It’s July, in France. Bastille Day to be exact. I have lined up a front row seat in the Mavic Neutral Service Vehicle, following a bike race around the lovely French countryside. Hang on - this isn’t just a bike race! This is the bloody Tour de France and it’s Stage 9 of the 2019 edition! The riders make the race and the fans make the atmosphere, but without a massive motorcade of support cars, the Tour would be chaos.
No doubt you have spotted the yellow Mavic Neutral Service Vehicles when you’ve watched Le Tour on your TV set. The service started in 1973 at the Paris-Nice; the result of an idea from the previous years’ Critérium du Dauphiné, when Mavic's then chairman, Bruno Gormand, lent his car to a Directeur Sportif whose own transport had broken down. Mavic really changed the game and since then there’s been countless stories from the pros who have benefitted from the neutral service cars. Bernard Thevenet, twice a Tour winner in the early days of neutral service - and a Mavic rider since the early 1960s - remembers it as a "revolution", recalling how in the days before the yellow cars, a broken bike was more often than not the end of your race.
Back in the 70s, the Mavic Neutral Service team took thirty seconds to change a wheel, but this was considered too long. So, the mechanics took to training in the factory yard, and by the 80s they'd honed the time down to 15 seconds for a rear wheel, and 10 for a front. The yellow car came to have a different meaning for professionals too. Back in the day, before the technology of race radios came to be, when they got into a breakaway group the pro riders would always check behind for the neutral service car: if it was allowed into the gap then they knew they had a decent lead.
“We race through villages as crowds cheer, rail all the tight corners and at some point even drive in the gutter.”
Want to know how what other organised chaos ensued during Stage 9 of the TDF? Vol 12. is on sale, and in it you’ll find a full feature on what it’s like to work alongside Mavic Neutral Service, so pick up a copy to read more!
Words: Liam Friary
Photography: Chris Auld
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