s four motorbikes, the worker bees of the hive, able to quickly get through gaps that their quartet of cars cannot. While his pilot has a two-way radio, allowing him to pick the right place to be, Ledingham focuses on changing punctures. He clutches a few wheels in preparation from the first sector onwards – quite the core strength exercise. “I’m ripped by the end of it,” he says.
A front wheel swap is supposed to take eight seconds, a back one 15, but it doesn’t always go to plan, as his maiden Roubaix in 2015 showed: “I fucked up my first change. I’d never been on a motorbike before and a Roompot-Oranje rider punctured. He had really thin rims, I put in a thick one and he just went…” Ledingham mimes a rider slowly keeling over and shouting angrily in Dutch.
The following year, their radio connection went down during the race. He arrived seconds after Mitch Docker’s horrific crash in the Arenberg Forest and leapt into action, pulling crashed bikes out of the way to create a gap. “I saw the full width of the Arenberg was covered in his blood. I thought he was gone, I was shocked. There was already a heap of people around Docker, so I cleared the way before someone hurtled into them at 60 kilometres an hour. Our job is to change the wheel, but it’s also rider safety. If we’d left it like that, then there would have been more crashes.”
Once at the finish in Roubaix, the first thing Ledingham did was check to make sure Docker was okay.
So, it would only seem right to expect the unexpected in 2017. Ledingham says he won’t be nervous once the race gets going, but adds: “I’d rather I didn’t know who I was changing the wheel for. Especially if it’s Tom Boonen in this one, I’d be shitting myself.”
A lone Scot on the team, Ledingham studied product design at university and worked on an Aberdeen oil rig for five years before following his passion for cycling to Mavic. He is not part of their 11-strong Service Course team that works the year’s race calendar, but rather a product manager who chooses to help at certain events to get a better idea of trends and the problems that might occur.
“I can never think of an idea sitting at my desk,” he says. “It’ll either be at a pub with a couple of pints of stout, or on the motorbike going ‘look at what he’s doing pedalling, he’s struggling there.’ From that, I can go ‘what if?’” Ledingham was part of the team that worked on the ultra-light Comete Ultimate shoes with the carbon-fibre outer shell, testing closely with Dan Martin.
Neutral service is eye-catching, but very small part of what Mavic do. Founded in 1889, the company was the first to develop duralumin wheels, used secretly by winner Antonin Magne in the 1934 Tour, painted to appear wooden. They’ve been innovating ever since; modern attention-grabbers include the Zap electronic derailleurs, Helium wheels and M40 40mm carbon rims, ridden by Johan Vansummeren to 2011 Paris-Roubaix victory.
Tonio Pacheco has seen a lot of those tech revolutions during his 27 years on the team. He started out in the sport as an interpreter for Joaquim Agostinho and a mechanic in Jean de Gribaldy’s bike shop and Sem team.
He spannered for Sean Kelly’s two Roubaix wins too, suffering an unusual mechanical mishap. “At the 1986 race, we went to go to the race start with a Kas car, a Peugeot 504, and it wouldn’t start. Oof! I stayed with it and another team mechanic got in the Mavic car. They did a bit of the race then we got it going, caught up and Kelly won in the rain. The Kas riders didn’t even know that we had been broken down for half the time.”
Pacheco moved to Mavic in 1991, but even his vast experience doesn’t make Paris-Roubaix more straightforward. “It is the most stressful race come rain or shine … as a driver, you have to be hyper-concentrated. It’s similar to the Tour de France, you have spectators, motos and cars everywhere.”
As we shoot the breeze in the late afternoon sunshine outside their hotel in Compiègne, the work is done. The wheels have been checked, motorbikes tested by pilots and radio mikes attached to helmets. Winter tyres adorn cars and metal lining is on undercarriages to protect against the pavé. These are just the finishing touches of Mavic’s three-month preparations for Paris-Roubaix.
With all 17 staff and guests seated for dinner, service course manager Jacques Corteggiani gives the pre-race briefing. He rattles off facts and figures succinctly: tomorrow’s weather, the race distance, sign-on time, the number of sectors – watch out for 25 and 26, new additions to the route. “Safety is the number one priority,” Corteggiani adds.
There is another game-changer for Mavic to consider: disc brakes. In the 2017 edition, Direct Energie, Sunweb, Delko Marseille, five Bahrain-Merida riders and a lone Cannondale-Drapac man (Will Clarke) are on them. “They know a wheel change takes longer, so they can’t really complain,”
Ledingham says of the process, which includes taking the through axle out, aligning the new wheel with the disc and getting the chain on properly. “It’s bound to add around 20 seconds for the rear.” However, disc brakes are here to stay: one Mavic mechanic reckons every team will be using them at Paris-Roubaix within five years.
