(The following story was first published in The Mercury Times print newspaper on January 19th, 2020)
Professional road cyclists were once self-sustaining athletes. Vehicle support wasn’t allowed in races like the Tour de France unless via unscrupulous means. Catching a rider getting assistance from a car meant disqualification.
Much has changed. With various other company relationships for bicycles, helmets, sunglasses and energy food, vehicle sponsorship is as much part of a team as its riders.
Race organizers rely on manufacturer vehicles to keep the race intact and safe as it progresses along country roads and into mountain ranges.
The relationship between vehicles and cyclists in bikes race was readily available to witness in the Bay Area for 14 years during the Amgen Tour of California. It was a race within a race, but the event has been cancelled for 2020.
But how carmakers coordinate with pro teams and how vehicles support riders in the moveable maze on wheels will unfold again soon. The nearly year-long international season begins this month. Events will sporadically be broadcast on television and via international streaming.
“A team car is really there to support in all ways,” Andrew Bajadali, a Rally Cycling team director, said during a training drive in one of the team’s 2019 Acura RDX vehicles. “I don’t know if people who don’t know the ins-and-outs of the sport know how important it is to have a car there. It’s a major luxury.”
A diminishing number of teams headquartered in North America, including Minnesota-based Rally Cycling, have both men’s and women’s teams and vehicle sponsors. Rally’s title sponsor is the online healthcare information platform associated with UnitedHealthcare. The men’s team roster includes Kyle Murphy from Palo Alto.
Unlike cycling teams of yesteryear that relied on panel vans or mini cars with questionable reliability, most current teams opt for all-wheel drive wagons or SUVs. One now-defunct team in recent years had two Porsche Panamera sports cars as support vehicles. It didn’t go well.
During training and races, team vehicles transport extra bikes, wheels, various equipment, food, water, and medical equipment. If a race includes 20 teams, 40 team vehicles, plus official race vehicles, all advance along the route in an ever-changing processional that also may include 150 riders.
Every team’s vehicles are detailed in team colors and have signage for its sponsors.
A road race may advance smoothly for hours on a long, open road. But chaos can occur in an instant after a crash. Team cars require skilled drivers, usually former pro cyclists, who negotiate winding roads often at high speeds to assist riders.
“Basically, you’re just always learning,” said Bajadali who first drove a team car in the early season Dubai Tour. “It was amazing just to see a race on that level. You learn a lot. It was my first-day driving solo. You’re just working your way up in understanding. A few years into it, you find your groove and your way of doing things. You just have to get in there and get your hands dirty.”
While primarily driving the team’s Acuras, all squads participating in the Dubai Tour were supplied with Audi vehicles.
If a cyclist needs a new bike or medical assistance, the exchange between the team car and rider is similar to a pitstop in auto racing. It’s not uncommon for riders to take advantage of a team car’s speed and hang on too long for a rest. But race officials are watchful for infractions.
“Team cars in road cycling is just part of the game,” said Bajadali, who rode as a passenger in team cars before assuming driving responsibilities. “It kind of equalizes the race where everyone has that kind of support and you can get down to business and do tactics and fast racing.”