Team cars have been a regular presence in professional road cycling for as long as we can remember, but what do they actually do?
On first glance, their role appears fairly obvious. The cars carry spare bikes for each rider, to be swapped to in case of emergency. To this day the sponsor-adorned vehicles of the pro peloton still carry out their original purpose, but now they do so much more. The introduction of rider radios in the 90s saw team cars transform into ever-growing mobile command centres, allowing sports directors to support their riders from inside the convoy.
Our cars may not be as tricked out as the Batmobile, but they have some cool features hidden inside. Anyone who has watched a pro race from the roadside will be familiar with the distinctive, modified horn. The drivers of the peloton control this with an extra foot pedal, stamping on it to blare a tinny tune to warn cars, riders and fans of their presence. Our Toyotas are also outfitted with a built-in TV to follow the racing, a sketch of the roof rack layout, multiple radio configurations to receive race radio and communicate with the riders, and a tablet computer with special software to help the directors guide the team with more accuracy.
Information about changes in course direction, exposed sections and wind direction are all accessible to the director, and of vital importance to the riders. Any or a combination of the above three factors could result in crosswinds, echelons and for some a dreaded split in the group which can prove fatal for one’s race ambitions. All directors and riders will do their utmost to prepare for a race, but conditions are fickle and are subject to change at a moment’s notice. Because of this, the information coming from the team car can mean the difference between winning and losing.
The team car is the office for a sports director.
- Kim Andersen
The colorful images of team cars snaking down the mountainside, chasing a stretched out peloton, are some of the most iconic in professional sport. From the mountain passes of the Grand Tours to the bone-juddering cobbles of the Classics, our team cars experience every moment of the races alongside our bikes. Just as the contact points of a bike need to be finely tuned, it’s important that the cars are comfortable for the drivers who spend so much time aboard.
“The team car is the office for a sports director,” says former pro and now Trek-Segafredo DS Kim Andersen. “We spend a lot of time in it so it’s important to feel comfortable and to have the right feeling driving. In the season, I keep my own Corolla because I like to personalize it with ‘tools of the trade’. From the navigator to the stopwatch, I want to have everything under control.”
The Toyota Corolla Trek is one of very few cars in the professional peloton with a hybrid engine, but more and more teams will likely follow suit as they consider the environmental impact of our sport. Bearing in mind that our cars cover even more ground than the bikes, the hybrid engine allows us to significantly reduce our vehicles’ emissions throughout the season.
Next stop: The start line
Our Toyotas typically travel to every race from our service course in Deinze, Belgium. Between races the cars are serviced and then prepared by our staff so that they are equipped to last the duration of the race. Our fleet of cars are used for a variety of tasks, from ferrying riders and staff to and from the airport and hosting our VIP guests, to scouting stages, refuelling riders in the feed-zone and finally, supporting riders from inside the race itself. Most men’s stage races feature two race cars per team, whilst women’s racing and the classics normally have just one.
In stage racing, the day in the life of a director’s car starts the evening before, as soon as the previous stage finishes, when our team of mechanics tune and clean the fleet inside and out. The last job on their to-do list is to make sure the cars are filled with gas, ready for another long day on the road. In the morning, the bikes are loaded on specially-crafted roof racks, which have enough space for up to nine bikes and extra wheels. Special attention is paid to the order of the bikes on the roof. The team leaders’ bikes are mounted on the right right side of the car, the mechanic’s side, so that they are within easy reach. Sketched out on the back of the passenger-side seat in front is a key to where each bike is positioned to help the mechanic reach whichever rider’s bike is needed as quickly as possible.
The race cars roar to life at the start line. As the riders line up, so do the directors in their cars. Each team is issued a position in the convoy, represented by a sticker on the back of the vehicle. In stage races, the order is dictated by each team’s best-placed rider on the general classification. In one-day World Tour events the order is decided by the UCI ranking of each team’s top rider, while other races do a lottery. Shortly after the start is given, the cars arrange themselves in order on the road.
Inside the race
A good convoy position means a director can reach their rider quickly in the case of a crash or mechanical.The farther back they are in line, the more cars they have to overtake to reach a rider, hopefully before they are distanced too much to come back to the peloton. DS Kim Andersen has spent more than 20 years behind the wheel of a team car, and knows a thing or two about high-stakes driving in the convoy.
“What I appreciate most about our cars is the handling. It’s big enough to hold what you need for a race, but at the same time, it’s compact, which helps in tight passages in the race. Between bikes, cars and riders, there is always a lot of traffic on the road during races. There are rules to regulate the cars in a race, but having a responsive and handling vehicle is a major advantage.
“I remember, at last year’s Tour de France, when Richie Porte punctured at a critical moment in the race. It was a special stage, with gravel over a mountain pass, and the caravan of cars was far behind. In that moment I tested the qualities of the Corolla to the maximum. We arrived quickly, thanks also to its agility and engine readiness. In a race scenario, these are details that can make the difference.”
The vast majority of Sports Directors are former pro riders, and whilst they’ve hung up their own racing wheels, they still feel the stress that comes with being part of the peloton. Before getting behind the wheel, each director has to pass a UCI-accredited exam that tests their knowledge of the sport and ability to drive safely. They have to be masters of multitasking: navigating the parcours in all conditions, passing dropped riders and overtaking other team cars all whilst thinking about tactics and communicating with the riders through two-way radios.
Fortunately, our directors don’t have to endure the stress alone. They are always accompanied by a trusty mechanic whose job goes far beyond changing bikes and giving the riders a big push.
In the back seat, our mechanics sit alongside their toolbox and spare wheels, attentive to the race and ready to spring into action when needed. Some days will be quiet, while others will be full gas – just like the racing can be. Most WorldTour mechanics have been working in the sport for a long time, and have picked up tricks of the trade to make everything run as smoothly as well-indexed gears. However, as our long-time mechanic Mauro Adobati explains, a good mechanic needs more than just technical expertise when inside a race.
“In terms of needs, the best quality a mechanic must possess is cold blood. Having the right tools in the hands and knowing exactly how to use them. And then, a lot of calmness, because you have to keep your concentration high in agitated moments, even when the riders may be getting nervous. Problems can happen, but you have to act in a few seconds, either to solve it or to change bikes.
“In the team car, our role is also as an assistant to the directors who are busy driving and managing the race. We need to have an eye on everything and quickly know where to look in the trunk where we have riders’ clothing bags and a cooler with bottles and provisions,” Adobati adds. In each race car, every rider has a personal rain bag – a small kit bag stuffed full of spare clothing for any eventuality, from rain jackets and warmers, to fresh base layers and even spare shoes.
“Also, we need to have an ear out for the race radio, hearing what’s going on sometimes taking notes, like the riders when they attack. On the headrest in front of us there is also a TV to follow the race and explain to the driver what is happening.”
Managing a race from a team car takes incredible communication and concentration, adding yet another layer to an already complex sport. But no matter what happens, the circus never stops, and we drive onwards to the next race. The team car is there through all the key moments: crucial bike changes, vital tactics, and the joy of celebrating a big win. No matter the highs and lows, the car sees it all.