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Inside the Škoda Shimano Neutral Service Cars

By We Love Cycling

The Škoda SUPERB service cars are getting a new paint job for the 2021 Tour de France. They are turning light blue as Shimano takes over from the yellow Mavic. This marks a new era in the neutral service car history. Let’s take a look behind the scenes to see how Shimano is preparing for its first Tour.

Shimano is taking over the Škoda SUPERB service cars

Shimano celebrates its 100th anniversary in style by becoming the next neutral service car operator during the 2021 Tour. This means Shimano will replace Mavic that has been doing the job for the past 43 years. But Shimano is not exactly new to this. They have 20 years of experience providing support at countless races. They are a long-term partner with Tour de France’s organizer Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) and provide neutral service at La Vuelta, which is also held by ASO.

Shimano cars
There are two people on the board of each vehicle.

Neutral service cars, the unsung heroes

What exactly are the neutral service cars? Many people watching cycling events such as the Tour de France often don’t realize that the race organizers need the help of these cars. They are moving around the peloton without any fanfare, sorting out mechanical issues that could otherwise take riders out of the competition.

There are eight riders in each Tour de France team but each team only gets two support cars. So, more often than not, the rider’s own mechanics are too far away. Whether it’s cobblestones or mountain stages, whenever there’s an increased chance of mechanicals or breakaways, riders rely on neutral service car support.

Neutral service vehicles may be important for riders but, arguably, they’re even more important for all of us fans because they keep the action going! We had a chance to talk to Bruno Mallet, a coordinator for the Shimano service team. He allowed us to peek behind the curtain of the neutral service car show.

Shimano neutral car
It’s all about the equpiment.

How many neutral service cars are there?

For a typical Tour de France stage, it’s simple. There are three Škoda SUPERBs, one motorbike, and one technical truck. But each race has its own unique requirements.

“Sometimes, we have two races on the same day with one race for men and another for women or the U23 category. In that scenario, we assign a second team made up of two cars and one motorbike to the second race. And the situation is completely different for Paris Roubaix where we have to set up much more substantial support. We provide the men’s race with four cars, four motorcycles and one relay truck intended to supply the other vehicles. The women’s race requires three cars, two motorcycles and one relay truck,” said Bruno Mallet.

Shimano service
The Shimano neutral team is there to save the day.

What does the crew operating the service cars look like?

“For each vehicle, we have two people on board, the motorcyclist or the car driver, and a mechanic,” Bruno explained. The crew in each service car is very lean and you know why? It’s all the equipment! You might be surprised how much the service cars manage to carry.

How many extra bicycles do you bring to support the racers?

“Each car has a roof rack with six bikes of three different frame sizes and three pairs of Shimano wheels. But inside of the car, we also have wheels from competing brands in order to be able to troubleshoot all riders,” says Bruno. One of the challenges the service crew has to deal with is the variety of gear used in the Tour. And the riders also come in all sizes.

How do you know what gear to load into the trunk?

“At the start of the year, we make an inventory of each team’s equipment. And we re-check this inventory before each race to be sure that the teams didn’t make any changes to their bikes. We go into all of this trouble just to be more efficient during interventions because they must be done as quickly as possible. It allows the mechanic to get out of the vehicle with the exact equipment the rider’s bike needs,” Bruno explained.

This approach means that the service cars have to be packed with an incredible amount of gear. And they also carry a cooler with bidons and energy bars and gels to support riders’ nutrition if the situation calls for it.

“Each team has its specifics and with the massive arrival of disc brakes, we have to carry different brake systems with different sizes of discs. It’s another reason why we have so much material in the cars,” Bruno comments.

Here is a typical list of gear for a single service vehicle:

  • 3 bikes with Shimano pedals
  • 3 bikes with competing brand pedals
  • 4 Shimano wheels with rim brakes
  • 8 Shimano wheels with disc brakes (140 & 160 mm discs)
  • 2 discs of each size (140 & 160 mm)
  • 4 rear wheels by competing brands
  • 1 pair of pedals for each brand present in the race 2 chains
  • 2 batteries for Shimano Di2
  • 20 bidons
  • 24 bottles of water 50 cl
  • 30 energy gels
  • 30 energy bars
  • all the tools

How do you manage to fit all of that inside?

“Every piece of gear has its place and that’s where it has to go. It’s necessary to have a system like that to be effective during interventions. We are Tetris experts!” Bruno smiles.

Škoda neutral car
One more polish before the departure.

What do you like about the Škoda SUPERB?

“Our vehicles must be spacious because of all the gear we carry but they also have to be powerful to allow for quick reactions when we need to change positions to support a new breakaway situation. Thankfully, we have vehicles that fully meet these criteria while being economical thanks to the hybrid version provided,” Bruno says.

Where in the peloton can we expect to see the Shimano service cars?

“Our organization during the race is two cars and one motorcycle at the front of the peloton and one car at the back behind the riders. Each vehicle is equipped with two radios, the first is intended for Radio Tour reception and the other is an internal radio allowing each Shimano vehicle to coordinate for optimal positioning,” Bruno explains.

How do you cover breakaways?

“As a general rule, when a breakaway forms, it is the Shimano motorcycle that follows the riders first. This happens as soon as the leading riders create a gap of around 20 seconds. When the gap grows to more than 35 seconds, the first Shimano car joins the leading group as well. This means the motorcycle can return to the peloton to be able to act quickly in case a counter attack forms,” Bruno explains.

“When the gap between the leading group and the peloton is around 2,5 minutes, the second Shimano car is positioned in front of the peloton instead of the motorcycle. The motorcycle re-joins the leading group in order to intervene if this group becomes disorganized. This second Shimano car is now in a position to support any further counter attacking groups that decide to pursue the breakaway,” Bruno continues.

“The third Shimano car is placed behind the peloton, it’s at the disposal of the President of the Jury and it will have to intervene based on all requests made by the UCI,” Bruno adds.

So, make sure to keep a close eye on every breakaway in this year’s Tour de France and see if you can spot the light blue Škoda SUPERB service cars supporting your favourite competitor!