Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Guest Post: Riding in the SRAM Support Car

Last Saturday, Rob - a friend, was given the unique opportunity of riding in the SRAM car as the Jayco Herald Sun Tour made its way around the Mornington Peninsula. Thanks Rob for giving us this insight into the fast-paced world of support vehicles.

Words: Robert Merkel 

I wish I could tell you about my ringside viewing of the battle of Arthur's Seat. Haas and Bobridge trading blows, while up ahead Silin took his first pro stage win.

But that would be a fib. One brief glimpse out the rear window near the bottom of the climb - that's all I got. I didn't see the riders again until I jumped out of the car at the finish line. Nor did our friendly mechanics have any mechanical incidents to deal with; so I can't tell you just how fast they can change a wheel.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating few minutes in the neutral support vehicle.

The first thing you notice when you jump in the car - after it stopped for all of a millisecond to pick us up - is that it's a busy, busy workplace. Race radio is constantly nattering away. "All back together". "112, 63, and 47 off the front". "Jerseys in the bunch". "Moto 2, follow the break". The driver listens carefully for any instructions to reposition himself, while the mechanic in the back seat is constantly noting down who's in the breakaway in the course "mocka" - a very detailed description of the route provided by the organizers. While we were able to have a brief chat at times, working in a support vehicle is certainly no holiday. It was clear that our hosts were pretty tired after four days of doing this.

I was interested to see how the neutral support car managed the profusion of possibly incompatible wheel standards. There's two different cassette standards (Campy and Shimano/SRAM), and two different types of braking surfaces (carbon and aluminium) that the neutral support car might have to deal with. If you think that's bad, a couple of years ago there would have also been Campy 10 speed to deal with, making six possible combinations!

To simplify this, the support car used older-style Zipp (owned by SRAM) clincher wheels with aluminium braking tracks, and borrowed a wheelset from the one team in the race using Campagnolo. Even so, the car was completely full of spare wheels; I had a rear wheel sitting on my lap. Disc brakes, if they ever bring them in for road bikes, are going to make things even more complicated!

While you see it on television and you get a bit of a sense if you descend yourself, it's still a shock just how fast the convoy has to drive to keep with (or ahead) of the pros on descents. The cars and drivers get a real workout at times, and it's a testament to the professionalism and experience of the drivers that there are so few accidents.

I've helped out backstage at a few amateur theatre events, and the parallels are clear. While it's the stars that make the show, without the dedication and skill of a lot of people doing their jobs properly, the stars won't get their chance. I'm very grateful to see how it's all done, even if, on the surface, not a lot happened.

I should also add that my prize included a very high-quality collection of loot from SRAM, including an Apex conversion kit. This rear derailleur lets you fit a mountain bike 11-32 cassette to a SRAM-equipped road bike, giving the kind of gearing that makes climbs like Mount Baw Baw or the Dargo hill doable without the expense and inconvenience of fitting a triple crank. I just wish Shimano made a similar derailleur for their road range.

Thanks to CyclingTips and SRAM for organizing this excellent prize.

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