Mavic’s operation must run like a perfectly-lubricated chain at Paris-Roubaix, and the functional advice continues: breakfast times, plans for roll-out, who’s in which vehicle and a reminder of their Facebook Live event at nine forty-five. “I wish you a good race,” Corteggiani says. “Bon appetit à tous.”
The fellows in yellow rise at dawn the next morning, far better rested than Mavic mechanics of old. Back in the ‘80s, they used to drive from the Tour of the Basque Country to Paris-Roubaix, when the two races were separated by 48 hours, then back to the Alps after the race, often arriving home at four in the morning. All in a day’s work.
A can of Morgan Blue props open the door to the hotel meeting room; within half an hour, it is divested of hundreds of bicycle bits. Mavic Cosmic and Ksyrium wheels soon adorn car roofs, while pilot Denis Greffet – 30 Roubaixs and counting – decants Mars Bars into lunch bags.
After arriving at the start, the morning mist gives way to bright sunshine, bouncing off Mavic’s yellow cars. April, the cruellest month? Pah: as spectators in Compiègne perve over bikes and press fingers on pumped-up tyres, it feels like a Tour de France stage in southern France. “Today, it’s la poussière,” says a Mavic spanner man – dust. That also means even more fans on the course getting boozed up…
Our chariots await: photographer David is in car three with Tonio and mechanic Philippe, I am in car four with Maxime and Alexis, the furthest back in the convoy. Each one carries four bikes on the roof – resprayed Canyon Aeroad SLXs shod with Shimano Ultegra and Fi’zik saddles – and nine wheels, with several more crammed inside. During the race, they act as mobile nerve centres, a place where motorbike drivers can exchange punctured wheels for fresh ones.
Alongside a comprehensive tool box on the back seat, there are different pedals for all the teams in the race – Speedplay, Shimano, Look and Time – and a pair of toe straps hang round a door handle, just in case.
We head out of town ahead of the race past a big French flag. This is the calm before the dust storm. We pull over for the start of the race to let the bunch pass, as two riders try to get away. No chance: the bunch devours 100 kilometres in the opening two hours with the wind on their backs. “Before Arenberg, it’s fast but stays together. After Arenberg: boom,” Maxime says.
The water towers of Troisvilles serve as gateposts to Hell, signifying the start of the first cobbled sector. A Fortuneo rider punctures there and is serviced by his team as we’re about to screech to a halt for him. Off the sector, he is stuck to their bumper at 80km/h. If you think it looks impressive on TV, from metres away, the skill required is clear: I can see the rider’s strain to keep up, his intense concentration and all the bumps in the road.
We begin shooting past dropped riders on the tarmac, chasing after the next team car. “It’s hot at the back,” Maxime mutters. In between sectors 27 and 26, Ag2r La Mondiale rider Rudy Barbier gets a high-speed draft from the Mavic car. After a minute, our driver makes eye contact in the mirror, inclines his head as if to say ‘we have to go’ and floors it.
“Roue arrière, Ian Stannard, Mavic,” the race radio crackles. We come across the Briton just before Team Sky’s car passes us within inches, wheels screeching, to offer him a draft.
I’m not normally a nervous passenger, but Paris-Roubaix is not a normal race. Within the first few sectors, I’ve already slammed my foot on a phantom brake pedal a dozen times. The experience is mainly exhilarating, occasionally terrifying: we are regularly inches away from WorldTour cyclists, team cars, race motorbikes, press motos, countless disasters. “The golden rule is to stay as calm as possible,” I’d been told on the eve of the race by Mavic man Pierre-André Greffet. I think he meant their mechanics, not me. Easier said than done.
With vehicles grouped behind the bunch and no crosswinds to blow the dust away, the early sectors are particularly bad for visibility. A couple of times, spectators act as brakes, doing the universal two-handed gesture for “slow down” as we approach a crash. Through the murky cloud, we see a Cofidis and Direct Energie man down, clutching his back. If they don’t need mechanical help or are being serviced by a team car, we keep it flat stick.
The cobbles are not a problem for my stomach, as the Mavic car slows down to a similar speed to the riders there. It’s the regular accelerations to catch up with the next group on the tarmac, flying past riders at 120 kilometres per hour through tiny French villages, which get me. It feels like being in a rocket launched skywards time and time again: great fun initially, but after a while, my stomach’s in my mouth.
Maxime might have a yellow belly, but the driver’s seat at Roubaix is no place for cowards. Umpteen variables wait around every corner and you need blood that’s cooler than Peter Sagan’s latest pair of sunglasses. As a former amateur racer who raced with Julian Alaphilippe and Bryan Coquard, it helps that he knows the flow of riders on the road too.
Several sectors with raised crowns force Maxime to drive with two wheels on the verge to avoid granite mohicans that would happily wreck our oil sump. It makes me wonder: if a Mavic car breaks down, who gives neutral service to the neutral service givers?
