You don’t mix cars and bicycles. If you break this rule, bad shit will happen. Word on the street is Karl Benz only started working on the automobile in 1886 after he saw someone ride by on a bicycle and decided he needed to invent something to run it over with. There is, however, one place where bikes and cars co-exist peacefully-ish: the professional cycling peloton, just like you saw at the Olympics this year.
Being the rare bird that has made a living both behind the wheel and over the handlebars, I have a unique perspective on the whole bike vs. car debate. I understand the cyclist’s omnipresent fear of a Chevrolet Tahoe enema from some asshole too busy playing Pokemon Go to drive right. I also understand motorists’ never-ending annoyance at the lycra-wearing bike path pro who thinks he owns the road.
I’ve gone rounds with the keyboard warriors on both sides of the debate and I want to drop kick them all down a deep hole, “THIS IS SPARTA!” style. Seriously, trying to pacify these guys is harder than making peace in the Middle East. But in pro cycling, bikes and cars need each other.
Due to the nature of these races some form of support over the course of the entire race is necessary to make sure these guys can make it to the finish. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the cars (and motorcycles) of the pro peloton.
These guys are always the first wave of any race. Their primary job is to clear the road and warn the public of the upcoming peloton. In a point to point race like the Tour de France, there are around 50 police motorcade bikes in total, and around 30 for the peloton and the balance go with the PR Caravan that precedes the race.
In a closed circuit race like in the Olympics, police bikes are far less necessary, as the crowds and potential road traffic is controlled through barriers.
For most races there will be a handful of VIP cars usually driven by ex-pros. These cars are usually in front of the peloton however on occasion they are given permission to drop in behind the break away.
In the Olympics, there usually are no dedicated VIP cars, but you still manage to see a few VIPs from the sport in the caravan.
Official Organizer Car
This one carries the race’s head honcho. In the Tour de France the organizers car is a Skoda Superb in a very visible shade of red.
In addition to waving the green flag to start each days race the organizers car has a very advanced communication system allowing him to speak with every and anyone important in the race.
Race Stewards’ Car
The stewards’ car is there to police the field and make sure that the cyclists are behaving. They issue fines and penalties on the spot but usually this happens post race.
Alongside the VIP cars the accredited media are allowed either in front the riders The only way that the press cars are allowed in behind the riders is if there is a breakaway that has gained more than two minutes on the chasing peloton.
Now just in case Ballaban starts getting any ideas, press hacks are not allowed to actually drive the car—only drivers that have been approved by the organizers can get behind the wheel. Also there is no filming or pictures allowed from the press cars. That job is left to the...
There are about 20 or so motorcycles that cover each race. Those are split into about a dozen still photo bikes and about half that in TV video. The photo motorcycles are allowed to move between the peloton at the discretion of the traffic control guys—more on them in a sec.
The team car serves as the rolling base of operations for each team. There are usually two per team, and they have several purposes. Because of the various demands placed on these things, they tend to be sport wagons.
First and foremost, the lead team car is the rolling command center for the team. It’s where the team director is located during the race calling the race strategy.
Additionally each car carries mechanics, spare bikes for the teams riders (each rider has a bike set up specifically for their size and preferences) along with spare equipment (shoes, warm clothing, etc.), food, and drink. Team cars are equipped with car-to-car and car-to-rider communication along with a live video feed.
In the Tour de France, teams partner with various automotive manufacturers to supply them with cars. Every manufacturer from Ford to Skoda is represented in the caravan. By far the most stylish team cars use to belong to Team Sky as in 2015 they inked a deal with Jaguar to supply them with the super sexy XF Sport Brakes. Unfortunately they switched over to the Ford Mondoe wagon for this season.
The Olympics are a whole other story. As the IOC has signed
bribes partner deals for everything from Polo Shirts to Energy Drinks (leaving nothing on the table for anyone else) the cars in the Olympic Road Race caravan are all basic standard white, Nissan Livinas that are supplied to all of the teams to use.
Neutral Support Vehicle
As there is a huge amount of congestion in the a race, there are times where a team car is not near a rider to support them in case of a problem. In this case there is a neutral support vehicle (usually a car and at least one motorcycle) that will give support (wheel changes, spare bikes, etc.) to any rider regardless of team affiliation.
Water Bottle Motorcycles
You usually only see these motorcycles appear during long stages or mountain stages where the field can be spread over several miles. They’re modified to carry a large amount of water bottles for the riders and they are team neutral so any rider can grab a drink.
Traffic Control Motorcycle
These are basically the State Troopers of the race, and just as much assholes as the real deal. They control the movement of all vehicles during the race. They are serious guys that you do not want to mess with. If they tell you to move up, you move up. If they tell you to move back, you move back. If they tell you to drive off a cliff, you do it first and ask questions later.
The one rule that is inviolate is, just like driving in Germany, that you always pass on the left. If you want to find out what life on the outside of the race looks like try passing on the right.
You will most often see these guys in front of the breakaway giving them updates and time gaps back to the main field on a chalkboard. This is a bit old school; nowadays, almost all riders have radio communication back to the team that can give them more detailed information.
Race Docs Car
Another neutral car, the race doc is there to treat any riders injuries. This car will always be a convertible as the doctor need to be able hang off the side of the car to be able to examine and treat riders while still on the roll. Basically a hospital on wheels
The Broom Wagon
The one car, as a rider, you don’t want to see during the race. Usually a large van, the Broom Wagon “sweeps” the back of the race for riders who can not finish and are dropping out. Usually not seen in a circuit race like the Olympics but always in a Point-to-Point race.
As you can see, cycling is more of a vehicular operation than most people realize. In fact, a pro bike race probably burns more fuel than most car races give the number of cars and the fact that a pro race is six hours or more.
Because bikes are far more maneuverable than cars and are incredibly vulnerable, there are very strict rules governing the movement of cars in the peloton. The most important of which is drive on the right and pass only with permission on the left.
Now with all these bikes and cars in close proximity, there’s bound to be some close calls and yes, even car-on-bike violence. The most memorable incident in recent memory was in the 2011 Tour de France when Johny Hoogerland (and Juan Antonio Flecha) got unceremoniously bounced off the road by a media car and into an innocent barbed wire fence, while leading the race.
The aftermath of that left a badly bleeding Hogerland on his own to finish the stage.
There was also a similar incident during the 2015 Tour of Flanders:
But to prove that Europe doesn’t hold an exclusive on these types of incidents here is a big one from the Red Hook Criterium, an unsanctioned race notorious for its high risk nature:
As you can see, it’s no picnic being behind the wheel of one of these cars. But after spending more than a few years suffering in (or more usually off the back of) the peloton, I would be more than happy to be at the wheel of one of the team cars than riding in between them.
Robb Holland races in the British Touring Car Championship for Rotek Racing. He’s a Jalopnik contributor who basically lives at the Nürburgring most of the year and is also the tallest man in Germany.