There is a woozy, dreamlike quality to this hot Paris-Roubaix. I start noticing strange things: a line of spectators in Tom Boonen masks, a bloke in a cow onesie, a young fan dressed up like the fish from Finding Dory. On every sector, the wheels next to Alexis rattle and creak with the vibrations. “I’m not far, Tonio, I see you there,” Maxime says into the radio, peering across the farm fields at a yellow speck in the distance.
Then it’s sector number 19: the famous Trouée d’Arenberg. We clatter through at 45km/h. It’s bad, but not that bad. The road’s straightness is a small mercy. Better on four wheels than two: we pass a Cannondale-Drapac rider in no man’s land there, whose jersey is flecked with dried salt patches. His chain and bicep muscles quiver like blancmange.
With 75 kilometres to go, I’m starting to wonder whether we’re going to stop at all. Maxime asks the motos ahead if they need more wheels. “They are doing an honest day’s work,” he says, sarcastically. “Look, I did ten changes last year,” Alexis responds in mock protest.
Tempting fate: a few minutes later, with a cry of “roue avant” from Maxime, we pull over for the first flat – Guillaume Van Keirsbulck of Wanty-Groupe Gobert. Alexis is out of the car with a wheel in hand before we’ve even stopped. The big Belgian is deftly serviced and pushed off in a matter of seconds.
Then it’s regular changes: a back wheel for Yves Lampaert – it takes 20 seconds, including a few moments to let out a bit of tyre pressure – a front one for Francis Mourey and assistance with the chain and handlebars of a bloodied Reinardt Janse van Reinsburg.
We are in the middle of Paris-Roubaix, in the belly of the beast. This is the place for the unfortunate, the job-done domestiques and the also-rans. This is the race nobody sees: I spot Astana rider Matti Breschel dash into a fan’s motorhome on one sector in desperation.
Another stop, as Alexis helps Katusha rider Mads Würtz with his chain. But he can’t get back into the car afterwards, the auto-lock has come on. There’s laughter in the car and cheers from the crowd as he bangs on the door then throws himself in. Meanwhile, Würtz latches onto our bumper.
“We can pretty much only bring them back in Paris-Roubaix. If we make the change and don’t help them [after], they remember it,” Maxime says. Do they ever thank you? “Not in Paris-Roubaix, but usually on stage races. And if they are not happy, they will say so on Twitter!”
On sector eight, Maxime can’t drive where he wants as spectators spill onto the verge: they want a high-five, I’m gesturing madly for them to get back. Then, we hit the Carrefour de l’Arbre. “Oh, I remember this one from last year, it’s the worst. Not for riders, but for cars. Look at the holes,” Maxime says. There are regular clunks on the car’s underside. Whaaam! Bang! Paris-Roubaix needs big Roy Lichtenstein lettering for its impacts.
“This fucking sector, I hate it,” Maxime says under his breath, the only anxiety he shows all day. He still finds time to play tour guide: “Where Hushovd crashed,” he points out as we round the corner where the big Norwegian fell in 2009.
By now, windscreen wipers are useless for clearing dust. Maxime doles out bidons to thirsty riders and we’re soon into the streets of Roubaix, doing 60km/h behind an unusually large group, 10 minutes behind the leaders. Six hours has flown by. We spill out near the famous showers. The noise from the velodrome PA is faintly audible in the distance, carrying news of Greg Van Avermaet’s victory. It feels like news from a different race in another dimension.
Everyone can breath a sigh of relief. “Paris-Roubaix is our biggest race of the year. It’s a day that’s as difficult as it is delicate, there’s a lot of nervous tension,” Jacques Corteggiani tells me. “You could break the car or have an accident, there are so many things. I think that everyone – the teams too – is happy to get to the velodrome and go ‘phew, the toughest day of the season is over.’ I’m proud of my team, we worked well today. It’s important for our image, the day where we have to be very good.”
And yet, the season rolls on. “Next week, there’s the under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Ardennes races, then Yorkshire and Romandie.”
Next to him, a pile of 26 punctured wheels and a Factor bike – belonging to Oliver Naesen, who broke his derailleur – lean against a Mavic car. Philippe gathers them and heads for a tour of team buses to return what’s rightfully theirs.
The other members of the team are gathered, satisfaction and fatigue etched on their dusty faces, hair plastered to their foreheads by sweat. Before heading off to the Roubaix showers, they chow down on takeaway pizza and compare stories from the fray.
“I’m very tired now,” mechanic Fabrice Gaydon says. “The adrenaline goes quickly… We made four wheel changes to the break. Each time the guys could get away before the peloton reached them, so it was perfect.”
Was this Paris-Roubaix less crazy than usual? “It’s always crazy,” he says. “There are a lot of people, shouting, smoking, holding flares. It was fantastic. It’s the most beautiful race.”